Freshman 15: Thoughts on our Student Body Image

“Freshman 15”, a common expression used in media, which is defined by Urban Dictionary as the “weight (typically 10-15 lbs, 5-7kg) that first-year college undergrads often gain.” It’s commonly used in American media, so perhaps not everyone has heard this expression before, but it highlights a very relevant topic in society today, which is body image.

I had personally heard it in films, but it wasn’t a popular topic of conversation in school; I guess this was partly because going to university in Lima didn’t imply moving out of your parents house, and most importantly, adapting to a completely new lifestyle.

Back home, I never cared much for what I ate, given that I’d come back from school to find lunch served in the dining room, and later I’d have dinner made for me, so kindly spoiled. Regarding sports, I’ve always liked doing some kind of sport, even if I wasn’t good at it, it was just for fun. I thought I had a very loving and compassionate relationship with my body, and perhaps it was because I was used to how I looked, and I had grown to be at peace with it. However, last year, when I moved to Milan, this was one of the relationships that suffered the most out of all the changes that stumbled into my life.

The first months in Milan passed by so fast that I couldn’t even keep track. Between trying to remember my class schedule, having the first partials, making new friends, going out, barely knowing how to cook, figuring out how to budget in Esselunga, occasionally having mental breakdowns, the first half of the semester was gone and November was just about to start. I went on a trip to Amsterdam to see one of my best friends from school, and I asked her, “by any chance have some of your jeans also started being way too small?” This was the comment that started everything.

Before this trip, I had probably realised that some of my clothes would fit a bit differently, but I hadn’t given it much thought, because there was no time to think about it; there was no such thing as time in the first semester. There were these thoughts in the back of my mind, that I had not felt comfortable talking about with others, because back home I never had the need to ask others for advice or reassurance; some of my friends would talk about it with me and I’d always try to boost their confidence and tell them what I truly believed, which was that all our bodies were unique and beautiful, and how what “matters is inside”.

However, once I had to take my own advice, I couldn’t. I had so much rage and frustration because I couldn’t recognize my own body in the mirror. For the first time ever, I’d see my reflection and I’d hate the way I looked, and cry about it. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong, and worse, I felt like I had no control, which alienated me so much from myself. It was as if in a very twisted way, I’d objectify myself and criticise and judge my body as if it weren’t part of myself.

I thought it would pass and that I’d be okay, because I knew I wasn’t the first and I wouldn’t be the last girl to feel this way. This hatred towards our bodies has been so normalised in our cultures that I disregarded it, seeing it as a rite of passage towards womanhood. I thought, maybe this is how it feels to grow up.

What I could never have imagined was how intrusive and heartbreaking these thoughts could be. There would be days where I would feel so self-conscious that I’d feel the “extra” skin that was on my hips now, and in my head I would be obsessing about needing to find new clothes that would fit me, while having a philosophical debate about how much physical appearance meant to me. It was absolutely exhausting, and there’d be times where I was so far gone in my thoughts that it would refrain me from enjoying the present moment.  

That’s when I drew the line; even if this was a custom, I couldn’t handle being at war with myself.

I felt that to move on I needed answers. An explanation to what had happened to me, to what had happened to my body. I thought of a million hypotheses. Was it what I ate? But then, I had never been picky with what I ate, and before I’d eat so many sweets, and I’d go to parties and have a cocktail or two, and my body would always look the same. Was it because I was not doing sports? But I’d remember the periods of sedentary behaviour because of all the school work, and still, nothing would change. Was it because of the pill I had started to take? Maybe, but when I had taken it months before, my figure was left untouched.

Nonetheless, deep down the question I was trying to answer wasn’t really why I had gained weight, but rather why I cared so much. To what extent was my worth based on how I looked? (However, to answer this there was more to unpack.) 

I felt like I had a problem that needed to be solved, but I didn’t know how or even if I should. I I felt guilty for having “let my body go”, for letting it change, but the negativity with which I treated my body also made me sick. I would look at pictures of before, and I couldn’t help but crave the peace and confidence I felt with myself those days. I needed to go back to when I knew how I looked in a mirror, and even if others thought I was insane, I could notice the change every time I saw myself.

