Content warning: body dysmorphia, eating disorders
Standing on the scale in my parents’ bedroom right after my first semester in college, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. I had gained, in the last four months, a whopping 6.9 kilograms. That’s approximately 15.2 pounds. My brain scrambled to try to find an explanation for this dramatic increase in weight. Wellesley’s campus is big — I had been clocking in 10,000 steps a day, at least. Just walking from Stone Davis to Bates for food had been a chore, and don’t even get me started on the Odyssean quest I undertook on my way to Lulu to pick up my parcels. Most days, I could not even get breakfast in. It simply made no sense to me. I hadn’t even been able to tell the difference until I saw it numerically.
I had seen the posts on Instagram — the motivational messages about weight gain. Weight gain is okay during a pandemic and You’re worth more than a number on a scale. In theory, these seemed like benign sentiments, but all I could see was the number of pounds on the scale searing my brain. Amidst the other stereotypical freshmen activities I had to engage in such as the process of moving in, finding some semblance of independence, and acclimating to this new life I had been thrust into, I had become victim to the notorious “Freshman Fifteen.”
I stepped off the scale, promising myself that in the spring, I would be more watchful of my eating habits. By the time I came back home after the spring semester, I would have lost those 15 pounds — and maybe even a little more. Maybe I would have passed up on my Starbucks run at the Emporium three times a week. Signed up for a PE class. Chosen not to take the obligatory late-night pizza and recognized that relishing the oil dripping onto my tongue was, maybe, a cause for concern.
Suddenly, I was paying meticulous scrutiny to my meals and patterns. Perhaps this was not the wisest move for a former bulimic. I squeezed into my jeans, acutely aware of the bulge right beneath my belly that I attempted to press down in front of the mirror — choosing to wear a shapeless hoodie instead of my favorite crop-top. Finishing up my 12:45 p.m. class, I pondered whether or not to pick up lunch — the first meal of the day — or to hear my hunger pangs as siren songs of success, and treat myself to a salad for dinner.
“I don’t think I’ve eaten anything but a bag of popcorn the entire day,” my classmate laughed. My stomach rumbled as I plastered on a smile.
I was upset. I thought I had recovered from my eating disorder. Heck, I had not even noticed my weight gain the previous semester. Sure, I knew I should not have probably been that much of a regular at JP Licks, but I had not heard alarm bells ringing until I was painfully cognizant of that one number.
Fifteen whole pounds.
How could I have gained so much weight in such little time? Watching my friends pick up fun desserts from the dining hall as I picked at a limp piece of kale on my fork left me feeling less than satisfied with my meals. Suddenly, I was paying attention to so much more than just my eating habits — I was watching and listening to people around me, too.
“Oh, I never get breakfast.”
“I swear I just look skinny because I keep forgetting to eat.”
I began to notice that every time I brought up how much weight I had gained, the conversationalist in question would feel the need to respond with their own freshmen weight-gain story. And they would end with a seemingly unhealthy solution to their problem. Choosing to substitute lunch with a glass of ginger ale. Aggressive workout sessions at 3 in the morning. Stating, quite simply, that they “did not have time” to grab any meals that day.
It was not long before I found myself thrown into the painful déjà vu of anxiety gripping my body as I consumed a particularly fatty meal or decided to pick up a second pretzel brownie. Skipping meals was a slippery slope, and I recognized the familiar signs of dysmorphia beginning to creep in again. The good thing is: I had experienced enough tumult through the recovery from my eating disorder not to allow myself to go down that path — or a similar one — again.
The bad thing? I realized that not everyone has the same kind of experience or awareness that their “jokes” about missing meals might be detrimental to their mental and physical health.
I began to research why the Freshman 15 existed at all. Most of it was predictable: inadequate amounts of sleep, lack of physical activity, eating too much “junk food.” But it dawned upon me that there was something every health article seemed to forget.
The freshman firsts.
Although I had been aware of the fact that my whole life had changed, it finally hit me that this was the first time in my life that I had been this independent. This was the first time that my parents weren’t checking up on my meals and how much I was eating, no one was watching over the (steadily dwindling) hours of sleep I got, and no one noticed the changes I had faced. I had just been thrown into an environment where I knew no one and had never lived on my own. There are emotional ups and downs. Seasonal depression. Drastic changes in social life. Intense workloads and pressure. A wacky term system. Self-imposed budgets, deadlines, and rules. A totally different cuisine and style of meals than the ones I was used to back at home. And during a pandemic?! That’s crazy. Of course, I was going to have gained weight in the process. I had so much on my figurative plate that it was hard to keep something as irrelevant as food quantity control in mind.
But these firsts also encapsulated so much more. Off the top of my head, I could think of fifteen other things I’d experienced for the first time my freshman year:
- The first time I wrote down my expenses.
- The first time I slept on my own schedule.
- The first time I got to pick my own classes without a predetermined timetable.
- The first time I independently applied to summer internships
- The first time I picked out clothes in the morning without relying on the uniform I used to wear every day in high school.
- The first time I made plans to meet new people over meals.
- The first time I trusted my own intuition to make academic decisions rather than running it through my parents.
- The first time I attended a career-mentoring meeting.
- The first time I applied for jobs to work during the semester.
- The first time I tried talking to someone at the Stone Center.
- The first time I shared communal spaces and lived alongside random people.
- The first time I let myself decide what to do and what not to.
- The first time I played by my own rules.
- The first time I didn’t have a “home” to go back to after classes.
- The first time I truly experienced, to some capacity, what it meant to start “growing up.”
So maybe the Freshman 15 does exist. And the idea of stepping onto a scale after your first year with the numbers cranking up higher and finding that your favorite skinny jeans are a little too tight or that your cheeks fill out your mask a tad more might be a scary one.
But I have decided to redefine my idea of the Freshman 15. Because my first year is so much more than a number on a scale — it is several incredible and exhilarating other “firsts” in a new and unpredictable life during the most unprecedented of times.
So maybe I will not step back on my weighing scale having lost those 15.2 pounds. I might have even gained more. But if I can attribute a new wonderful experience for each pound, no matter how big or small, then that’s weight well worn.