*Some names have been changed for anonymity
Have you heard of the Freshman 15? Maybe in a film you’ve seen, thrown threateningly at the thin female protagonist as she eats her first meal on campus. Or, maybe you’ve seen tips on how to avoid the ‘Fresher Five’ in a self-care Twitter thread for incoming students. If you’ve encountered the term, you’ll know the fear it evokes, reminding us of the unique set of conditions University poses to our relationship with food and our bodies. Uncoincidentally, according to the Ministry of Health, 18-24 year olds are the demographic most affected by eating disorders (EDs) in New Zealand. For many, this new relationship can be a deeply stressful transition, creating or accelerating pre-existing eating disorders.
Hallmarks of student life—copious alcohol consumption, financial insecurity, and living away from our parents for the first time—create a stronghold in University culture of food. Clubs incentivise attendance with free food, study groups bond over their favourite Munchy Mart snacks and dumplings are debated on Overhead at UoA. To say food is a centrality of University culture is an understatement. Our love and need for food as poor, stressed students is a shared humour that runs through these inside jokes. For some, the pervasiveness of food at University is insignificant, but for others, it is rendered salient by complicated relationships with food.
“I dreaded other people seeing me eat”, said Claire*, a student who battles disordered eating. “This meant that I have often felt very anxious to eat at study groups.”
Much like Claire, my desire to be involved in University life felt obstructed by the presence of food, my fear of public eating overwhelming me. As socialising became a site of panic, I was driven into social isolation, a state which made my few weeks on campus in 2020 as lonely as the lockdowns that followed.
However, just as eating disorders are experienced in a plethora of ways, so is our relationship with University’s food culture. Those struggling with an eating disorder can find the spirit of excitement for food on campus incredibly beneficial and reassuring.
Kat* noted “I am more likely to purchase food [at uni]; usually stuff I think of as bad or unhealthy, and not think about the impact eating so much of this type of food will have on my disorder until I am alone after.” Similarly, Claire felt “it had the power to bring a sense of normality to my eating habits—feeling a social pressure to eat a meal has helped me regain some rhythm,” despite her initial apprehensions.
After the long periods of isolation we have experienced, the potential positives of such social pressures are more important than ever, offering opportunities to reintroduce those suffering through eating disorders into relatively normal eating patterns.
If University, as a space, is understood to be a place of potential recovery, recovery understandably falters when it is no longer accessible to us. Thus, the mental toll of the abrupt changes between physical and online learning cannot be underestimated, and for those who struggle with eating disorders, they face a unique set of challenges, often adjusting between ways of life- ways of eating entirely.
“Time [at University] is more structured in general, having lots of breaks and time for eating… I struggled quite a bit over lockdown, having a lot of time in the day and being all by myself. I found myself not eating big meals and incessantly fasting,” said Jessica*
Without University, suggested eating times are lost. Social interventions are too, and the generally positive food environment, leaving those with eating disorders particularly vulnerable in lockdown periods, and prone to fall back into toxic habits.
The stress of such changes profoundly affected Claire, saying that she “turned to food for comfort and abstained from it in hopes to regain a sense of control that University could not bring. The longer this uncertainty progressed, the wilder my relationship with food became in frantic attempts to give myself something to rely upon.”
The spirit of self improvement which dominated social media punctuated these experiences, the supposed ‘extra time’ of lockdown marketed to us as an opportunity to lose weight via minimalist Instagram how-tos and Chloe Ting Tik Tok workouts. This combination marked online learning as a dangerous time for those suffering with EDs, an issue rarely included in discussions on the struggles of online learning.
This is not to say that our University campus culture provides an immediate solution to eating disorders. Rather, what these experiences reveal is a complicated relationship between our mental health and University as a culture and space, existing both as a place of refuge and a place of distress. Despite finding University a usually positive food environment, Kat felt improvements could still be made, saying “I feel free food should be available to students, such as fruit or muesli bars, as it would help students who are restricting their eating while at Uni. It could remind them to eat and give them food that is generally healthy to help them through the day and also gradually reduce the amount of fasting they do.”
However, until the stigma regarding eating disorders dissipates and a general improvement of University mental health services occurs, these changes appear distant. While we wait patiently for these systemic changes, we must aspire to create broader social change, enabling normative discussions of eating disorders to progress past ‘The Freshman 15’ into constructive and insightful conversations. When we reduce discussions of University weight gain into witty catch phrases, such as the Freshman 15, we fail to acknowledge the complexity required for such discussions. More accurately, what the Freshman 15 (and its surrounding discourse) should inspire to capture is University as a time and place in our lives where students should freely indulge in the normalcy and enjoyment of eating—a place where weight gain may be inevitable, healthy, and encouraged.
The process of writing this article- relating to other students’ experiences, openly discussing something often typically taboo, and articulating my own experiences has been incredibly carthadic. If we all put in our part, check in on one another and challenge the language of diet culture, maybe other students will be able to experience this same relief too.
If you are struggling with disordered eating, call the EDANZS eating disorder specific helpline, 0800 2 EDANZ / 0800 2 33269. Help is also available via University counselling, accessible through the UoA website.
Illustration by Georgia Wu