Seventeen magazine popularized the phrase “freshman fifteen” in 1989 and the phrase remains ubiquitous in U.S. culture today.1 Seventeen’s cover story “Fighting the Freshman 15” depicted the inevitable weight gain as an uphill, hopeless battle. The so-called “freshman fifteen” fostered a legendary nervous epidemic amongst students, especially women, entering their first year of college. How is it that a teenage pop magazine morphed this fifteen-pound myth into a massive phenomenon? The phrase is not so much a medical diagnosis as it is a slogan for a campaign to draw society’s attention to the ever-growing weight-gain problem in the United States. It is also a campaign that can encourage college-aged women to engage in extreme behaviors.

Society exacerbates these college student challenges by posing the added stress that it is inevitable for them to gain weight. Student diets, especially those of incoming freshmen, alter significantly from their food intake at home, and many students gain or lose unhealthy amounts of weight — often as a result of poor eating habits and exercise choices.

For many students, the move to college is a culture shock, an invitation to the “adult world,” albeit a privileged one. It is drastically different from the monotonous schedule of high school, and often students struggle with finding a consistent daily routine. Finding the time to manage school work, with time left over to socialize, exercise, and make food is a balancing act that is difficult for anyone to adjust to.

Four white women and one white man sit together on a couch. Two women hold big cups, possibly of soda.

College party. (Hackbarth/Flickr)

The struggle of adjusting to college life coincides with societal pressures and weight misperception, a term coined to describe people who psychologically misconstrue their weight or appearance. For example, over 50% of female survey respondents admit that they try to lose weight, but do not consider themselves overweight or in need of losing weight.2

Dieting, in terms of engaging in restrictive eating behaviors, has grown to become a natural routine in today’s culture; it no longer solely functions as a measure for overweight people to reach a healthy weight. Today, many women of all weights monitor their eating in order to maintain or lose weight; dieting has become a social norm. According to various studies, 12.9% of students have inflated body image perception, meaning they believe they are larger than they actually are, while 15.1% believed they were thinner than they actually were.3

Thinking one is overweight or underweight when they are not leads to the misuse of food and non-nutritional eating behaviors. The scholarly literature demonstrates that both overweight and underweight students can suffer long-term emotional, psychological, and adverse health consequences as a result of failing to maintain a healthy body weight.4 The food industry and society’s misconceptions on how to properly address weight gain play a crucial role in this sensitive age group’s emotions. Young adults and adolescents exhibit hypercritical behaviors and commonly struggle with feelings of self-consciousness.

People view restrictive practices such as dieting as a form of control. When students lose control in their life, whether it pertains to grades, friends, or family, many find it satisfying to possess the ability to control how much food they consume.5

A white person holds a measuring tape around their waste.

Diet. (Mahmoud99752/Flickr)

While a desire for control is not limited to college students, the age group ranging from high school to college and early adulthood is most susceptible to compulsive dieting behaviors. Susie Orbach, a psychotherapist, studies women’s dieting behaviors and how women prioritize thinness. She employs the words “diet, deprive and deny” to describe young women’s strive for the idealized body society praises.6

The freshman fifteen perfectly exemplifies the dangers of sending messages that directly target and attempt to manipulate a vulnerable age group. Although men also suffer from eating disorders, studies show that women are more critical of their weight, which is why Orbach focuses her studies on women. She reports the results of a poll taken by women in 1994 ranging from ages eighteen to twenty-five who claimed that they would ‘“rather be dead than fat.’”7 It is frequently found that women, more so than men, exhibit obsessive behaviors, whether it be counting calories or monitoring sugar intake.

Today, society enables addictive behaviors in all aspects of life, particularly exercise and dieting. Although this psychological addiction may prevent students from gaining the dreaded freshman fifteen, exercise can often yield negative health consequences on ED individuals, or cause women to develop eating disordered behavior.8

Photo on an exercise mat box. A white woman lays extended on mat doing a scissor kick, while a white man kneels beside her, presumable a trainer.

Exercise mat. (Mattechi/Flickr)

More often than not, starving and purging oneself coincides with the addictive behaviors of exercise. Researchers have found that 1.3% of female freshmen and sophomore college students suffer from what they describe as “full threshold anorexia” and 2.59% suffer from “sub threshold bulimia.” Full threshold describes those who are medically diagnosed with said eating disorders, while “sub threshold” accounts for those who exhibit ED-like behaviors.

Although these percentages may seem small in regard to the total college population, these statistics only account for those who reported suffering from anorexia, never mind bulimia and binge eating. If 1.3% of women are diagnosed with anorexia on a college campus, how many full and subthreshold cases are left unreported? Exercise in moderation can positively benefit eating habits and one’s overall quality of life and life satisfaction; however, exercise dependence encourages unhealthy, obsessive behaviors that negatively influence ED symptoms. There are high pressures put on women to maintain a thin figure, and as a result, college students hurt themselves trying to fill an ideal body image that has been ingrained in their head.10

Although research touches upon male eating disorders, few studies exist that explain why it is not a social and cultural phenomenon that men, too, are susceptible to weight gain in college. It is important that society does not discriminate against women of any age or social class, and college staff must work to establish programs that can teach incoming college students how to effectively maintain a balanced diet. Though the extra fifteen pounds may be a myth, it is clear that students have many struggles maintaining a healthy diet upon entering college.


  1. C. Brown, “The Information Trail of the ‘Freshman 15’ — A Systematic Review of a Health Myth Within Literature the Research and Popular,” Health Information & Libraries Journal 25 (March 2008): 1–12, doi: 10.1111/j.1471-1842.2007.00762.x.
  2. Jodi Southerland, Liang Wang, Kasie Richards, Robert Pack, and Deborah L. Slawson, “Misperceptions of Overweight: Associations of Weight Misperception with Health-Related Quality of Life Among Normal-weight College Students. Public Health Reports128 (November-December 2013): 562–568.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Carole M. Counihan, “Food Rules in the United States: Individualism, Control, and Hierarchy,” Anthropological Quarterly 65, no. 2 (April 1992): 55-66.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Brian J. Cook and Heather A. Hausenblas, “Eating Disorder-specific Health-related Quality of Life and Exercise in College Females,” Quality of Life Research, 20, no. 9 (November 2011): 1385-1390.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Molly Matthews, Keith J. Zullig, Rose Marie Ward, Thelma Horn and E. Scott Huebner, “An Analysis of Specific Life Satisfaction Domains and Disordered Eating among College Students,” Social Indicators Research 107, no. 1, (May 2012): 55-69.

This piece originally appeared on Nursing Clio. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

About The Author

Profile photo of Olivia Howard

Olivia Howard is an undergraduate student at Providence College. She is a candidate for a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Health Policy and Management and Bachelor of Arts in Spanish in May of 2018. Olivia is passionate about the health field and discovered her passion for women’s health and diet specifically through a class offered at Providence College called Diet, Nutrition and Obesity in the U.S. with Dr. Deborah Levine, PhD. Upon graduation, Olivia plans to continue her health studies by acquiring a masters degree in Physician Assistant studies and eventually pursuing her masters in Public Health.