The 3 Biggest Feminist Concerns About The College Experience
I (like so many others) went off to college my freshman year under the impression that I was headed toward the greatest experience of my life. Beyond my idealistic expectations based on general cultural depictions of college as the best four years of one's life, as a feminist I expected to find a liberal haven of enlightened thought and general open-mindedness. But it soon became clear that the reality of college didn't quite meet my (perhaps overly) optimistic hopes for the experience.
I soon found that freshman year is full of social, psychological, emotional and physical challenges that few rising freshman are truly made aware of before they're thrown into the thick of it. As a feminist, I found that despite the widely reported statistics that women are dominating on college campuses, women's presence in higher education hardly indicates that college is a feminist utopia. Rather, it turns out that (just like in society at large) we have a long way to go before we can claim gender equality in college.
I concluded my freshman year wondering why our culture is so committed to projecting such an idealistic version of the college experience and remaining silent about the reality. So, with the help of other college women and experts, I decided to do something about it by writing College 101: A Girl's Guide to Freshman Year. College 101 seeks to dispel some of the biggest myths about college, especially the ones targeted at women and the ones which obscure the ways in which feminism and feminist activism are still very necessary in the world of higher education. My hope is that rising freshmen, armed with knowledge, can make the most of their college experience. The following are just a few of the biggest feminist concerns about the college experience of which rising freshwomen should be aware.
1) Women Face A Variety of Specific Health Issues In College
The transition to college has major health implications for all students regardless of gender – physically, emotionally, sexually and beyond. But these issues often manifest in specifically gendered ways.
For example, while women unfortunately face a myriad of issues related to body image and eating long before they even consider taking the SATs, these often manifest in uniquely troubling ways while in college. Much attention has been paid to the "Freshman 15"and though it is, in fact, a myth (a 2011 study revealed that the average female only gains about 3.1 pounds her freshman year, while 25% actually lose weight and plenty don't notice a change at all) the truth is eating habits do change based on a variety of factors including stress, newfound autonomy and the tempting mistress that is the softserve machine in the dining hall (not that I'm speaking from personal experience). Every freshwoman will deal with these changes in her own way, but the reality is that eating disorders are still rampant on college campuses: one study showed that 91% of women surveyed on college campus attempted to control their weight through dieting while 22% diet "often"or "always.”
It's important for freshmen women to both find other outlets for the stress and distress of the transition to college and to take the opportunity to develop a healthy, gentle relationship with their bodies. Freshmen should be aware that, along with their mind and spirit, they may experience a physical transformation their first year of college. It might be the result of the biological phenomenon of aging, as a response to stress, or for any number of reasons – no matter the reason, a changing body does not equate to the world as you know it imploding. Freshmen should focus on eating in a way that makes them feel healthy and whole, beyond any kind of number on a scale or nutrition label.
Beyond physical health, though, sexual health – though certainly important in high school (yet woefully neglected there, too) – is a hugely impactful factor of many women's college experiences. There's plenty of good, healthy sexual development to explore in college, such as sexual empowerment realized through experimenting with new and varied partners in a potentially more conducive environment and health resources available on most college campuses. But there are also negative aspects of sex in college: abusive relationships and sexual assault are by no means a college-specific phenomenon, but they do happen at colleges across the country—at alarming rates, no less. Nearly 43% of college women report experiencing various forms of abusive dating behavior. Further, as many as 1 in 4 women in higher educational institutions will be the victims of completed or attempted rape – a statistic that is especially relevant for freshmen as studies show that freshmen and sophomores are at greater risk of sexual assault than are juniors or seniors.
Rising freshmen should be aware that college is not just about academic growth and enlightenment, but a time and place that offers plenty of opportunities for novel embodied experiences. Rather than feel defeated by what can often feel like a lot of overwhelming changes, though, freshmen women should focus on embracing the experiences to get to know themselves, their desires and their bodies better to set themselves up for a lifetime of health and fulfillment.
2) Financial Decisions Made About College Have A Specific Meaning And Impact On Women
It's no secret that finance is a historically male-dominated industry. Until relatively recently, women had no access to their own money and remained completely financially dependent on men. But even in this day and age, despite having come so far from having the financial autonomy of a toaster, many rising college freshwomen are largely uneducated about finance, or at least aren't encouraged to learn about it the way our male counterparts are.
