All my life I was known as the awkward, lanky kid. No matter what or how much I ate, I wasn’t able to put on weight. That is, until I moved away for university.
Quick metabolisms run in my family. My dad, whose name is Ron, was nicknamed “Scrawny Ronnie” as a child. This kind of identity sticks with you throughout adolescence and affects your mindset. Never having to deal with repercussions of my poor eating habits growing up or watching what I ate (because I wouldn’t gain anything), became a rude awakening when I suddenly noticed I was putting on weight in university. For the first time in my life, I had to watch what I ate and focus on exercising.
When I entered residence, I remember fearing and trying to avoid the dreaded “Freshman 15.” I guess living off of ramen noodles, pizza and ice cream while drinking every weekend, combined with sitting in class all day, only to come home and binge-watch Netflix would eventually contribute to my weight gain. Who knew?
By the time I moved out of residence in April, I had put on just under 20 pounds.This took a toll on my self-esteem and was the start of my unhealthy outlook on body image and relationship with food.
When you’re used to being a certain size your whole life, shifting from that will naturally affect how you feel. For the first time in my life, I was obsessively thinking about my weight and placing it on a huge pedestal. Despite friends reassuring me, I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.
The “Freshman 15” sometimes dubbed the “First year spread” — however you want to slice it (ha-ha, get it?), is the expression used for putting on weight during the first year of college or university.
Despite being a cultural phenomenon and my own experience, “Freshman 15” has also been proven to be largely folklore. According to a 2010 study from the University of Michigan, typical weight gain for a first-year student averages at just 2.5-6 pounds.
So, if the concept of “Freshman 15” is just a myth, why is everyone, including myself, so scared of it?
Jessica Begg, a registered dietician based in Vancouver, told the Ryersonian that oftentimes when people move away for university their eating habits change and, since most people are busier, it may translate to some body changes.
While everyone’s body is different, Begg said we should embrace the gain if it does happen to us in university. “You’re still gaining strength in terms of your bone density and how strong you are. People fear it more than it actually happens,” she says. “We have such a fear of gain, that it’s a really bad thing.”
However, Begg said gaining weight in university should not be feared and is in fact healthy. “You should gain a couple of pounds in university,” says Begg. “That’s just plain normal growth.”
Begg said oftentimes people who begin post-secondary school are still growing and it’s not until you’re 25 that you’ve reached your adult weight.
Reject the diet mentality
Colleen Conroy-Amato, a counsellor at Ryerson University, says students need to realize that their weight is going to fluctuate. “It’s going to be little micro changes that make a difference, not a diet.” Rather, the focus should be on health, says Conroy-Amato. “It’s about moderation and balance. It’s fine to think about ‘how many green things did I eat today’?
“We have to show compassion for ourselves. Maybe the “Frosh 15” (which I really think is more like two or three pounds) is what we learned about ourselves in our first year,” says Conroy-Amato.
“If that’s how we come out of first year — with all this debt, stress and grades, there’s only so many numbers we can like be juggling. In the grand scheme of things, is a few pounds that terrible?”
How social media affects body image
I’d be lying if I didn’t attribute a good chunk of my body image issues I developed in first-year to social media. I can’t tell you the countless hours I’d spend daily scrolling through Instagram, comparing myself to practically every other person I encountered.
Conroy-Amato says that you have to be selective about who you follow on social media. “How much time do people sit around and look at things that make them feel bad?”
It’s important to remember that social media is a platform for people to share the highlight reels of their life and not a place for you to compare your life to theirs. Though this can be hard if you’re constantly being bombarded with images of perfect-looking people all day long.
“Because you’re seeing it all day every day, it’s hard not to think that it’s reality,” says Begg. “Whenever we see something a million times, (it’s) not about the truth. It’s just about how many times did you see that, that it becomes the norm?”
“At least in the ‘olden days’ I couldn’t afford a magazine subscription, so I couldn’t get Vogue and feel bad,” says Conroy-Amato. “You don’t have to have money to feel bad now.
“There’s some lovely people in this world that are giving the anti-diet message,” says Begg. “If we’re talking about social media, we can actually use it as a real positive thing and start following people that have more normalized views on eating.”
Conroy-Amato suggests using social media for things such as activism will help shift our mindset and allow people to view social media more positively.
“It blows my mind; who has a large following and who doesn’t. They’re usually not people that I would want my children to emulate. So I think sadly, our society, through all the images we have access to, really sensationalizes things that don’t really matter,” says Conroy-Amato.
Begg says that once you see how isolating and unsatisfying dieting is, you realize that being a certain size is not worth the pain.
“Once you start immersing yourself in that kind of mindset, you start seeing the hole in the diet culture. Actually being outside and connecting with friends and being happy gives you so much more than you could ever think that trying to control your weight is going to give you.”
I spent the past three years watching what I ate and trying to count calories. To my dismay, I would always “fail.” It’s no wonder though, I was depriving myself of food and constantly living in a cycle of shame.
One day a couple months ago, I grew sick of this cycle. Sick of starving myself for hours, only to then binge eat on junk food, followed by a wave of shame. I decided I would listen to my body, eat when I was hungry and listen to my cravings. I can’t say I’m any thinner, but I am a lot happier.
As Conroy-Amato said, being a student comes with enough stress. Between debt, grades, finding a job, friends, family and just life, why add weight to the mix too?