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.

Selling “Girl Power” Short

Originally published by MissRepresentation.org on July 20, 2012. 

The phrase “Girl Power” appears in my mind bedazzled and engraved on a background of pink glittery flowers. I don’t know why, and I don’t know when it started, but a simple Google image search proves that this isn’t my own exclusive creation.

Yet, “Girl Power” isn’t a phrase I think of often. As a feminist, one would imagine the phrase would resonate with me, but some of the previously mentioned connotations had scared me off the term completely. It wasn’t until recently that I was reminded of its existence, from a most unlikely source: aCrystal Light Energy commercial.

If you haven’t seen it, the ad (above) features two women talking when one of them pulls out a drink which she describes as “new Crystal Light Energyfor women.”

My negative response to that statement matched her friends critical “Yeah right, ‘cuz we can’t have a guy’s energy drink.” I appreciated the (likely intentional) poke at Dr. Pepper’s attempt to advertise theirDr. Pepper “10″ drink as “not for women.” However, two wrongs don’t make a right, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that this ad fell securely in the “wrong” category.

My intuition was accurate, as her doubtful friend is soon proved wrong in her criticism of the “girly” drink when her purse is stolen and her friend saves the day. The Crystal Light drinker chases the two thieves on their motorcycle through the city and into a desert, where she grabs back the purse and a narrator proudly explains that the drink is “Girl power to go.”

At this statement, the two men run away terrified, and I realized my problem with the ad. Girl power is shown as the worst fear of these idiotic men, placing feminism in a dichotomy against male integrity. But feminism – and true girl power – isn’t about putting men down, it’s about pulling women up until we’re all on the same level.

Beyond the polarizing gender divisions the commercial promotes, lies another problem: the commercial, under all its pretense of girl power, is for a diet drink. Part of the estimated $61 billion dollar industry designed to make both genders (though more often women) feel inferior – not empowered.

In the past few weeks, MissRepresentation.org has focused on the magazine industry’s creation of unhealthy body ideals for women in our #KeepItReal campaign. What we didn’t explore as closely, however, is that this Photoshop “industry standard” exists because of close ties between magazines and the advertisement industry.

One example of this link (that Naomi Wolf discusses in The Beauty Myth) is a prominent women magazine that lost one of their biggest advertisers, Clairol hair color company, after they featured gray-haired models in a fashion spread. The magazine never again positively portrayed gray-haired women. The same scenario plays out on an even larger scale with the diet industry.

So it struck me as a bit suspicious when I realized that the only other place I had heard the phrase “Girl Power” recently was in – you guessed it – magazines. Magazines filled with instructions on how to do our hair or “tighten our abs” or “get a guy”, because sexual power seems to be the only kind of girl power that matters. Or at least that’s the message I’ve been getting.

For instance, look at the portrayal of female Olympic athletes in major magazines. As Jezebeldiscussed, the Vogue spread “Wonder Women: Team USA’s Female Olympic Athletes” rarely portrayed the women athletically. Instead, the athletes were sexualized, mostly dressed in suggestive clothing unrelated to their sport. Soccer player Sydney Leroux (below) didn’t even have her face shown in her shot.

Despite their obvious physical power, the only “Girl Power” these women are portrayed as possessing is sexual. In contrast, the male athletes were shown doing their sports, often with female models as props.

The lack of consideration for other types of female empowerment reminded me of the recent Jennifer Hudson Weight Watchers commercials, in which she declared that “Before Weight Watchers, my world was can’t.” Despite all of her achievements – American Idol, winning an Academy Award – without the sexual power of the “perfect” body, she had achieved nothing. (At least, that’s the disturbing undertone that critics protested, causing a new release of the ad that changed the line to “When it came to losing weight before Weight Watchers, my world was can’t.”)

This distorted view of girl power starts young. A line of power girl action figures from Mattel features provocatively dressed women with large breasts. The female superhero’s physical strength is implied, but they still can’t fight fully dressed.

From the toys kids play with to the bodies women strive for, “Girl Power” has become a packaged good, sexualized and sold to us from birth under the guise of feminism. The phrase has been so diluted (and bedazzled) that the only “power” it leaves girls with is the “power” to diet, or the “power” to conform to the degrading images society sells us. The problem is, girl power – or empowerment of any sort – isn’t something that can be bought. Empowerment is something that must be lived, and we can all start living by #NotBuyingIt and calling out these advertiser’s lies.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn.

Keep It Real: Instagram Vs. Photoshop

Originally published on June 28, 2012 on MissRepresentation.org.

For Day Two of the Keep It Real Challenge, Rachel Grate explores whether there’s a difference between people using the filters on Instagram and magazines photoshopping people


By Rachel Grate


It’s no secret that the rampant use of Photoshop is having adverse effects on the self-confidence of consumers of all ages and genders. Well, it’s no secret unless you work in the magazine and advertising industry – in which case, shh!

It’s up to us to break the silence surrounding the damaging effects of extreme Photoshop, which SELF magazine editor Lucy Danziger defended as an “industry standard.” There is nothing “standard” about the images we’re being bombarded with, and the effects are real.

Even without Photoshop, the average fashion model weights 23% less than the average woman – and 48% of teenage girls wish they were as skinny as models. So it’s no wonder that 3 out of 4 teenage girls feel depressed, guilty and shameful after spending just 3 minutes leafing through a fashion magazine, when faced directly with this unachievable beauty standard.

The reason the Keep It Real campaign is so important to me is because I’ve recently started to see a shift. Photoshop is no longer something we consume only in the process of reading magazines and seeing advertisements. With the increasing use of Facebook and other social networks (such as Instagram, which will be utilized during the final day of this campaign), individuals are sharing their own photos with more people than ever. And, disturbingly, they are starting to Photoshop (whether with the actual program, or simple tools like “Retouch” included on iPhoto) their own photos more than ever as well.


“Fotoshop by Adobé” uses humor to comment on the widespread use of Photoshop to enhance “beauty” 

My sophomore year of high school, a friend made me give her photos I’d taken of us so that she could retouch them before I posted them online. (She, like the rest of our friends and I, struggled constantly with self-esteem during high school.) After acquiescing, I tried to explain how unnecessary the process was, and she only replied not to worry because she had retouched me as well. She had edited out any blemishes I had – which I admittedly appreciated – but also many of my freckles. And that’s when I got angry.

The thing is, I like my freckles. When I was little and bored I played connect-the-dots across my skin. I tried to count once, and I have over 50 on each arm, and over 100 on each leg, and a healthy smattering on my face. They are a part of me and something I’d never thought to be ashamed of, until someone else assumed I should be.

Just viewing Photoshopped images of others causes us to see nonexistent flaws in ourselves, so what happens when our own bodies are edited? When others delete flaws we didn’t even think we had, or that we may previously have been proud of? In this modern era, even I’ve taken to editing out blemishes before posting pictures on Facebook, so why was I so disturbed by the deletion of a freckle?

I was struggling to find a way to feel less hypocritical about my views on Photoshop when I readBossypants by Tina Fey. I didn’t fully agree with Fey’s perspective on Photoshop (namely her assumption that “people have learned how to spot it” so it’s no longer dangerous (more on this here) but I agree with her conclusion that when used well, Photoshop should “make a photo look as if you were caught on your best day in the best light.”

Essentially, what Fey is getting at is that she likes Photoshop when it helps her express herself – her inner beauty, in an ideal set of circumstances – with her assumption that people know there’s obviously fake elements of the photo. Similarly, when we use Instagram tomorrow to express our beauty ideals, some may use a variety of obviously fake filters to transform the photo into a more authentic expression of their individual vision of beauty.

The problem is, that’s not how mainstream magazines use Photoshop. Not only do I not believe their edits are obvious, but they often repress the model’s personal expression, rather than enhance it. “You can barely recognize yourself with the amount of digital correction,” Fey writes. “You looked forward to them taking out your chicken pox scars and broken blood vessels, but how do you feel when they erase part of you that is perfectly good?”

Take Kelly Clarkson’s September 2009 SELF cover, for instance. While the magazine claims to be about her “Total Body Confidence” and Clarkson talks about being comfortable with her weight in the article, Clarkson’s weight was dramatically decreased on the cover. Danziger, the aforementioned editor, said that the photo made Clarkson “look her personal best” as “the picture of confidence.” But how could Clarkson be “the picture of confidence” when her real personal best wasn’t good enough for the magazine? I can’t help but wonder if this repeated rejection of Clarkson’s body was what triggered her recent 30-pound weight loss, which magazines have praised.

Like my concern with the deletion of my freckles, celebrities often don’t appreciate the alterations magazines make. Kate Winslet spoke out against GQ’s Photoshop of her on their January 2003 cover,stating bluntly, “I don’t want to look like that!” Ugly Betty, a series I recently re-discovered on Netflix, tackled the negative effects of Photoshop on celebrities in their second episode; nonetheless, star America Ferrera was given the full treatment when she appeared on Glamour’s September 2007 issue. Sources have even claimed that her head was cut and pasted onto another woman’s body for the shoot.

My point is, even though I have a twisted appreciation for its zit-erasing prowess, Photoshop isn’t good for anyone – perhaps most of all for the people it is used on. Celebrities and the average person alike are just left feeling that their natural body isn’t good enough, with a heightened awareness of their specific “flaws” that would be better deleted. Because, come on – everyone has zits. Unfortunately, I just seem to care about mine more when I can zoom in on it 200x with iPhoto.

Zits are admittedly a mild example of the lack of body-esteem we’ve all experienced. But how can you feel satisfied with any part of your inherently, beautifully flawed self when magazines prop up perfection as if it’s a reachable goal?

Keep It Real isn’t asking for much – one unphotoshopped image per issue, and one blog from each of us who realize how important this is. Because, insignificant as one image sounds to us, it’s a start. Maybe magazines will realize how ridiculous their other images look when contrasted with a real, unretouched photo. And maybe girls will stop feeling the need to Photoshop their own images and “edit” their own bodies in real life with unhealthy behavior.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn.