Why Many First Year Female Students Will Dread Going Home Thanksgiving

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Ms Lowe, Associate Professor of History, Bridgewater State College, is the author of Looking Good: College Women and Body Image, 1875-1930.

If campus rumors and the recent spate of dieting books are to be believed, a good number of first year female students will return home for Thanksgiving a size or two larger than when they left.  They have gained the dreaded “freshman fifteen.”  Despite the fact that they were forewarned by such popular texts as Fighting the Freshman Fifteen: How to Lose Weight in College, How to Stay Fit on the College Meal Plan and Avoid the Freshman Fifteen,  and Freshman Fifteen: A College Guide to Staying Health, Happy, and Holy, they have succumbed.  They have enjoyed too many late night pizzas and all you can eat, dining hall meals – and now their bodies: softer, rounder, bigger – are about to be on display in front of the home crowd.  Rather than looking forward to abundant Thanksgiving dinners and warm reunions with family and friends, they’re likely feeling anxious about food and apprehensive about their appearance. 

While this seems “normal” to us – that weight gain is always bad and that young college women, of course, feel conflicted about their appetites and bodies – this was not always the case.  The history of white college women at the turn-of-the-last century offers a whole new perspective.  While early college students would have found the accounts of weight gain quite familiar, they would have felt dismayed by the students’ response to it.  Instead of anxiety, when they gained weight and wrote home about it, they expressed satisfaction and even delight.   To rebuff critics such as Dr. Edward Clarke, who argued that “a girl could study and learn but she could not do all this and retain uninjured health, and a future secure from neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria and other derangements of the nervous system,” they used detailed accounts of weight gain to signify their healthy adjustment to college life.   In 1892, Smith College student Charlotte Wilkinson closed one letter by saying:  “Now I must stop, dearest Mamma, with a heart full of love you’re your devoted and healthy daughter, Char.  I put in healthy because I know you want me to be that, next to being good, as I am very well now, as I was all winter term. I weigh 135 ½  pounds.”  The upward tilting scale documented success not failure.  By gaining weight and writing home about it, early college women proved that they did indeed belong on the college campus.

How did they gain that weight?  Similar to today’s students, they placed food at the center of their social life, but in contrast, seemed to feel little conflict about this.  In regard to school fare, for example, a Cornell University student reported, “We have such delicious things to eat here. … I think the fish balls must have been fried like donuts. I never had any so good, & words are inadequate to even mention the excellence of that cream.”  (No fear of fats or fried food here!)  They held elaborate food parties (spreads) for almost any occasion, sharing food boxes filled with pies, crackers and sweets from home, and toasted welsh rabbit, and made fudge in the requisite chaffing dish.  Not a binge, slip or dieting failure, they delighted in such occasions, enjoying the sensual pleasures of satisfying their appetites among friends. 

Alas, this paradigm did not apply to non-white, non-middle-class students and lasted only a short while.  Like today, food, appearance and dieting practices were class and race specific.  African American women, for example, negotiated a very different terrain. To disprove their critics and combat virulent stereotypes, late nineteenth-century African American students adopted what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has called the “politics of respectability.”  They used their bodies to enact quintessential notions of moral femininity in order to claim the rights and privileges it accorded.  Thus at Spelman Seminary, its missionary founders prohibited food boxes from home and students adhered to strict codes of middle-class etiquette.  An article in the school paper boasted, “When arranged [in the dining room] a hush fell over all .… Then began the music of knives and forks, and we could only wonder, the four hundred of these instruments should make so little discord.”  Spelman’s school physician advised, students “would make greater proficiency be eating less, particularly of what we call rich food or that rich in grease, sugar, and spices.”  For them, disciplined eating, and quiet, restrained appetites offered them the best chance for social and educational success.

And by the 1920s dieting among white women had become common place on college campuses.  The 1925 Mount Holyoke College student handbook sounding only too familiar, warned incoming students: “Beware of eating between meals.  Freshman traditionally gain ten pounds so patronize the ‘gym scales.’ ”  Just about all of the factors we associate with problematic dieting today had coalesced by the 1920s – popularized medical dictums that linked health to appearance, mass media images that celebrated slenderness, and a powerful youth culture that emphasized conformity.

Certainly, earlier generations of white college students also faced their own set of cultural complications related to their bodies.  Students who became ill or lost weight at college usually left without graduating.   Assertive sexuality was castigated.  Economic dependence left them vulnerable to marital pressures and appearance could determine one’s social fate.  Still, it’s important to understand the “freshman fifteen” has a history.  If once upon a time, white college women could stay up late, indulge in delicious treats and intellectual companionship, and wake up the next morning guilt-free, then we too might carve out a different path – one that offers a more peaceful, balanced and pleasurable future.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

What was the average weight of the (much less numerous or representative) first year female college students a century ago relative to height and relative to the weight-height relationship today?

Without such key facts, the suspicion must be that women did not fret about weight gain in college 100 years ago, in contrast to today, at least in part because they were not already overweight then.

Jason Blake Keuter - 11/23/2006

I would say greater understanding of this issue of near non-importance is possible only if we exert a Herculean clerical effort to dig through the archives and look into what men found and find attractive. I've heard all the talk that beauty, like everything else, is a social "construct" - which is code for saying what is considered ugly today was once the gold standard of beauty and vice-versa.

To take but one historical era (Shakespeare's), a less than close reading of the text would indicate that buxom was best. A deeper reading of the text would confirm that the contemporary superficial measurements of beauty that seem to enthrall so many men and set standards of appearance willingly pursued by most women are, in fact, eternal.

Translation: Angela Jolie and Katie Price would have caused wars in all eras but our own. Now, she makes white college students feel so absorbed by their feelings of security that they don't realize how much gravy they're putting on their potatoes!

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/20/2006

As Mr. Clarke notes below, more data would be needed to complete the comparison. Still, Ms. Clarke raises some interesting questions.

As to the concern with the "average female lifespan," the women going to college in the early 20th century--really any time before WWII--were middle class or above in origins. That did not protect them from all the dangers of child birth, but otherwise they were likely to be in far better health than the average woman of their time.

James G. Ryan - 11/20/2006

Professor Lowe seems to romanticize the time before 1920 "when dieting among white women had become common place." Perhaps she could comment on the average female lifespan during that halcyon era.