On one busy Wednesday morning, I sat amid the chaos of the daily lunch rush at Eagle’s Nest. I overheard a conversation between two friends about dieting and exercise at school. One of them turned to the other and asked, “Do you think everyone came here with these gym habits, or did they all start here?” This question struck me, as it was one I found myself wondering when I embarked on my first anxiety-inducing trip to the gym on Newton. It seemed that here every student spends just as much time perfecting their figures at the Plex as they do studying endlessly at O’Neill. This apparent paradox haunted me as I struggled to balance a healthy lifestyle and academic success. But as it often turns out, I’m not alone.
Before entering college, many of us had heard about the dreaded “freshman 15,” referring to the amount of weight typically gained among United States college students when they first begin school. Without any restrictions from their parents about what to eat, it’s easy to understand how freshmen can forget to eat healthy. From the gluttonous multitude of options at Late Night to stress-eating your second package of Pop-Tarts from the library vending machine the night before an exam, there are many ways to fall into this trap. It isn’t just meals either—heavy alcohol consumption can contribute as well. But, as I’m sure many other Boston College students notice, not many students seem to be in line with this statistic. Despite the many temptations of food or partying, it seems that the pressure to rival their peers’ workout habits keeps just as many students on the treadmill as in the lines at Late Night.
As it turns out, the “freshman 15” really is closer to fiction than fact. A study at Ohio State University demonstrated that college students on average don’t gain more than about three pounds. However, this isn’t to say that college doesn’t cause students to rethink the lifestyles they had at home. Students may struggle to adapt to their new options and maintain a healthy diet at the same time. The stress that academics can put on students often leads many students to seek out comfort food that usually isn’t the healthiest of options. (With that being said, after spending hours in the library, as many of us do, go ahead and enjoy that cookie every so often.)
While diet is obviously a strong contributor to overall health, exercise is what really sticks out to me as the most noticeable difference in college. I don’t remember ever discussing it with any of my high schools friends, but sure enough, once everyone settled in to school, their many “at the gym” Snapchats proved they, too, had turned over a new leaf. Personally, I played sports throughout high school and hoped to find the time to exercise in college. But the sudden obsession with the gym that seemed to have taken over college freshmen fascinated me. Is it a way to avoid the dreaded “freshman 15” myth? Or is it simply a case of peer pressure?
Perhaps it isn’t either. It’s undeniable that the desired body type seen in the media has shifted greatly in past years. Today’s idealized models are often far from the dangerously skinny models of the 1990s and early 2000s. Call it the “Kardashian effect” if you will, but curvy is the new skinny. Most young girls today look up to celebrities and models with the perfectly curvy yet fit body. While of course many of these models aren’t showing a realistic body image, it might not be the worst thing that being extremely thin is no longer essential to “beauty.” Sure, the most famous examples of the Kardashian-Jenner clan may not seem to be helping young girls with their body images. But, they have undeniably ushered in a new era that celebrates a more diverse range of body types, and shows that natural curves are not something to hate. In one interview, singer Demi Lovato, who once struggled with eating disorders, described how seeing the rise of Kim Kardashian’s popularity made her appreciate her curves. While we shouldn’t necessarily all be trying to recreate the Kardashian figures, the family that redefined the ideal body type certainly introduces the idea that you don’t have to be a size zero to feel confident.
Could this new trend be related to the popularity of the gym? In many ways, these new desired body images cause those who want to attain it to try workouts that build their curves instead of eating less and less for a stick-like figure. While college students are very susceptible to this pressure from the media, they’re also extremely susceptible to pressure from their peers. Coming into college, your social life can feel like the whole world. With everyone constantly comparing themselves to each other, it’s easy to see how the workout habits could be influenced by this. Seeing all of your peers working out will surely motivate you to do the same.
Peer pressure is unavoidable in college. Everyone can be moved by it. While the fitness craze surely results from many different factors, it can certainly be considered a good thing. The gym can be the perfect way to release all the tension from the anxieties of school. At the end of the day, however, you just have to do what is best for you and your well-being (just like everything else!), whether that means going to the gym or eating that cookie while you study for an exam. Workout when you want to, and do your best to eat well, but don’t stress about slipping up every once in a while—no one’s perfect.
Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor