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Don’t Gain the Freshman Fifteen. Worse Things Can Happen: Anorexia.

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Change was coming again, and I had a good feeling about our next move. This only proves that my powers as family prophet were dwindling.

Meg remained silent as we drove to the airport to say goodbye to her best friend. Kris’s family was leaving Oahu two weeks before us bound for Oklahoma. I knew what Meg was thinking: Here we go again; what will this move bring? My best friend is leaving. Will I ever see her again? I’m leaving a place I now love. College in Boston — it snows in Boston! I have to live in snow after living in a tropical paradise. And on and on.

Undoubtedly, it was an emotional parting for the two girls, but being teenagers they were too cool to cry in public. They promised to write and call and visit. After Kris’s plane finally took off (these were the days when you could actually wait with people until they boarded), we left the airport with Meg trailing behind us, trying to hide her sniffling. Soon it will be our turn.

Happily, after the movers packed us up, we head down to Honolulu again where the Air Force has paid for our lodging on Waikiki Beach. Staying at the historic Moana Surf Rider Hotel for our last three nights on Oahu was a joy. This was my idea of paradise. Built in 1901, the architecture of the Moana exuded the flavor of old Hawaii unlike so many banal high-rise hotels. Painted white, the Moana gleamed in the bright Hawaiian sunlight. Fronted by a wide porch with a slew of white rocking chairs and backed by a deep wrap-around veranda, you could picture Mark Twain sitting at one of the tables in his white suit jotting down a witty observation that would end up in Sacramento Daily Union.

In fact, every afternoon, they actually served High Tea on the veranda, and all the ladies receive a lovely carved fan; although, there was no chance of perspiring so close to those heavenly trade winds. I insisted we experience High Tea, and ever since then, if I have a fanciful notion, Meg sarcastically said, “High Tea Mom, High Tea,” to bring me back to reality. The hotel was built on the narrowest part of Waikiki Beach. And when sitting at their outdoor restaurant having our morning coffee under the ancient banyan tree, the water was just yards away. It was a strange sensation. I couldn’t help thinking: tsunami.

Thankfully, we were tourist again as when we first arrived on the island. And we tried to do everything in those three days that we knew we’d miss: shopping at the International Market Place for moke (Hawaiian word for beach bum) clothes and Hawaiian souvenirs; eating dim sum in China Town at the Golden Palace; walking the beach; swimming in the hotel pool; seeing a movie at the Waikiki 3 Theater; eating at Keo’s Thai restaurant, all for the last time.

Finally, it was our turn to leave. Bob, Meg’s godfather, came to see us off carrying leis for each of us. It was a bitter sweet moment; we would miss him. But I was excited to get back to Virginia where I had so many wonderful memories. And I was excited about taking Meg to college in Boston, one of my favorite cities. A friend met us at the airport in VA and deposited us at the base’s Temporary Lodging Quarters. What a drastic contrast from the luxury of the Moana Surf Rider to this small efficiency. But it really didn’t matter; we were too busy house hunting and getting Meg ready for college. We shopped to outfit her dorm room and for clothes to keep her warm; she didn’t need any in HI. She hated the bulky coats and warm boots we insisted on, but we knew she’d appreciate them the first time she trudged through the snow in the dark to an early morning class. Soon it arrived: time to set off for freshman orientation.

Early that morning we started the long ride to Meg’s college, our car crammed with her belongings. We stayed in Concord, MA near Walden Pond — Mom’s choice. Arriving late, we ate and went to bed. But early the next morning Joe went for a run while Meg slept in and I walked to Thoreau’s Walden Pond. I’d seen it once before and walked on its water. It was December. The water was frozen. But now as I turn the corner to walk towards the pond, I came upon a vision that stopped me in my tracks. The sun was coming up behind the trees on the far side of the pond tinting the great wall of steam emanating from the water a bright pink color. No wonder Thoreau loved this place. Suddenly, I felt embarrassed as if I’d been ignoring precious gifts from a dear friend because most mornings my head is under the covers when these miracles take place. But now I had to get my miracle out of bed so she could start her wonderful life in Boston.

