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The “Freshman 15” and Other Lies We Learn in College 

When I started college at 18, I remember going through a lot of difficult transitions in my life.  I was moving out of the home I grew up in to live 50 miles away in a 200-square foot dorm room with no air conditioning and a roommate I had never met before.  I was worried about whether I would be successful in a new and rigorous academic environment, whether I would make new friends, and if I made the right decision to major in psychology (spoiler alert – I chose the right major).  On top of these already stressful life changes, I was keenly aware of the dreaded “freshman 15” – the idea that college freshmen gain about 15 pounds (roughly 6.8 kg) during their first year of college. Though I, and many of my peers, did gain a few pounds that year, I now question why there was so much judgment about this.

While weight stigma has been pervasive for centuries, specific concern about the “freshman 15” appears to have begun in the 1980s. In April 1981, Matthew Wald wrote an article for the New York Times about actress, Jodie Foster’s, apparent weight gain upon starting college at Yale University. In this article, notably about a talented young woman attending one of the most competitive colleges in the world, we see a concern not about her qualifications or intelligence – but her weight. Wald coined the term “The Freshman 10” in this article, noting that Jodie Foster appeared to have gained 10 pounds. With this, began popular media coverage on the phenomenon of weight gain among college freshmen.

This term’s second and more popular evolution, “freshman 15”, then appeared for the first time in an August 1989 issue of Seventeen magazine. This issue featured an article titled “Fighting the Freshman 15” alongside other other hard-hitting news like celebrity gossip and how to pick a “happy haircut” (clearly, the important things for college students to learn).

With the emergence of this supposed problem, young adults became increasingly concerned with avoiding weight gain during their freshman year at college.  However, it has since become apparent that this “problem” may be less-than-true (shocking, since it came from the well-renowned scientific journal known as Seventeen magazine, right?) 

Throughout childhood and adolescence, and even into early adulthood, weight gain is expected and is an important indicator of health.  That is why pediatricians often track their patients’ weights using a growth curve.  Depending on the child’s genetic makeup, they will grow at different rates, and their sizes will vary. 

If a child is in the 25th percentile for weight, for example, they are larger than the average expected weight for 25% of other children of the same age and sex, and smaller than 75% of these peers; this means that this child is pretty thin relative to their peers.  Likewise, a child in the 75th percentile is larger than the average expected weight for 75% of other children of the same age and sex, and smaller than 25% of these peers; this child will be large relative to their peers.  Neither the child in the 25th or 75th percentile is necessarily unhealthy – they are just naturally either smaller or larger than their peers.  Children are typically expected to stay within a similar percentile throughout their lives; if they are naturally small relative to their peers as a young child, they are expected to continue to be smaller throughout their lives, if they are naturally average-sized, larger, or anywhere in-between, they are also expected to continue on this trajectory.  In fact, it is cause for concern when there are significant changes in the trajectory of growth.  In the pictured growth chart, the expected curve of growth between ages 2-20 is depicted.  Though each child will fall within a different percentile and grow at a slightly different rate, they are all expected to continue to grow throughout early adulthood. So, contrary to the concern of Seventeen magazine, it is healthy, normal, and expected for 18 and 19 year old college freshmen to gain weight.

According to obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Maria Sophocles, womens’ weight typically continues to go up throughout their 20s as they gain bone strength and body fat, as well.  She notes that once women hit menopause, their bone mass is likely to begin declining and so gaining mass prior to this point can be a protective factor for conditions like osteoporosis.  Mens’ weight also tends to increase in early adulthood, in large-part due to expected growth in height and muscle mass.  There are also a host of reasons why a persons’ weight may change during this stage of life, all of which are unique to each individual’s lifestyle and specific circumstances.  For example, college students are notoriously stressed and tired, and both high stress levels and inadequate sleep are associated with weight gain.  Young adults also frequently experiment with new foods or eating habits, begin using alcohol or other drugs, start or stop participation in sports or other exercise, or start new medications as physical or psychological health conditions are discovered or emerge – all of which may cause weight changes.

Though gaining weight during early adulthood is expected for most folks, the phenomenon of the “freshman 15” is still largely untrue.  In a review of 23 peer-reviewed studies on weight gain among college freshmen, with weight measurements from 1,858 participants, the average weight gain was 4.6 lbs – far less than the media-touted “freshman 15”.  A similar study found that the average weight gain among college freshmen was just 3.2 lbs.

At the end of my freshman year in college, I learned a lot about living on my own, managing my stress, and gained confidence in my decision to work toward becoming a psychologist.  What I didn’t learn, however, was that weight gain was normal and healthy for most 18 year olds.  Now, working with college students as their psychotherapist, I see that most young people are largely unaware of this, as well.  In the face of media outlets pushing the myth of the “freshman 15” and other lies (like telling 18 year olds that college is the only path toward success and luring them into six-figure loans), of course young people are disillusioned .  While we can’t fight all of the misinformation fed to young people, we can learn how to be critical of the media we consume and create dissonance between the truth and lies we are told.  

Here are a few quick tips on interpreting media critically that might help – especially when that media suggests that you ought to change your body in a way that doesn’t feel quite right:

  • Why was this message created? Ask yourself what purpose the author/s of this message may have had.  Are they selling a product or service associated with the message?  Are they trying to share information that they feel is helpful? Does this message benefit and/or harm anyone?  How might their reason for creating this message influence its validity?
  • Are there any biases in this message? How do you feel when you read this message, and how might others feel?  Are there people who this message may not apply to, and if so, how can you interpret the message with this in mind?  Are there cultural, political, social, etc., values that are influencing this message, and (again) if so, how can you interpret the message with this in mind?
  • Who created and/or shared this message? Is this person a professional in the field that they are posting about (in the case of body image/weight/eating – are they a psychotherapist, registered dietician, or medical provider)?  What are other professionals saying about this (keep in mind that, in almost every field, different professionals will have different views)?  Is this person financially invested in this message?  Could the poster/sharer of this information have been misinterpreted in some way?
  • Are there alternative interpretations of this message? Is this message inherently factual (i.e., “the average weight for an 18 year old is X”) or are there aspects open to interpretation (i.e., “the average weight is X, which is ‘too high’”)?  In this overly simplistic example, you may ask who decides what number is “too high”, why they believe that, what evidence they are basing this off of, whether this may be biased in any way, whether there is alternative evidence suggesting that this may not be true, etc.

If you think you might benefit from improving your relationship with food/body image, click here to learn more about working with me.  Check out my social media below for free resources and updated information on my services!

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