The Pitfalls of Prudence
September 15th, 2010

When I was a college freshman there was a frozen yogurt machine in our dining hall.  My sorority pledge sisters and I loaded up our waffle cones before heading back to our dorm rooms each night with nary a thought of the number of calories we held in our hands (probably more than 500).  Frozen yogurt, you see, is low fat.   (Are you laughing at that logic?  Because I am.) 

As you might have guessed, this is the story of the Freshman 15.

Yesterday morning NPR aired this story about freshman weight gain.  It discusses how and why 18-year-olds living quasi-independently for the first time in their lives are prone to adding extra pounds.  (Umm, free food, cheap beer, no supervision, and living in a 24/7 co-ed slumber party – who wouldn’t gain weight?)  The reasons provided by the sources interviewed are all very observant and very predictable – new freedoms, lots of stress, and easy access to junk food.  Is this healthy?  No.  Is it an important component of the undergraduate experience?  I’m inclined to say yes. 

That’s right.  I’m about to advocate for the Freshman 15.  Buckle up.

Let’s dispense with formalities first.  Clearly I don’t believe that sleep deprivation paired with a diet of pizza, Coke, Reese’s Pieces, and gummy bears is healthy.  So don’t be mistaken about that.  What I wonder, though, is whether the merits of such a lifestyle (for a finite period of time) outweigh the costs?  I will explain.

As an undergraduate I believe you have two primary sets of responsibilities.  The first is academic: Show up for class.  Choose a major.   Study for tests and write term papers.  Make decent grades.  Prepare yourself for some kind of career.  The second is cultural: Meet new people.  Learn how to live life unchaperoned.  Deal with consequences on your own.  Dip your toes into the waters of adulthood.  Make incredible memories that cannot be made during any other phase of life. 

It is that last imperative that I think is compromised by a college career marked by bedtimes and balanced meals.  And I come to this conclusion via personal experience. 

Throughout college I was, for the most part, the consummate good girl.  I made it to the dining hall for breakfast every day.  I exercised at least three times per week.  I didn’t skip class.  I drank in moderation.  And I was in bed by 10:30 most weeknights.  I had my vices (Sonic and procrastination being foremost among them – it was a life on the edge, to be sure), and I actually did have a tremendous amount of fun.  But I look back on my college career wondering what raucous misadventures and side-splitting belly laughs I might have added to my collection of memories if I’d been willing to stay up past midnight.  I wonder to what extent my friends and peers would have found me more relatable if I’d indulged in some late-night munchies and shared in their 10am exhaustion the next day.  I wonder how much I segregated myself from the quintessential college experience by making good choices day after day.

The ramifications of four years filled with pizza, sugar, alcohol, and very little sleep can be remedied.  The experience that was lost by spending those years acting as a tiny adult rather than an overgrown adolescent can never be retrieved.  I don’t regret that I never took up smoking.  I don’t regret that I never drove drunk.  I don’t regret that I never failed a class.  But I do regret that I was so wrapped up in making prudent, responsible decisions that I self-selected out of some of college’s best experiences.

The NPR piece follows a George Washington University freshman named Katie O’Toole.  O’Toole and her roommate have not succumbed to freshman weight gain.  They are sticking with the healthy habits they learned at home – breakfast, exercise, time management, etc.  But the story’s reporter observed that students who choose this path tend to band together because they are such a small minority.

I’d like to talk to Katie O’Toole.  I’d like to tell her that she doesn’t need to make the “right” decision every time.  A few late night visits from the Domino’s delivery guy aren’t going to derail her.  They might actually endear her to dorm-mates who have trouble relating to her good-girl agenda.  And by endearing herself to people who aren’t just like her, she might broaden herself a bit.  She might be involved in some late-night follies.  Sure, she might gain a few pounds.   She also might laugh until she cries.  But she can run an extra mile tomorrow.  And the memories will last forever.

7 Responses to “The Pitfalls of Prudence”

  1. anne Says:

    I, too, was a bit oddly healthy in college. While I rarely missed a night out with friends, I always turned in earlier. Thus, I was a senior before eating my first slice of “late night” pizza. I think it’s all about balance, which you seem to say. I believe habits like exercise (which leads to better sleep) and lower-fat food does–ultimately–result in better moods, better rest, and better grades. But like you, I could have stood to indulge a bit more often.

    My college indulgence? Sunday afternoon Chinese buffet with my soririty sisters.

  2. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    When I was in college (87-ish), the bathrooms were basically vomitoriums. It was disgusting. I’d far rather deal with the Freshman 15 than the Freshman Bulimia Diet.

    There has to be some way to teach our kids healthier ways to navigate that first year. I hope?

  3. E Says:

    Honest confession time – As a freshman I took part in a covert plan to “friendly borrow and never return” a grocery cart filled to the brim with jelly beans located in the lobby as part of a guess-how-many-jellybeans-contest. The prize was a stuffed bunny – who would want that? So at 3 a.m. my dorm-mates and I managed to sneak the cart to the elevator and bring it up to 7th floor. We ate in joy that night….then had to relocate the jbs as we were being questioned about their disappearance. It was my one experience with larceny and I’m still a little ashamed; however, it is an episode of my life that I will never forget. I stayed up late, partied with the best of them, gained weight – and sorta wished I’d never done any of the above (almost 40 years later). I’m guessing you didn’t miss anything that was real – it’s just another part of you that I believe you should carry with pride.

  4. BigLittleWolf Says:

    While I would’ve preferred not to put on the freshman 15 (which stayed on until I finished college), I hardly consider it a drama. There were plenty of fond memories associated with late-night dining hall kitchen raids (peppermint fudge pies in the freezer), appalling numbers of trips to the vending machines when pulling all-nighters – and plenty of company with all of it.

    Food fuels us (even the bad stuff, though badly). It also comforts and amuses. Freshman year is stressful. Better food than so many other things.

    Delightful piece.

  5. Gale Says:

    BLW – Thanks for your thoughts here. I think you keyed into the message I was trying to convey: that the weight gain is perhaps a barometer for other things. College is a time of great adventures (and misadventures). If we consistently make responsible, prudent choices then it means we’re likely missing out on many of those experiences. And it just so happens that those experiences often come with a few extra pounds.

    And peppermint fudge pies?? Sign me up!!

  6. Laura H. Says:

    Love it Gale. I’m forwarding this to my little sister who started college a few weeks ago. I often look back on dessert which like many of our sorority sisters at our table consisted of a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. I would never eat that now for breakfast or dessert. And I can only imagine how many calories we were all packing on top of our dinners. Crazy! But you do have a point…it’s those experiences and not so prudent choices that usually led to unforgettable memories. Cheers!

  7. Rebecca Says:

    So true! As the mother of a toddler, it’s good to remember that eventually the teaching of consequences will ultimately be in their hands! I too put on the the Freshman I-don’t-know-how-much and wasn’t able to loose it until after I graduated, when I was a “grown-up” and REALLY on my own. And it was a life lesson that took me well into grown-up ville which I’m now extending to my family. If it hadn’t been for the Freshman 15, how would I ever have learned 100 ways to prepare Ramen noodles? ;)

    A little responsible rebellion is good for all of us, and not just in the dessert department. It’s so very true the importance of the bonds that are forged as students try new things for the first time together.