Before anyone decides to rant or send me an angry email about how backward I am when it comes to body image, or that I am most definitely sponsored by Weight Watchers and other similar companies, note that the “Freshman Fifteen” is in quotation marks.
I am quoting a concept, a trite concept somehow insinuated into the brains of every college female I have met in just the first month on campus. Before graduating high school, the guidance counselors thought it would be a great idea for us girls to write down our biggest fears about higher education. I could not help noting that “weight gain” made that list.
Yes, weight gain. That thing that makes your dresses tighter, the numbers on the scale higher, the intensely rigid amount of control you have about your appearance, which by definition encapsulates all of your morals and potential for success in life. It disappears like the repulsive fat surrounding your organs that keeps you alive as you pound away on the treadmill in between classes.
But if you are in the 5-20 percent of females ages 17-24, or the 20 million women in the United States with an eating disorder, weight gain can be a really good thing. It could get your period back after nine months without it, it could stop you from feeling like you want to collapse in the hallway between classes, and, with a lot of reading, introspection, therapy, projects and pills, it can help you see the world outside of this stupid, lethal obsession our society has with weight and body image.
When I wanted more than anything to lose weight, when I asked for a diet book for my birthday, when I cried and cried about how much I hated and “needed” to change my body, when I restricted my intake so severely during the week that I would compulsively binge on weekends, it was rare that anyone ever stopped me and asked why it was essential I did those things. Often, whether through a “People” magazine, a mentor or any book I read in middle school, these things were encouraged.
While we changed in the locker room before gym class, girls read their weights out loud — one wailing uncontrollably when someone told her every human has thighs, when our gym teacher told us she would “hunt us down” if we didn’t eat a fat free salad every day for lunch, that boys would never want to date us if we embodied or did or said anything about that bulging sin of the F-word worse than the official F-word: “fat”.
I understand completely that not everyone who wants to lose weight has an eating disorder, and my experience is not applicable to everyone else’s. While there were many things in my life and in my mind that led to me hating my body and restricting it from its basic needs, the environment is what pulls the trigger.
I am not exactly jumping for joy at the fact I was enshrouded in disordered eating behaviors and mindsets for years, but it did prepare me for the disastrous relationship with weight nearly every woman in college has, a relationship they are encouraged by society and by their fellow sisters to have.
I was very glad that I brought Marya Hornbacher’s memoir, “Wasted,” to college with me because she has a message for everyone trapped in this dangerous culture, a culture that takes different forms every decade.
“I want to write a prescription for culture, some sort of tranquilizer that will make it less manically compelled to climb the StairMaster into nowhere, and I can’t do that,” Hornbacher wrote in her memoir. “It’s a person-by-person project. I do it, you do it, and I maintain the perhaps ridiculous notion that if enough people do it we will all get a grip.”
I, too, have been bitten by culture’s venom, and I am positive that if I came to college without the anti-venom of recovery or of hope, I would not have put the “Freshman Fifteen” in quotes. It would have been more than a concept or a lifestyle; it would have been an essential part of my existence.
Not all of us will develop an eating disorder, but many of us know someone who has or had one. I may be speaking hyperbolically when I say that none of this will ever affect you, or that I need to follow the millions of “how to have a perfect body, a hot husband, be a mom and be a multimillionaire all at once” Instagram accounts so I can get with the program, but I encourage you to read, learn and think about the number of reasons why this culture is toxic, and destroy the “Freshman Fifteen” before it destroys us.