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Being more than just my body

Overcoming the burden of the “Freshman 15” mentality

<p>Mai Hukuoka is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com.</p>

Mai Hukuoka is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com.

Exploring Grounds in August as a wide-eyed, apprehensive 18-year-old, I noticed many of the same buzzwords floating around — “the Corner,” “the Lawn” and, most prominently among many of my peers, the “Freshman 15.” The term is thrown around in a jokingly self-deprecating manner, but it is shadowed by the premonition of weight gain in the midst of our new college lifestyles. 

The burden of this decades-old warning weighed on me, plaguing my mind each time I put on a going-out top or grabbed a bite to eat. As I have traversed the ups and downs of self-esteem and reflected on “the Freshman 15” phenomenon, I’ve discovered how freeing it is to live beyond the confines of a problematic fixation on body image.

Before college, many students are bombarded by kindly-intended — but decidedly fear-instilling — advice from social media, relatives and older friends who warn of first-year weight gain. As a first-year-to-be, these warnings struck a nerve deep inside me, scaring me even more than the prospect of making new friends or surviving past “sylly-week.”

These bestowers of weight-gain wisdom have a point — it can be difficult to lead a healthy life at the University, especially during first year. First years are largely confined to microwaves, dining halls and the occasional Flex Dollar splurge at the Pav. The infamously sub-par dining services often leave kitchenless first years to resort to late-night trips to Crossroads or microwavable ramen cups.

Though I’m sure that the late-night fries from Grill-ology and all-you-can-eat pizza at O’Hill do not represent the pinnacle of healthy eating, I would argue that the burden of body-image anxiety has dealt the biggest blow to my overall well-being. The term “Freshman 15” is integrated into collegiate vocabulary so well that students don’t bat an eye hearing it. The term underscores our internalized self-criticisms and hyper-awareness of our bodies. We also connect it to our self-worth — if we gain weight, it becomes a sign of weakness that we succumbed to the first-year curse and “let ourselves go.”

I have always been highly aware of my body. As a five-foot-one ballet dancer, I confronted my physical shape in the studio mirror for years on end. Entering puberty and the social warzone of high school, thoughts of my body image and attractiveness bombarded my developing mind. This isn’t a singular experience — I have perceived that this culture of self-depreciation in young adults and adolescents has only been exacerbated in recent years.

It is not uncommon for teens and young adults to overanalyze each photo we post on social media, stare in the mirror while we make fretful comments about ourselves and edit how we look with filters and apps. Such self-degradation becomes a source of comfort and validation, especially among girls. We expect everyone to be self-critical, and in a bandwagon fashion, we normalize and even encourage harsh, cruel self-talk.

In the midst of the pressures of choosing a major and finding friends, being aware of your physical health — eating nutritious food, working out and so on — are important and should be prioritized. However, obsessing over how you physically look — which places an added burden on yourself and your self-esteem — is mentally and academically detrimental. As I was inspecting every inch of myself in the mirror — if the “morning skinny” was enough or not — and comparing my appearance to that of others, my self-motivation and academic engagement were taking a hit.

Over winter break, I was able to get away from the multi-pronged challenges of college life. My family made healthful food with love, and the familiarity of my home environment nurtured my inner childhood spirit. During this reset, I vowed to amend my relationship with my body. 

After winter break, I began the uphill battle of disengaging myself from my physical being. I worked out not as an atonement for my food consumption, but to build strength. I ate what satisfied me — I stopped assigning value to food with “cheat days” and instead let myself enjoy a sweet treat if I was simply in the mood.

Making these changes has not been a walk in the park, of course. Our lives in the mediascape dictate the ideal body types, appearances and ways of living that people must aspire to. The TikTok-ified “clean girl aesthetic” and the glorification of being skinny has ingrained a notion of the “perfect” body in many people’s minds, including mine. Disconnecting from these assumptions was, and still is, a point of conflict for me. 

I’ve realized that if I am not kind, forgiving and nurturing to my mind and body, I cannot be a good friend, accomplish my goals or foster new relationships. Now, my focus in life is not what I look like each day, but rather on a riveting lecture or a night out with those who make me smile.

While the catchy “Freshman 15” phrase is likely to stick around for a while, I encourage all readers — students or not — to remember that life is short. As I have reminded myself countless times, the college memories I will keep will not be my trips to the scale, but the laughs I shared, the new things I learned and the unburdened happiness I felt.

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