Is the “freshman 15” such a bad thing?

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As we enter college as over-confident freshman, we are inundated with jokes about gaining the “freshman 15.” 

I remember hearing these jokes as a young kid when my older sister was going to college. While being dragged around Target for her pre-college shopping, I innocently said when we passed the scales, “Oh, won’t you need one of those?”

She almost slapped me. That moment taught me that jokes about the potential for weight gain in college are charged with negativity. They run on the assumption that all weight gain, no matter the circumstances, is bad. 

I would like to offer an alternative narrative. I think we need to entirely reframe our conversation around the so-called “freshman 15.”

The reality is, if you gain weight by fully engaging in your college experience socially and academically, then you were meant to gain that weight. If you gain weight by caring for your body through movement that you enjoy, then you were meant to gain that weight. 

It would be ridiculous to expect any 22-year-old to have exactly the same body as when they were 17. 

It is a point of authentic maturity to realize that your body should not be the most interesting thing about you. It is bound to change and age. It is not worth spending 98% of your energy in an effort to be 2% smaller. 

I also want to acknowledge that this kind of language can go too far. In fact, much of the health and wellness world subscribes to a new kind of Manichaeism which pits the soul against the body, as though you are merely living inside your body as a temporary shell for your soul. 

On the contrary, as Catholics we believe that our soul and body are intertwined, to the extent that the final resurrection will, in fact, include the body. 

This is all the more reason to care for our body, since it reveals something of the Divine. Caring for one’s body does not have a fixed definition. I argue that cookies are extremely healthy when they foster social relationships or fill a need in another way. 

Indeed, a plethora of data reveals that social interactions are irreplaceable in one’s physical and mental health. Eating both socially or in a way that helps you focus on the task at hand — i.e. always eating breakfast before your first class — regardless of what effect it may have on our body, is exponentially healthier than trying to maintain a given body size at any cost. 

Instead of joking about the impending “freshman 15,” let’s encourage college students to embrace the opportunities they have for social experiences around food. So many transformative and memorable interactions happen around food or coffee. These interactions need to be celebrated, rather than compensated for. 

Gathering around food and drink can produce the archaic joy — indeed an ecstasy — of which Homer spoke: “Then after they had finished the work and got the feast ready they feasted, nor was any man’s hunger denied a fair portion. But when they had put away their desire for eating and drinking, the young men filled the mixing bowls with pure wine, passing a portion to all, when they offered drink in the goblets. 

“All day long they propitiated the god with singing, chanting a splendid hymn to Apollo, these young Achaians, singing to the one who works from afar, who listened in gladness.” (1.457-74)

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