Lachow: ‘Freshman fifteen’ jokes, culture are harmful to college students

Hannah Lachow, Op-Ed Contributor

The photo is of a burger, some fries and a very appealing milkshake. The sun is out. The lake and a peep of Chicago are in the background. In every sense of the word, it is an aesthetically pleasing Snapchat. Plastered over this envy-warranting photo though, are a couple careless words: “freshman fifteen WE OUT!”

The idea of the freshman fifteen has infiltrated students’ lives to an insidious capacity, so common we almost don’t even notice it. We have all heard of the concept long before even coming to college — perhaps experienced it to varying degrees, perhaps not. Somehow, the commonality of the experience, combined with the alliteration of the words, makes joking about it seem almost trendy.

The truth, though? I have watched one too many freshmen struggle with weight gain and subsequent eating disorders for us to be making light of this topic. Gaining weight freshman year is surely understandable — eating at dining halls is conducive to binge eating or excessive meals, many students go out multiple nights a week and Evanston is jam-packed with some wonderful restaurants. This weight gain, in almost every case, is also 100 percent okay — a couple pounds here and there, logically, won’t kill any of us.

However, we have taken the prevalence and normalcy of this experience to justify jokes, which take the form of photo captions and the like, about food and weight. And while it is good to talk about and even normalize these issues, joking about them and plastering them on photos of food not only undermines the gravity of the issue; it actually exacerbates it. By labelling a Snapchat of a normal meal “yay freshman fifteen,” students encourage the idea that a mere meal can change the way you look or the number on the scale.

This might seem nit-picky — an unnecessary psychoanalysis of things like social media. And if weight gain didn’t hit teenage girls so hard, if it weren’t such an emotional and stress infused concept, perhaps it would be. Due to societal pressures and media’s harsh scrutiny of female bodies, vulnerable college freshman don’t take weight gain this logically. They are upset by their changing bodies, albeit natural, and troubled by their lack of self control. Often, this drives students into perpetual fear of weight gain or a constant desire to shed a couple pounds.

These fears and anxieties are far from harmless. Students are driven to count calories, avert meals and feel insecure overall. In conjunction with an already stressful and overwhelming year, these impacts hit hard, often leading to varying degrees of eating disorders and body dysmorphia. Additionally, many of us were taught a misconstrued conception of eating disorders that they are limited to extreme forms of anorexia and bulimia — assuming that it happens to the ballerinas, the models, the girls who’ve never touched chocolate — but they can affect anyone. This misconception, in tandem with the independent nature of college, allows these issues to skid under the radar without confrontation for far too long. We don’t have our parents here monitoring what we eat. Often, meals are solitary endeavors between classes.

The responsibility for change here is one to be shared. First of all, the student body should make a concerted effort not to mock or stigmatize the “freshman fifteen.” This is not something to be joked about or made into an Instagram caption, but also not something to be painted as “abnormal,” because it simply isn’t. Additionally, the University itself should do a better job serving as an educational facilitator for this matter.

While none of us want to add yet another True Northwestern Dialogue to an already long and busy Wildcat Welcome, NU should spend some time during this week emphasizing the prevalence of freshman weight gain and possible ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle even in the midst of tight budgets and pizza and cookie-filled dining halls. NU should additionally attempt to deconstruct preconceived notions we have about eating disorders and what constitutes unhealthy behavior. Eating disorders, just like the human body, come in all shapes and forms. Avoiding meals, feeling anxious after consuming dessert or carbs, hypersensitivity to what snacks you choose to consume — these are all degrees of problematic eating habits and often signal pre-bulimic or pre-anorexic behavior. NU, whether through Peer Adviser emphasis or adding onto a pre-existing TND, should make sure this is emphasized to incoming freshmen.

These issues exist at every school, not just NU. They stem from larger, societal notions about beauty. Being careful about Snapchat captions and holding your tongue at certain jokes might feel petty in the face of problems this widespread. And even if NU stresses the importance of these issues, as I suggest above, they will still exist. I am not going to pretend that these proposed remedies will subdue these norms, unfortunately. They will, however, minimize the impact they have on us, and hopefully encourage freshmen to live healthy lifestyles, in all senses of the word.

Hannah Lachow is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.