Commentary: The toxicity of the ‘Freshman 15’ concept

Commentary: The toxicity of the 'Freshman 15' concept

The 'Freshman 15' popularizes toxic ideas around body image, and it needs to stop.
Published: October 27, 2022

What is the ‘Freshman Fifteen?’

The ‘Freshman Fifteen’ is a concept targeted toward freshmen entering college in the US and some parts of Canada. This notion states that when a freshman enters college, they will gain about fifteen pounds during their first year.

I had a conversation with Dr. Meredith Martin, a developmental psychologist, about the positive and negative impacts of the ‘Freshman Fifteen.’ She explains that the main reason this weight gain seems to be a trend is because students are away from home and making decisions freely about what they want to eat, possibly for the first time.

However, she emphasizes that the bigger problem with the ‘Freshman Fifteen’ is not the weight gain, but an increase in unhealthy behaviors. Lack of sleep, stress and drinking can lead to an overall unhealthy lifestyle. Many students underestimate the importance of sleep. The amount of sleep you receive affects your behavior, mental health, academics and so much more.

Why is this so harmful?

It’s important to be at a healthy weight, but this healthy weight looks different for everyone. Someone else’s healthy body may not look like yours, and that’s okay. The bottom line is that as long as you are taking care of yourself– eating a balanced meal, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, etc. – then you have nothing to worry about.

The United States as a whole has an unhealthy relationship with weight. Dr. Martin explains that the content that we are consuming on the daily tends to be thin, young, white women and muscular men. This creates an unrealistic view on life, as we are only seeing a slim portion of real life portrayed through social media.

Dr. Martin emphasizes the importance of being critical thinkers: thinking about what we are looking at while scrolling through Instagram or Snapchat. It’s extremely important to be able to separate fiction and reality, which is a skill that our generation is being forced to experience.

I asked Dr. Martin if she has seen an increase in people seeking help for eating disorders post-COVID, to which she responded, “I see an increase in people seeking help for everything post-COVID.” Mental health especially seems to be of great importance right now, but she explains that maturity has been extremely impacted by the nationwide lockdown. Students seem to be behind in maturity and life skills by about two or three years, which is a significant developmental disruption. This is forcing educational institutions to rethink how students are supported and treated.

So what can be done?

My biggest takeaway from my conversation with Dr. Martin is that the ‘Freshman Fifteen’ is not just about eating, but about sleep and your overall health and wellness, both physical and mental. Your diet can be perfectly balanced, but if you are not taking care of yourself as you should, your body and mental health will reflect that.

For students at Syracuse University who wish to receive help regarding eating disorders, the Barnes Center is an important resource. Go to a health practitioner and talk about nutrition, or go to therapy sessions. But keep in mind that treatment is not a one-size-fits-all. If the Barnes Center doesn’t have what you’re looking for, there are lots of resources off campus. Dr. Martin also suggests talking to any clinical psychology faculty to connect with resources

If you notice a friend who has disturbing eating behaviors and they aren’t seeking treatment, it’s important to say something. Dr. Martin said, “The risk of not saying something is much higher than the potential awkwardness of a conversation.” In other words, you would rather risk making someone uncomfortable than brushing off alarming behavior that could lead to something more serious. It’s worth having a conversation, and if you don’t know what to say, then just listen.

This is an important time in our lives. For the first time, we are in total control of all the choices we make. The ‘Freshman Fifteen’ creates an unhealthy idea that gaining weight in college is inevitable, when the real issue is neglecting our health, which includes sleep, mental health and our social environments. America is so focused on weight that we perform unhealthy behaviors to combat weight gain which could have drastic consequences later in life, or even tomorrow.

I am not saying to conform to the “my body is a temple” lifestyle, but it’s important to be aware how we are treating ourselves and whether these behaviors need to change. You only get one body, so make sure you take care of it!