So we had breakfast and headed for the college. Like so many before us, we went through the autumnal rite with this year’s batch of families: unloading cars and waiting for carts to haul our student’s baggage to their dorms. Meg’s roommate seemed nice and so did her parents. We toured of the dorm, the cafeteria, the gym, and academic buildings. We listened to pitches from the different organization and sports programs explaining why Meg should sign on with them. Yet Meg seemed quiet, preoccupied but claimed nothing was wrong. That night Meg was required to go to dinner with the RAs and her dorm mates sans parents

Before she left for dinner Meg seemed tense. I said, “The school is beautiful, your roommate is so nice, everyone seems friendly. Meg, what’s bothering you?” Panic in her voice, Meg said, “Didn’t you see them, Mom: the signs.” Mystified I said, “Which signs, there were signs all over?” Looking at me as though I was crazy and with vicious determination in her voice, Meg said, “Mom, there was one sign that was in every building: DON’T GAIN THE FRESHMAN FIFTEEN. I am never going to gain the freshman fifteen!”

Immediately I knew exactly what was wrong. The humiliation Meg endured while overweight was permanently tattooed onto her psyche as well as the agony she went through to stay healthy and also the adulation she’d received since becoming thin. The signs terrified her; she feared she wouldn’t just gain fifteen pounds but much, much, more: again. Then of course, in her mind, she wouldn’t be worthy of love or anything else. I said, “Meg, you don’t have to worry. You get regular exercise, you’re eating healthy now. You’ll do just fine. I know you will.” Pollyanna was wrong again.

This is when Meg’s healthy eating ended.

This is when Meg’s anorexia began.

Life turns on a word.

Meg’s overeating started with the unkind words of a boy about her appearance.

Meg’s anorexia started with words: Don’t Gain the Freshman Fifteen.

Every September since Meg went to college I hear the hosts on morning television programs all over the country and their seemingly intelligent experts talk about the same thing: DON’T GAIN THE FRESHMAN FIFTEEN. And I flinch.

“The mortality rate among people with anorexia has been estimated at 0.56 percent per year, or approximately 5.6 percent per decade, which is about 12 times higher than the annual death rate due to all causes of death among females ages 15-24,” according to George R. Jacobson, PhD, Medical College of Wisconsin Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine and the New York State Office of Mental Health. Anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental illness both sources agree.

I emphasize: a death rate 12 times higher than the annual death rate due to all causes of death among females 15-24 and that includes a higher death rate than girls suffering from obesity.

I ask: What should we really be concerned about? Could Don’t Gain the Freshman Fifteen be written as a positive statement rather than a negative one, a statement that would just encourage girls to be healthy?

How about this: Eat Healthy, Be Strong!

-HealthLink: 24 March 2009. Medical College of Wisconsin. 30 Nov. 2006

Office of Mental Health New York State: 24 March 2009. Eating Disorders. July, 2007.

Add a Comment2 Comments

Mary, once again, the story you write is so well-told and deftly written that it surprises me all over again to remember that we are writing about an actual young girl who was in peril.

You're right about the Freshman 15. My college niece (now a junior) talked about it when she just entered school, though for a different reason: The food in their cafeteria was so good that she and her friends were all worried that they'd gain the Freshman 30. And this is a small midwestern college. The message everywhere is the same.

It makes me wonder why a university would allow "Don't Gain the Freshman 15" signs up at all. Freshmen have enough change to worry about without getting a message about their weight on the first day of school. When I think about it that way, it seems completely inappropriate.

Thank you so much for writing.

If someone reading this needs help with anorexia or bulimia, here's a link to get you started (and there's a toll-free hotline for help or advice):


March 31, 2009 - 8:40am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Diane Porter)

Thank you for your kind words. I’m not a writer, and I struggle with Meg’s story. I have conflicted feelings about telling such a personal story at all, but as my mother-in-law and others have said, “If it helps one person.”

You made a good point, and it's actually about the point of view I tell the story from. I try to write the story as I felt at the moment. Things were not always terrible. We had fun and tried to give Meg a good life. As a mom I felt "Meg" was always reacting to change, and with our help, she would get through it. But society and peers have as much influence, after a certain age, as parents. And that's hard to fight after young people leave their home. We never thought Meg would die from anorexia.

There’s a lot of procrastination that goes on so any encourage is helpful especially because now I’ve come to the hard part: the anorexia. Thank you for taking the time to comment.


April 1, 2009 - 10:28am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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