When I signed up for sorority recruitment my freshman year, I told no one.
I wasn't your typical sorority girl to begin with. I came to a large northwestern university part designer-jeans connoisseur, part new-age hippie, and part skier-chick from a small resort town. I had been very comfortable in my high school clique, and finding my place in a new town -- at a new school -- was daunting, so I turned to sorority recruitment for comfort.
I wasn't sure I wanted to join at first, but the girls leading recruitment told all of the girls rushing that we should just go through with it -- we could decide later if it wasn't right for us. Today this reasoning seems backwards, but at the time it seemed reasonable: We all wanted to fit in, and we knew that doing what the older girls said would lead us to that path somehow.
At the time I joined, I hadn't heard about any studies done on sororities and their negative effects on body image or self esteem, but if I'd known the effect joining a sorority would have on mine, I might have chosen differently.
Recently, Ashley Marie Rolnik, a graduate student at Northwestern University, tested objectification theory, which examines the way that girls view their bodies based on the opinions of others. She did this by measuring girls' self esteem -- comparing the levels of body dissatisfaction of girls who went through sorority recruitment with girls who had opted not to, and found that those who rushed were more likely to have a poor self-image
I can tell you, maybe some freshman girls who aren't in the Greek system DO have poor body image, but the ones going through sorority recruitment ALL think they're too fat, too tall, too short, too flat-chested -- and not hot enough to go to the frat parties.
Why? Because we're told that.
Maybe no one comes up to you and says, "Hey Jenny, I think you could stand to lose a few pounds," but when you're the girl who's excluded from every social outing, you start to draw your own conclusions.
Fortunately for me, despite not being your typical bleach blond, I could wear the matching True Religion jeans, black t-shirt, black heels get-up, smile for the camera while volunteering, and look like one of them. In desperate fear of foregoing any opportunities I had of making new friends in college, I decided to join, and, in doing so, changed my life to suit my sorority sisters' needs.
I would come over to the house to help other girls get ready to go out: curl their hair, help them choose outfits, suggest lip gloss colors -- just to be left at home with the other freshman. I would run to the store because someone forgot to get Diet Coke for a chaser, even though we were never offered a drink. It sounds miserable, but I let it slide because every once in a while, it got me invited to the parties, and I was favored by the older girls.
This favoritism is what every girl craved. Annie*, an 18-year-old pledge, wanted to fit in with them so badly she spread vicious rumors to the frats about another girl purposefully cutting herself, claiming she was "a crazy person" because Lisa* was getting more attention. Lisa*, the 18-year-old crazy girl in question, had no such tendencies. Even though the accusations were untrue, it was enough to completely ostracize her from the Greek community, and our own house, which she eventually dropped.
I was always one of those on the fringe of being accepted. Never the first girl called to go out with the older girls' group, but somehow included in their social outings in the end, which was a big deal. If you tried to go to a party without your older sisters by your side, you'd be ignored, probably not served a drink, and no one would have your back in case you had some kind of emergency.
A cosmetic emergency: "Here, use my eyeliner." A feminine emergency: You try finding a tampon in a frat house. A get-me-away-from-this-creeper emergency: "Oh sorry Brad, I need to talk to Colette really quickly, mind if I steal her?" Trust me, these were all emergencies you did not want to find yourself facing alone as a freshman.
So when I'd walk by someone's door after our weekly house meeting, and they'd say "Ohhh, Colette you look cute, you're coming out with us tonight, right?" I was definitely okay with having the kind of security those girls brought.
Looks had a lot to do with whether you were accepted or not. The sorority didn't discriminate against girls for not being pretty or thin during recruitment, as that is against the rules, but it was very apparent that if you weren't those two things you wouldn't have very many allies.
Emily*, who was 18 at the time, came to exactly one party with the girls from our house. When she arrived, everyone started making jokes about how they were going to go "harpooning" later.
I think we can all understand the whale reference.
Upon being introduced to any number of frat boys, they would immediately tell you whether they were interested, using particularly unflattering language.