And this word is important, “change”, defined by Merriam Webster as “to undergo transformation, transition or substitution”. I’d ponder about time, growth and more importantly, about the process of change I had recently put my lifestyle to. So I would start asking other questions. Was the body I had before sustainable in the long term? Could it also be that I had to grow? Could it be that maybe I still looked somehow too young before?

And I’d try to think of it through a positive lens; tried to embrace the changes and new challenges that life had posed me with. Nonetheless, this positivity approach had in it too many loopholes through which my obsessive thoughts would crawl back in, making me mourn the past.

I didn’t know how to cope, but I didn’t have an example of somebody that did. Women in my life, I had always heard them reminiscing about the “good times”, “when they could wear that out”, “oh, I remember when I looked like that”. I just never thought I’d be saying those same phrases at 19.

“Because women are not supposed to age”, not in TV and especially, not in real life. How many celebrities have been made obsolete whenever their bodies passed through the unavoidable path of time. The world would reminisce on their “glory days”, before they had proven themselves to be human. I was trying to gain peace with the idea of change, but the world and the media constantly proved me wrong.

I realised how close-minded our perspective is regarding body image when I first mentioned this topic to adults. After telling them I had gained some weight, their immediate response was so automated and straight to the point that it took me by surprise; “just find a way to lose the weight”. I got tips on what to eat, when not to eat, what sports burn the most calories, and too many others that escaped my mind. But this straightforwardness was in its own way devastating. I felt my body being treated as an accessory that had to be restored, external to my feelings and thoughts, instead of recognizing the vital role it has in connecting my essence to the sensible world. Nobody asked me how I felt, or tried to inquire further on how linked my self-esteem and self-image might be, which was the bigger issue here.

Although the advice I got was to go back in time, reverse the change and make it as if nothing had occurred, it didn’t feel right to me this time. The answer was empty with no purpose nor understanding of a person’s relationship with their body, and moreover, I wasn’t sure whether I was willing to sacrifice so much to go back to looking a certain way, and I didn’t know if I could by then. 

So, I started this adventure by doing something I had been missing this whole time; being kind to myself. If I wanted to be at peace, I needed to stop blaming myself, for what I could have and should have. I sat down, and laid down the facts. I went from last year having had 9 months free before college where I would just go to the beach, see my friends, tutor, exercise, eat at home, eat at restaurants, drive, read, write, to living in a different continent, attending university, studying and stressing over exams, learning to cook, washing my laundry, cleaning, making new friends, not sleeping enough, going to the gym for the first time. Even if I could’ve made this process more smooth for my body, it wasn’t the reality and it should not take away credit from everything I had achieved and how proud I was. I couldn’t believe I had managed to survive and proved myself I could exist on my own, meet new people, experience different cultures, and have adventures! This meant so much to me, and it enriched me as a person; even if I didn’t look the same as I did some time ago, I was so lucky that my body allowed me to have all of these experiences. Just as I changed and grew as a person, perhaps it wasn’t the worst thing ever if my body had changed alongside me.

This idea gave me some peace, but I still felt like I needed to redefine my relationship with my body. I started listening to myself more; tried to do what was best for my body, because in the end, we can’t be on opposite teams. I do my best to cook new and exciting foods; I love going to the gym and exercising; I love being rested and ready to start a new day, because I feel like I am looking out for myself, and it allows me to be happy and at peace.

However, my answer is not absolute. There are still moments where my reflection catches me off guard or seeing old pictures triggers a series of insecurities and mental spirals where I can barely catch my breath. I just need to remind myself that I am so much more than my image, and my body is no longer an accessory I wear, but my companion, that adapts with me and reflects all of the effort, kindness, and perseverance with which I face the outside.

Maybe all along, the pain that my eyes inflict on my body was urging me to unlearn what I was taught. Maybe all along I was misinterpreting my own reflection, not hearing the silence it holds and not listening to my own voice that reminds me there is more than meets the eye. Maybe all along…

By Aranza del Alcazar