Ellen discusses the negative impacts that diet culture has on the student body, arguing that it’s time to ditch the diet.
CW: diet culture
The infamous “freshers’ fifteen” — the assertion that undergraduates will gain 15 pounds (6.8kg) in their first year — is a cultural pressure mounted on new students, already daunted with challenges of meeting new friends, coping with challenging university-grade learning material, fending for themselves as newly independent adults, keeping up with relentless laundry, groceries, and socialising.
According to 2016 studies by the University of Oxford, 75% of sample students surveyed across English universities underwent a meaningful weight change in their first academic year, with over 51% gaining at least half a kilogram, and 25% losing at least the same. Starting university is a huge upheaval in young people’s lives, and the major changes and newfound independence of student life may contribute to an already-rising prevalence of unhealthy eating habits amongst young adults.
The stigma of fresher’s weight-gain is particularly unfair given the irrational expectation to maintain a perfectly balanced lifestyle of nothing but gym-visits and fresh vegetables during a period of endless Hive and 727 trips; blowing student loans on Pints of Fun and Jager-bombs and making ends meet between nights out by living off of Iceland’s £1 pizzas is just a part of fresher life. Instances of “drunkorexia” (a colloquialism describing restricting meals to “allow” calories from alcohol) are commonplace, as girls can all-too-often be seen starving pre-nights out in order to squeeze into tight-fitting Oh Polly dresses, getting drunk faster on unlined stomachs. Malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies from meagre diets, paired with lack of sleep and perpetual hangovers do nothing to ease the inevitable onset of the dreaded freshers’ flu. Nutritionally void diets pervade the university experience.
Tasked, often for the first time, with buying and preparing food independent of parents, cooking at university can be an overwhelming experience, exacerbated by the scrutiny of new flatmates sharing kitchen and fridge space—when other students are skipping meals and living off of cigarettes or prepping insta-worthy bowls of leafy greens, it can be hard not to feel guilty being seen cooking oven chips and chicken nuggets for dinner again. This can make buying groceries or eating in front of flatmates anxiety-inducing, worsened by the visibility of online “What I eat in a day” videos and diet-culture TikToks. All of these things make us increasingly conscious and ashamed of what we consume.
Even once the initial anxieties of food during Freshers’ fade, diet culture continually infects the student experience, and the summer term brings with it as a new wave of fresh pressure and harmful messages pervades the student body. Beginning in January, the numbers of university gym attendance spike, as students vow to “undo” the changes in their bodies caused by first semester’s binge-drinking and greasy takeaways, and the extra few pounds from third helpings of home-cooked roast potatoes at Christmas. Students aim to erase the evidence of what should be shame-free and fun-filled nights out, and a fond return to much-missed families over the holiday period. Everywhere around us are toxic messages pushing “healthy” diets, which are often sparse and restrictive, overbalanced nutritional cooking.
As exam season looms, it’s difficult to avoid hearing stories of effortless weight loss, the product of crippling academic stress: long coffee-fuelled grinds in the library, prioritising coursework, dissertation deadlines and revision over mental and physical health, an unsustainable juxtaposition detrimental to long-term health and student wellbeing. Alongside this, the rising temperatures and rare but longed-for sunny days in Glasgow may be another major contributing factor to the pressure on students to diet. The popularity of “glow up” culture leading up to summer is obsessively focused on diets to achieve “summer bodies” in which to laze about Kelvingrove park when the weather reaches tropical double-digit degrees. Suddenly the safety net of hoodies and joggers under which to hide is abandoned and we become increasingly aware of weight and body image, resulting in a collective return to diets in preparation for “hot girl summer”.
Created in 1992, International No Diet Day on 6 May is a widespread annual celebration of bodies, condemning the media, public, and diet industry’s fatphobic messages. It supports those affected by eating disorders and weight discrimination, raising awareness of the importance of healthy lifestyles beyond diet-obsession. University doesn’t have to be an environment of body-shaming and dieting: living and studying alongside other students continually forces me out of my comfort zone. Although we’re still surrounded by pro-diet rhetoric, and I along with many others experience food shame and pressures to restrict food intake, my university experience has largely been both the cause and cure of this negative behaviour. The support and commonality of other students, many of whom struggle with similar patterns and behaviours, has allowed me freedom from diet culture and disordered thought. I order late-night takeaways and eat cookies made by my flatmates without guilt; pre-drinks are preceded by large bowls of pesto pasta; and negative body-talk is forbidden, or at least overwhelmed by loving reassurance.
6 May is an opportunity to celebrate the joys of shame-free eating, addressing the mountain of diet-talk and its negative, isolating impact. Don’t miss out on the fun of university for the sake of shame: ditch the diet!
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