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freshman-15-column
Credit: Alec Druggan

I was nervous about a lot of things the summer before my first year at Penn: moving to a new city, making new friends, finding a job, paying my own bills. Most of all, I was worried about whether or not I would gain the infamous freshman fifteen. Everything else I listed sounds infinitely more important than a few extra pounds. But in my head, gaining weight seemed the scariest one of all.

Perhaps I’m not a perfectly indicative example of all incoming first years (who is?) due to my previous disordered eating practices, but I was an eighteen year old girl wanting to make the most of my college experience, and susceptible to the social pressures of thinking I needed to look a certain way in order to reap maximum benefits. But here’s the thing about bodies, college, and growing older: They all involve change. 

It is completely unrealistic to expect someone’s weight to remain the same their entire adult life, and putting pressure on yourself to not gain any weight during your first year of college distracts you from the more important aspects of college, like learning. So let’s just stop talking about it.  

Increased stress from being in a new environment, trying to manage your first semester of classes, and being away from home, many for the first time, can spike cortisol levels (cortisol is often referred to as “the stress hormone”). Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, and stimulates insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels. Additionally, college can be a very busy whirlwind, where time for proper exercise can be cast to the sidelines as homework and extracurriculars take center stage. 

There are many more reasons people caution incoming first years about this seemingly inevitable weight gain — lots of beer and greasy dining hall food being of top concern. While I’m not advocating for unhealthy diets consisting only of dining hall waffles and Natty Lights, I am in no position to judge anyone else’s eating choices. In fact, no one is in any position to judge anyone else’s eating habits, and constantly bringing up the freshman fifteen in media outlets or in well-intentioned conversation with your parents or teachers cultivates in young people the concept that gaining weight is always a negative thing.

I wasted so much time and mental energy counting calories, obsessing over food labels, and letting the fear of gaining weight control how often I’d go out with friends, that I ended up lacking some of the social connections I feared I’d lose if I were to gain weight. On days where I felt I had eaten too much, or looked particularly bloated, I would forgo a fun dinner with friends or attending a party because I was worried other people would judge me in the same way I was judging myself. I thought my relationship with people would work in the inverse. That is, I thought the smaller I got, the more people would want to see me, because there was less of me to see. 

The cyclical nature of disordered eating can be depleting, and when you’re adjusting to the new stress of tough college classes, it’s an extra barrier between yourself and your full potential. I know that sounds incredibly corny, but it’s my truth. 

My struggles with food run deeper than a fear of the freshman fifteen but they were exacerbated by what I felt was a constant pressure to avoid said weight gain. People in dining halls constantly bemoan the unhealthy options, flinging the phrase around casually, and deepening its pervasive effect on those susceptible to or already struggling with disordered eating. I propose we give up talking about it entirely. 

I did gain weight my freshman year of college. Which scared me to no end. But I also gained energy and an appreciation for the fact that I am in a privileged enough position to break bread with friends at a nice dinner that I can both afford and enjoy. Maybe I gained ten pounds, or fifteen, or twenty. I don’t know because I avoid scales and am coming to the realization that the number on a scale does not directly correlate with how happy I can be. But instead of focusing on the weight I gained, I want to focus on the knowledge I gained, the friends I gained, the perspective I gained. Why do we have to caution incoming first years against the freshman fifteen when we could be using that time and energy to talk to them about things that are actually important to know in college- such as always peeing after sex, always sending a follow up ‘thank you’ email after a job interview, or using cold, not warm, water to get blood out of clothing?

This is the last time I will reference the freshman fifteen. Who is with me?

SOPHIA DUROSE is a College sophomore from Orlando, Fla. studying English. Her email is sdurose@sas.upenn.edu

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