Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
Trigger warning: Dieting, eating disorders, body image.
When scrolling through Facebook, I was shocked and saddened to see an article published entitled: ‘Three Tips to Minimise That Fresher’s Weight Gain’. I had so many problems with this article, that I couldn’t let it go unchallenged. Therefore, I’d like to share my own experience of how diet culture and disordered eating can have horrible consequences for new students.
For most people, the move to Uni is a huge change from the past 18 years of their lives. You’ve recently become an adult, you’ve moved away from your support networks and you have the added stress of trying to get a degree. It is understandable that with this new-found freedom ‘all rules go out the window’.
However, for me this didn’t come in the form of kebabs and high-calorie drinks. Instead, it manifested as excessive dieting, purging and exercise. I became fixated on avoiding weight gain to the point that I was barely eating one meal a day, usually only eating 500-900 calories, and on the occasions where I had to eat a full meal, I made myself sick to avoid the unwanted calories. I was going to the gym nearly every day without allowing myself time to rest, meaning what had previously been a hobby became an obsession.
I attribute this in part to the fact that with all the change I was experiencing, my weight was something I could control. However, the idea that I should be controlling my weight was influenced by the toxic diet culture that is forced upon young people, young women in particular. Countless articles in the run-up to freshers warned me about the weight gain and drinking so commonly associated with the first few weeks at university. This terrified me. It sounds pathetic but terrified is the only word I can use to describe it.
I’ve always struggled with body image and at many times in my life, I truly hated my appearance. As a teenage girl growing into a young woman, I was surrounded by unrealistic beauty standards I felt I needed to fulfil. It upsets me to say I can’t remember a time where I haven’t felt I needed to be dieting or exercising in order to be happy with myself.
In spite of this, the times where my body image was at its lowest wasn’t when I was heavier. It came on the days where I’d come home from a full day of lectures, been to the gym in place of dinner, had a raging headache and stabbing hunger only to be too exhausted to even contemplate going on a night out. On one occasion, I fainted mid-conversation in a flatmate’s room because it was 8pm and I hadn’t eaten all day. This was my turning point. I realised my obsession had gone too far and my health was suffering the consequences. I was getting heart palpitations when I exercised and my mental health was in ruins.
Whilst I knew I needed to change, something was stopping me from putting my thoughts into action. When I came home for Christmas I was met with a strange reaction to my sudden weight loss. Instead of being concerned, most people complimented me. It didn’t cross people’s minds that losing weight wasn’t always a good thing. Why would it when we’re constantly surrounded by magazines, TV shows and celebrities telling us how to shed a few pounds? This made it even harder for me to battle my urge to restrict and purge. When the holidays were over, my mental health was at its worst and I was even more vulnerable to the idea that losing weight made me more valuable as a person.
In the end, friends forced me to see a doctor about my mental health. I was prescribed anti-depressants and many of my problems around disordered eating stopped affecting my life after I sought counselling. My fears and behaviours were, and still are, strongly linked to the pro-diet culture. Whether it’s a celebrity on Instagram advertising appetite suppressants, articles showcasing the latest fad diet or the lack of diverse body types on TV; it all supports the idea that being thin is good and gaining weight is bad. This can have extreme consequences for impressionable young people.
I’m not alone in my struggles. I know one girl who’s on a two-year waiting list for eating disorder support and another who has had to move universities because of mental health problems linked to an eating disorder. Evidence suggests eating disorders are rising, so it’s increasingly important that we look after young people’s mental health.
I hope my experience explains why I feel this article is offensive to anyone who has suffered from disordered eating. Rather than blindly encouraging people to avoid gaining weight, we should be telling them to enjoy themselves and to prioritise their mental health. It breaks my heart to think that someone would read an article and feel they need to watch their weight as a result.
For any new students reading this, I want to offer you 3 alternative tips as you navigate your first few weeks at university:
- Moving to Uni is a massive life change, so focus on looking after yourself mentally.
- Everyone’s bodies are different AND beautiful.
- You don’t have to look a certain way to meet other people’s expectations.