Facing the Fiction of the “Freshman Fifteen”

This post was originally published by MissRepresentation.org on August 1, 2012.

By Rachel Grate

We’re only weeks away from a rush of new college freshman struggling to condense their entire room into a dorm-sized pack, taking their first nervous steps on campus without parents and meeting their roommates. As a result, stores are filling up with packing check lists, parents are freaking out and many students are – worrying about impending weight gain?

As out of place as that statement seems, it’s true. I was there just one short year ago, when every teen magazine I bought, like Seventeen, promised to help me “figure out what college is like – before you even get there!”

Unfortunately, instead of making me more confident about the upcoming transition, flipping through the magazine just made me more anxious about the adjustment I’d have to make and about the most damaging of irrelevant worries, my weight. (I wouldn’t have been surprised by this inverse effect if I’d know what the Keep It Real campaign has since brought to my attention – that 3 out of 4 teenage girls feel depressed, guilty and shameful after spending just three minutes leafing through a fashion magazine.)

The “Freshman Fifteen”. Friends had joked about the weight gain, but I had never seriously worried about the weight gain until being bombarded with articles that referred to it as inevitable, “dreaded”, something you must “fight”, “fear” and “beat”. I mentally mapped out my battle plan, with circles over the gym and the dining hall’s salad bar.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t follow the prescribed diet once arriving at school. Instead, I fell into my old routine: running every other day and enjoying the fresh-baked cookies at dinner. Yet, surprisingly, I finished the year the exact same weight as I started it, as did most of my friends. So I decided to do some research, and found out that this result wasn’t as surprising as I’d thought. The average college freshman gains a healthy 2.5-3.5 pounds for normal body development, the 2011 study “The Freshman 15: A Critical Time for Obesity Intervention or Media Myth?” found.

The “Freshman Fifteen” rhetoric which frames all weight gain negatively has a lasting effect on girls’ self-esteem and perception of health.

Finally, some numbers that made sense – a lot more sense than the theory that I’d magically gain fifteen pounds unless I made the drastic changes magazines suggested. Unfortunately, in my research I stumbled on another statistic that was all too believable: since 2000, the number of college students dieting, vomiting or taking laxatives to lose weight has jumped from about 28 to 38%(American College Health Association). College challenges students with stresses without their old support system, which often triggers eating disorders. So why aren’t these numbers being reported, rather than the mythical “Freshman Fifteen”?

Suddenly, I realized that was only half the question. What I now wanted to know was, could one of the reasons these numbers are so high be because of the over reporting of the “Freshman Fifteen”?

After reading ten articles about the “Freshman Fifteen” in magazines aimed at teens as part of a self-designed research project, the answer seemed to be yes.

Only four of the ten articles I read acknowledged the fact that the “Freshman Fifteen” weight gain isn’t real. Two of those articles were from CosmoGirl!, a magazine that has since been discontinued and its subscribers transferred to Seventeen. Seventeen, the very magazine that coined the term “Freshman Fifteen” in 1989.

Even the articles (like this one from Cosmopolitan) that did admit that the Freshman Fifteen wasn’t real still dedicated themselves to making readers fear any sign of weight gain. They all adoptedweight-shaming diction, calling the Freshman Fifteen a “pitfall”, “nerve-racking”, “unhealthy”, “scary” and “dreaded”; something to “fear”, “beat”, “avoid” and “fight” because if not, “Eek!” There was not one single word used to describe any sort of weight gain as something natural (much less positive) at this stage in one’s life.

Moreover, despite the framing of the “Freshman Fifteen” as a health issue, only two doctors were consulted across all the articles I read. The other health “experts”? Personal trainers, dieticians, and overwhelmingly, college students sharing anecdotes about weight gain. One student was considered an expert because she had written a book called “The Dorm Room Diet”, and the magazines emphasized her two sources of knowledge for the book: she lost ten pounds her freshman year. People magazine introduced her disturbingly competitive rhetoric, asking “Don’t you just hate her?”

(By the way, if you were wondering what the teen’s advice is that she filled a book with, People gave a lovely sample of a few of her tips, including such jewels as recommending you drink “Perrier – the bubbles will fill you up.” The phrase sounded more like it belonged on a pro-ana website than in an article claiming to focus on health.)

Even magazines dedicated to teen athletics, such as Dance Spirit, printed articles such as “Avoid the Dreaded Freshman Fifteen” with the subtitle “Hoping to keep your rockin’ bod after orientation? Here’s how.” This rhetoric (even more blunt in articles from the more mainstream magazines) forces a false connection between appearance and health and encourages fat shaming. Outward appearance and weight are not indicators of one’s health – even the BMI method is flawed.


The media rhetoric surrounding the “Freshman Fifteen” has even infiltrated medical sources, as illustrated by this image fromteenhealth.org.

In some cases, it is true that students experience unhealthy weight gain in college. But this does not validate the media’s fat-shaming campaign under the guise of warning readers of the Freshman Fifteen. In fact, this weight gain may be a result of the media’s confusion between health and appearance: freshman’s dietary restraint is linked to the development of disordered eating but did not prevent students from gaining weight. (“Weight Gain, Dietary Restraint, and Disordered Eating in the Freshman Year of College” by Eating Behaviors, 2008.)

In other words, all the media hype about the Freshman Fifteen? Great for disordered eating, but it doesn’t do anything to actually combat unhealthy weight gain.

Not so surprisingly, very few of the articles I studied discussed health as a concept distinctive from appearance. The photos accompanying the articles, instead of illustrating the healthy habits they supposedly encourage, featured skinny girls smiling at the gym.(The examples below are from online articles from Seventeen and Teen Vogue.)

Since the magazine industry isn’t taking responsibility for misleading its readers, it’s time we set the record straight. Call out the fat shaming in magazines using MissRepresentation.org’s #KeepItReal campaign. Tell your college-aged friends and family to stop stressing about weight. Spread the facts and call out the fictions in magazines. After all, college is a time for learning, and there’s no better way to start than by educating yourself about your own health.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Rachel read recent print and online articles fromDance SpiritTeen VogueCosmopolitanCosmoGirl!Seventeen, and People for her research project. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her via LinkedIn for more information about her research.