The thing is, lacking financial literacy is just not acceptable for women today—from an ideological perspective of female independence, of course, but also on a very practical level rooted in women's current economic reality. The truth is that the vast majority of women will be solely responsible for making their own financial decisions at some point in their lives and paying for college is likely one of the first, and certainly one of the most impactful, financial decisions women will make. The financial decisions women make can help provide them with a solid autonomous foundation for their future career and personal life while poor decisions resulting in debt can be equally impactful – in a destructive way that requires later dependence.
Thus, rising college women should take the financial responsibility of paying for and making their way through college seriously. Scholarships, loans and financial aid options should all be thoroughly researched and options carefully weighed. College women should consider taking on the responsibility of a job while in school as well as budget and make wise choices about spending during those four years.
Most young women go to college today because they're driven, because they are pursuing dreams and envision a bright future for themselves. But there is a pervasive financial reality to success, happiness, and even just a basic, good quality of life that can't be ignored. Financial autonomy and responsibility is an issue we undoubtedly need to own as women on the greater level of pursuing equality and success for our gender, but at the end of the day, it is also an intimately personal thing. You are the only person who will answer for your debt. Feminist ideals aside, student loans and debt necessitate that you own being strong, independent, savvy, and confident in yourself.
3) Women Still Face Various Forms of Sexism In College
Just because women numerically compose the majority of students on many college campuses across the country hardly means that sexism is a problem of the past. Sexism manifests in many ways on college campuses, including pervasive double standards as well as violent power dynamics.
Bro culture is one such gendered double standard apparent on campuses across the country. "Bro culture"(also known as "frat culture”) is basically defined by excessive drinking and its effect on campus culture is pervasive. Currently, about four out of five college students consume alcohol and half of all college students engage in binge drinking. An insane one out of every three college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder and hospitalizations for alcohol overdoses increased 25% for those aged 18–24 between 1999 and 2008.
While excessive drinking has long been a stereotypical cornerstone of the college experience, bro culture extends beyond mere social standards and represents a version of "equality"that ultimately just reinforces sexism: Collegiate women are now expected to be both feminine and sexually attractive, as well as "one of the guys"who can drink and party as much as their male friends can. As U.S. News and World Report noted, binge drinking may have increased among women not because they have a gender-based alcohol problem, but because they are likely consuming drinks one for one with their male friends. But in doing so, because female hormonal and metabolic differences decrease our tolerance for alcohol compared to men, women meet the standard of binge drinking far before their male counterparts. As a result, female college students now outpace men in binge drinking on college campuses (female college students drink 40% more than they did in 1979, numbers for men didn't change). Conforming to male social standards is seen by many college women as a better alternative to submitting to rigid female gender roles. Ultimately, equality and authenticity are completely elided while a male-dominated model prevails.
And "bro culture"is just one example. Many college women experience sexual double standards, in which men are considered "players"and lauded for hooking up with numerous women while women are shamed for the same behavior and labeled "sluts."Academically, many professors show favoritism towards male students – especially in the STEM fields, in which women and minorities alike are still generally underrepresented. Examples abound.
At the end of the day, just like in our culture at large, sexism is still evident on college campuses across the country. However, instead of feeling defeated by this inequality, freshwomen can take the opportunity to educate their peers about these issues, proudly expound on their feminist ideals and rally and organize for change.
Ultimately, despite the pervasive myth that college is the best four years of one's life, there is no perfect college experience. There are only individuals who have personal experiences based on how they choose to approach the novel situations with which they're presented. While none of us may be able to alter this reality of pervasive sexism alone, by being open and honest with each other about our experiences and starting a dialogue, we can offer each other the support necessary to work towards solutions.
At the end of the day, that's why I wrote College 101. We may not be able to completely erase many of the difficulties inherent to the transition to college, but we'll be so much better prepared and able to tackle them as a united front than we ever could separately.
Julie Zeilinger is originally from Pepper Pike, Ohio and is a member of the Barnard College Class of 2015. Julie is the founder and editor of The FBomb (www.thefbomb.org) a feminist blog and community for teens and young adults who care about their rights and want to be heard. Julie has been named one of Newsweek's "150 Women Who Shake The World”, one of the "Eight most influential bloggers under 21"by Women's Day Magazine, one of More Magazine's "New Feminists You Need To Know,"and one of the London Times' "40 Bloggers Who Really Count."Her writing has been published on the Huffington Post, Forbes and CNN amongst other publications. She is also the author of A Little F'd Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word (2012) and College 101: A Girl's Guide to Freshman Year (2014). Julie is on the Advisory Board of Feminist.com.
Follow her on twitter @juliezeilinger. Her website is www.juliezeilinger.com.
Author photo by Eric Mull.
Related links at Feminist.com: