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.

That Time Of The Month: An Excuse For Sexism All The Time

Originally posted on July 13, 2012 on MissRepresentation.org.

by Rachel Grate

“What’s the difference between a Woman with PMS and a Pit Bull?
Lipstick.” – Jokes4Us.com

This is for every woman who, whether assertively stating an opinion or adamantly disagreeing with someone or showing the least bit of emotion or…well, really doing anything at all, has been dismissed with a simple, “Looks like someone’s on her period!”

PMS. I’ve been warned of its dangers since childhood, about how each month women turn into dangerous beings whose only capacities are whining, yelling and eating chocolate. (And to be clear, I’m discussing PMS strictly in terms of supposed emotional effects on women, not in terms of the very real physical symptoms of menstruation.)


Now, don’t get me wrong, I love an excuse to eat chocolate – but that excuse isn’t worth the lack of respect my emotions and opinions are given if one even suggests that I’m on my period. (Besides, I like to think that I can eat chocolate at any time of the month, regardless of whether or not I have an “excuse” to enjoy it.)

In reality, claiming women are essentially incapable of rational thought for essentially a quarter of their reproductive lives (assuming one’s period is monthly and lasts a week) is just another underhanded way to rationalize keeping them out of positions of power.
Don’t believe me? Think back to the 2008 elections. (You may remember this quote from Miss Representation the documentary.)When Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly asked guest Marc Rudov what the downside to a woman (Hillary Clinton) in the Oval Office would be, Rudov replied“You mean besides the PMS and the mood swings?”


Rudov later said he was joking (and that “the main problem I have is if a woman has a female agenda”, whatever that means). But PMS jokes aren’t funny when they discount a woman’s potential and intelligence. And I’ve never heard a PMS joke that doesn’t do just that. And boy, are there a lot of PMS jokes: check out the joke page I linked to above and if that doesn’t satisfy you, there are about 4,270,000 more Google results pages you can take a look at.

There’s a term for when one’s perspective is dismissed: Gaslighting. To quote Wikipedia, gaslighting “is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory and perception.” So when a woman points out someone’s wrongdoing and they play the PMS card, they’re trying to make the woman doubt that she is able to properly assess whether or not it was wrongdoing. They are making her doubt the validity of her own perception.

There’s another part of that definition of gaslighting that needs to be addressed: “false information.” Whether or not the medical existence of emotional PMS as distinct from physical discomfort or PMDD is in question, but I personally neither have the medical expertise to make that call nor the desire to dismiss anyone’s personally experience by doing so. Nonetheless, I think we can all agree that even if women do suffer from some emotional symptoms during her period, we don’t completely transform into a lipstick-wearing pit bull.

A menstruating woman doesn’t lose her rationality, just as a man with an annoying paper cut is still capable of making decisions.# So saying one is slightly grumpy because of PMS? That may be valid, though presumably no one besides the woman herself would know her cycle well enough to make that judgment. But dismissing one’s opinions because they’re ‘unstable’? That’s gaslighting, and startlingly reminiscent of the catchall “hysteria” diagnosis of the 19th century.


Disturbingly, it’s not just overtly sexist jokes or oblivious individuals misusing PMS. The June 2012 issue of Cosmopolitan claims that “PMS triggers all those annoying symptoms: bloating, bitchiness, serious junk-food cravings” and a “Brain Haze” that inhibits your ability to make decisions. Their solution? Sex or shopping. Aren’t women capable of more than that – at all times of the month?

This insistence that PMS restricts women’s intelligence is preventing women from being taken seriously. So next time someone dismisses your or another woman’s opinion with the excuse of PMS, call them out on it. Calmly request that in the future, they try to take other’s input seriously without writing it off in a “joke.” (Not to mention, nothing makes me angrier and more intent on proving my point than someone using a PMS line on me, so it’s really an ineffective method to make me shut up.)


I can’t think of any better way to end any piece of writing ever written than with a quote by Gloria Steinem:

“If women are supposed to be less rational and more emotional at the beginning of our menstrual cycle when the female hormone is at its lowest level, then why isn’t it logical to say that, in those few days, women behave the most like the way men behave all month long?”

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.