Loving the "freshman 15"

The New York Times captures our hearts with a love letter to extra poundage.

Published October 6, 2006 4:00PM (EDT)

The "freshman 15," the overhyped weight gain attributed to first-year college students' embrace of beer, late-night snack breaks and sedentary habits, is mostly ascribed to young women. Urban Dictionary, an online repository of slang definitions, defines the freshman 15 as "When a first year college student (usually a female) eats a ton, and precedes [sic] to sit on her ass and gain 15 lbs." It's framed as both a developmental milestone and an insult (Urban Dictionary's catty usage example reads: "Did you see Suzy back at Christmas? Talk about freshman 15"). And it looms large in the thriving subculture of undergraduate eating disorders.

With these factors in mind, we're loving today's New York Times opinion piece celebrating the phenomenon. In the piece, contributor Marisha Pessl warily assesses the spate of college diet books, most of which warn against the dreaded 15. Rather than critiquing the undergraduate diet industry, though, she turns the discussion on its head by cheerfully touting the pleasures of weight gain: "Step-by-step, nitpicky dieting --- any kind of strangling self-denial -- goes against the very essence of the university experience," Pessl writes. "College is a time for excess, for experimentation. It is four fleeting years of free-spirited indulgence in the form of metaphysics classes, a cappella ensembles, Gaelic Women's Poetry or Intro to Interpretive Dance." The health-conscious may raise their eyebrows at this call to indulge, but Pessl reminds her readers that adulthood offers plenty of opportunities for abstemiousness: "If you gain a little gut while studying Goethe, it will be fine. Post-graduation, there'll be plenty of time for self-restraint and discipline, piling up on steamed spinach, ignoring starch. Corporate America, with its cubicles, wan lighting and the je ne sais quoi of a poultry farm, demands responsibility, conscientiousness and sober adherence to rules and tasks."

Pessl's witty portrait suggests an undergraduate experience in which young women are uninhibited and unafraid to trade girlish figures for more substantial heft, peer pressure be damned. What a refreshing idea! And hats off to Pessl's light touch. She could have debunked the freshman 15 or analyzed its position in our culture, but proudly celebrating undergrad girth proves more entertaining and more radical.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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