If the frat boys didn't think you were someone they would potentially want to sleep with, you were devalued by your sorority sisters as well, and none of us stood up for Emily*. During the party, the older girls joined in the laughter, whispering in the dark basement corners and agreeing with everything the boys had to say. The pledges did the same. Emily* stood awkwardly, alone and embarrassed, until she decided to leave. I'm ashamed to say I didn't say anything in her defense either.
At the end of my freshman year, I was singled out for the opposite reason: I was accused of being anorexic. Which is hilarious. I'm 5'3'' and 100 lbs -- not 5'11'' and 100 lbs. I by no means look as though I have an eating disorder -- I've been a competitive figure skater and an avid skier my entire life, leaving me with lots of muscles.
Although the supposed basis for their claims was that I was looking "too thin." When the older girls took it upon themselves to share their "concern" one day at lunch, while I was eating a salad -- because we were having corn-dogs, which I don't happen to like, as our entrée -- none of my friends said anything. Angie* a 22-year-old who acted like she was still in high school, initiated the conversation at the big old dining room table that sat 25 girls:
"Colette, why do you only ever eat celery?" she said. This, as I had a bona fide salad, consisting of very little celery, in front of me. That didn't stop everyone from agreeing with her. I felt smaller and smaller as the questions persisted, and finally gave up on lunch and retreated up to my room.
I'd never been self-conscious about the way I looked in my life -- until I was told that I should be. And now I find it funny, and a little scary, how people can influence the way you think and act, to the point where you actually start evaluating yourself by their standards.
There were at least three girls I can remember who went so far as to transfer colleges because they couldn't make friends at my school after they went through recruitment, joined a house, and the girls decided they didn't fit in. They were ignored to the point that they had no choice but to drop the house, then had nowhere else to turn. Once you've spent fall semester of your freshman year pledging your loyalty to a group of girls, just to find that they don't feel the same way about you, it's hard to get back on your feet on the same campus.
Even though my sisters had degraded me, I was still all too eager to be a part of something. I would cancel all my other plans if invited out, feigning illness or homework, and end up out with the girls to hear more shit talking and get passed around by more frat guys to see what they thought: Was I worthy?
Why did I let these girls determine my value as a person? I don't know. I slowly realized the insanity of the system I was a part of when after a fraternity function, one of the girls in my pledge class had to sleep on the floor of our expansive bathroom because she was violently sick from drinking too much, at the urging of both the frat boys and our own sorority sisters -- only to be punished the next day for the very actions that were applauded the night before.
Then there were the fraternity "games" we participated in. In "The Interview," one girl from each sorority goes into a secluded room, and the entire fraternity house sits around her in a circle, asking questions -- supposedly. In reality, the house that wins the games has the girl who will take off the most clothes. I can assure you that the girl who had the most Playboy-esque body in each house was chosen, and it was considered somewhat of an honor. I couldn't believe it when the girl from our house came back and told us they'd asked her to take off her dress. Let's just say we didn't lose.
I dropped the house at the end of my sophomore year. I could no longer handle the drama and emotional stress that each day held. Rolnik's conclusion:
"As sororities are very powerful at influencing the norms and ideals of their members, a move away from a focus on appearance and towards a set of norms that encourages healthy eating habits and more positive approaches to body image has real potential."
I would have to agree. Instead of watching every bite I ate and making sure I was thin, but not too thin, I slowly learned what it felt like to be healthy. Now I go for runs because I feel energized and happy afterward, not because I need to burn of the 300 calories I had for breakfast.
The Greek system has a huge presence in members' lives -- and has the potential to be a great support system. This was the experience I had hoped for, but, unfortunately, the opposite of what I found.
*names have been changed.
Colette is a junior in college who is very excited to have her first magazine internship this summer. She was part of a sorority for two years, and hopes that her story and the study will help sororities value their members. She continues to be friends with a few of the girls she met in the house but is no longer involved with most of them.
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