I distinctly remember the moment my parents dropped me off at my college dorm three years ago. As I stared at my improvised snack, a bowl of pretzels and a jar of peanut butter, my only thought was Maybe I should skip dinner tonight.
Even more than missing home or taking difficult classes, I worried about gaining the Freshman 15 — which, it turns out, is a myth. Studies show that the average freshman gains less than that amount during their first year of school. (You can see the exact numbers here and here.)
In my freshman year, I lost weight due to a poorly executed vegetarian diet. I tried to convince myself that I cut out meat for ethical reasons, but all I really cared about was avoiding extra pounds — so I also became anemic.
Obviously, the side effects of fatigue and lightheadedness weren’t worth it. Once I got my iron levels back up, I decided to stop restricting what I ate. And I stayed about the same weight for years.
It wasn’t until recently that I started to notice major changes in my body. My face is rounder. My hips are wider. I’ve had to donate clothes I’ve worn since middle school. A few weeks ago, I finally stepped on the scale to discover that, since starting college, I’ve gained a significant amount of weight.
I know there’s nothing wrong with being heavier and size says nothing about a person’s value. But reading that number viscerally reminded me of my toxic mentality at age 17. My first reaction was to panic, to plan how I could “fix” myself through another diet. So far, I’ve worked really hard to resist that impulse.
According to a survey conducted at the University of Utah, many college women like me live with “intense fears about gaining weight.” For some, the Freshman 15 is “the biggest fear or worry in their lives.”
I became acutely aware of the Freshman 15 during high school, when alumni came back to visit for graduation parties and choir concerts. I nodded politely as the weight of female college students became an occasional hot topic among parents, students, and sometimes teachers.
“Someone couldn’t avoid the Freshman 15.”
“She filled out some, didn’t she?”
“Look what happens when you drink too much beer.”
That’s when I learned that it didn’t matter what a girl majored in or which clubs she joined. Gaining weight in college wasn’t just the worst thing she could do but also the only thing anyone would remember about her. It would be the only thing anyone would remember about me.
While articles about fighting the Freshman 15 tend to be gender-neutral, the shame that accompanies gaining weight in college is not. A 2013 study of undergraduate students found that “weight gain increased body dissatisfaction and negative eating attitudes for women” but not for men — despite the fact that, on average, men gained more weight than women in four years of school.
The increased pressure on women to not gain weight is another way society tries to keep women small, both literally and figuratively.
As soon as a girl can read, she’ll learn from supermarket tabloids “HOW TO LOSE X POUNDS IN X DAYS!” By the time she’s eight years old, she’ll more than likely want to be thinner. She’ll watch her friends and their mothers cycle through fad diets, like Atkins and keto and Paleo. And once she’s an adult, she’s more likely to stress about her looks than about anything else — including her professional success. It’s no wonder some women fear weight gain after a lifetime of fatphobic conditioning.
Despite what articles about “beating” the Freshman 15 would have you believe, gaining weight after adolescence is incredibly normal. Between the ages of 17 and 23, people who go to college gain about the same amount of weight as people who don’t go to college. This is partly because most people’s lifestyles change after high school. They’re less likely to participate in sports, and they may not be used to cooking healthy meals for themselves. Instead of exercising, they’re busy going to school or work, often both.
And the natural aging process can have an effect. Women hit their highest metabolic rate in their late teens and early twenties. It’s normal for this rate to progressively drop in the years that follow. Much of the weight gain college women are made to fear is just a natural part of growing up.
I was 11 years old when Kate Moss infamously said, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” We’ve certainly come a long way since then. More brands are featuring plus-size models and ditching Photoshop. Celebrities like Jameela Jamil are loudly speaking out against fat shaming and the diet industry.
But it’s one thing for the body-positive movement to expand the media’s narrow definition of beauty. It’s another thing to think that watching TV and movies will automatically improve how we view ourselves and how we move through the world.
Offscreen, not much has changed.
It’s not superficial to worry about weight gain when we live in a society that punishes larger bodies. But we must break the cycle of fear for the sake of our health. Being afraid of weight gain can lead to eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Even if anxiety doesn’t reach that extreme, the sheer stress can trigger headaches, increase depression, and weaken the immune system.
Women experience weight discrimination from employers more than men, even if they have a “healthy” BMI. Doctors’ bias against overweight patients leads to late diagnoses and misdiagnoses — and that bias is compounded for women, especially women of color, who already struggle to be taken seriously in medical spaces.
We have to resist our culture’s tendency to be “beauty sick,” which Northwestern University professor Renee Engeln says is “what happens when women’s emotional energy gets so bound up with what they see in the mirror that it becomes harder for them to see other aspects of their lives.”
None of this is to say that weight gain is never a sign of a health issue or harmful habits. (Weight loss can be a similar red flag.) But the idea that weight gain is, in itself, a problem to defeat wrongly moralizes “good” and “bad” sizes. Taking the bait of harsh weight loss headlines only reinforces this stigma.
My initial response to gaining weight forced me to reckon with how I value myself. I’ve started to celebrate my body for all it has done for me, instead of how I can control it. During college, I made the Dean’s List, won writing awards, and adapted to living with a chronic illness. I deserve to be proud of that, no matter how my weight fluctuated in the process.
Like many women I know, I would never talk about other women’s bodies the way I once criticized my own. It’s time we all start being just as kind to ourselves as we are to others. Our worth is not determined by how well we adhere to a diet while we’re busy going to school, holding down a job, or raising children.
Taking up more space as a woman is not an obstacle to overcome.
To put it simply, we have more important shit to do.
Isabella Rosario is a freelance writer and based in Iowa. You can follow her on Twitter @irosarioc.