I came to UM in autumn of 2017. Out of all the thoughts running through my head in the whirlwind of weeks leading up to moving to Missoula, the fear of gaining weight was the detail I couldn’t shake. My brain wouldn’t let me.
The whole “freshman 15” thing was a bee in the back of my mind: small, frustrating and incredibly hard to get rid of. I came into college the healthiest and — more important to Freshman Me — skinniest, I’d been in a while. I didn’t want it to go away. My head buzzed when I skipped the gym. It buzzed when I got breakfast at the Food Zoo instead of skipping. It buzzed especially loud when I needed birth control, but “weight gain” was on every list of side effects.
But college is college. I ate weird meals at weird hours. I skipped the gym to go out with friends or to study for my tests. And when my evening dance rehearsals were scheduled at the same time as Food Zoo dinner, I got pizza on my way back to Duniway Hall instead. I gained weight. Not the freshman 15 I was so worried about, but my jeans didn’t fit the way they used to. There was weight where there didn’t use to be.
There’s a bigger reality here. One that I think our society seems to forget about: I’m not 16 years old anymore. My body shouldn’t look like that of an adolescent girl because I’m not an adolescent girl. Women’s bodies retain more fat as they age to prep for childbearing, because we aren’t kids anymore. I’m going to have more fat on my hips and my thighs. My tummy isn’t going to be flat all the time. That’s out of my control.
About 70% of people gain weight in college, but the average weight gain among freshmen is closer to 7.5 pounds, with less than 10% of college freshmen gaining more than 15, according to the Washington Post. CNN reports that men gain twice as much weight as women in college, but their weight gain is more likely distributed into lean tissue, like muscle, while women’s weight gain is more likely distributed in body fat.
Women come to college around the same age that we naturally start to “fill out” (a term my mom used to console Freshman Me on the regular, when I called home to complain about my thighs). We’re out here trying to love ourselves and our bodies.
But we’re surrounded by this culture that tells us we need to avoid weight gain at all costs, and never does that seem to be more prevalent than in the first few semesters of college. Women are being told to be afraid of growing normal, adult-women bodies. It needs to stop.
What sucks is that I know all of this. I know mine is a normal, grown-up-woman body. I know I shouldn’t feel ashamed of it. I know I’m not 16 anymore. I know there are a million better things I could be putting energy into thinking about. But that won’t stop me from looking in the mirror every morning and fixating on the little bundles of fat that have laid claim to my knees. Knee fat. I didn’t even know that was a thing.
And that’s the problem. I can tell myself all these things. But the underlying narrative is still there. I don’t know about you, but it’s starting to get really exhausting feeling guilty about the weight my body and genetics really seem to want to hang onto.
It’s been three years and 18.7 pounds since I started college. I’ll probably never be able to get the little bee out of the back of my mind, the one that buzzes a little louder every time I have to go a size up in a pair of jeans, or makes me stare at my knee fat and wonder how the hell someone can have fat around her knees. But I’m working on it. I don’t beat myself up anymore for skipping the gym or eating something unhealthy. I’m going a little bit easier on myself.
If you’re going through this too, it’s ok. We’re in this together. Try not to beat yourself up about where you’re at. Every day is progress.
If you, or someone you know, have been affected by eating disorders, please seek help by contacting counseling services at Curry Health Center or by calling the National Eating Disorder Association helpline at (800) 931-2237.