The Sorority Body-Image Problem

I was shamed for my weight, as were others, and research has shown links between sororities and disordered eating.
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(UF Digital Collections/flickr)

I should have known sorority life was not for me.

My gut reaction was telling as I walked down the checkerboard floors of the veranda at the Carolina Inn. I sat at a small table, one of 20 or so, in one of the Inn’s elegantly furnished banquet halls. I was provided with a glass of water, a box of tissues, an index card on which to list my sorority preference, and an attentive alumna ready to help me make my choice. It was the fourth and final day of rush at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I had a decision to make. Having only been called back by one sorority out of 10, I would have to choose whether or not Greek life would be a part of my experience as a student. I hesitated as I ran my finger across the blank space on the card where my signature would be. I signed my name and then I cried.

As a young woman born and raised in North Carolina, attending UNC had always been a dream of mine. In the fall of 2011, I took my chance and transferred in as a junior. I tried to do all the things a new Tar Heel is supposed to do, including rushing a sorority. Close to 12 percent of UNC Chapel Hill’s undergraduate students go Greek, but, surrounded by fraternity and sorority houses, the campus seemed optimized for Greek life. So, I became a part of a system that not only promoted outdated gender stereotypes and an attitude of exclusion, but is also correlated with members having increased episodes of poor self-esteem and disordered eating. And during the spring of 2012, these tendencies of the Greek system came barreling into my personal life, when my sorority sisters started discriminating against me because of my weight.

The night I joined, I barely had a clue what a huge impact being involved in a sorority was going to have on the next few years of my life. I knew that I was joining a group that almost 9 percent of undergraduate women were a part of in the United States and I knew about the purported benefits of having a built-in network after graduation. What I didn’t know was how stressful and demoralizing the experience would be for me. From the outside of the beautiful sorority and fraternity houses that surrounded my campus, I couldn’t see the sexism and discrimination that waited inside.

From the minute I got my “bid” (my formal offer to join), I felt like I didn’t belong in my sorority. I was an outsider who had somehow gotten the code for the lock on the door. It was obvious that a few of my new “sisters” didn’t want me there and that there was a standard of womanhood that I would need to meet to be accepted. If I had been thinking clearly, I would have left, but something kept me there, made it matter way too much to me. I wanted to belong and to find new friends in an unfamiliar city.

I’ve always had issues with my weight, but I had always done what I wanted to do, regardless of what my body looked like. My sorority put my positive body image to the test. We were supposed to wear coordinated outfits for rush, and the sisters in charge of putting them together had, for the most part, chosen pieces that I could not wear. Most did not come in a size larger than 12 (which would be a problem for a few of the women in my sorority, not just me). When this came to light, instead of letting me pick my own clothes, or finding something similar to what they’d chosen in my size, they chose to put me in a “kitchen job” where I wouldn’t be seen by the potential new members as they went through the house. Even though they technically included me by giving me something to do, I felt betrayed, like they were hiding me because I didn’t fit the perfect image of a woman they were trying to project. I should have been angry, but first I felt ashamed. The anger came later, when my guilt and frustration was met by sisters who acted as if I should suck it up, be happy they gave me anything to do, consider myself lucky to be part of such an exclusive group in the first place.

Research has shown that women with higher BMIs have a bad experience even before joining a sorority—they report more negative feelings during rush. Studies show that sorority membership has a negative effect on eating behavior and correlates with disordered eating. Although sorority members have lower average BMIs than the rest of the population, researchers believe that it is partially because of the increased social pressure for thinness.

Former Daily Tar Heel editor Henry Gargan says in his article for Thrill City about UNC Greek life that the system itself permits discriminatory actions, regardless of individuals’ intentions. These discriminatory actions, in my case, were not just about what my body looked like, but the fact that I, as a woman, wasn’t serving my implicit purpose of attracting fraternity men. Where male and female relationships are concerned, Gargan argues that the system caters to privileged individuals (especially men) and that “the relationship between fraternities and sororities is hierarchical and reinforces the subservience of women.” Sororities serve as a kind of finishing school where fraternity men can have their pick of equally privileged but subservient women. “The codes of sexual and romantic conduct between sororities and fraternities,” Gargan maintains, “deprive sorority women of the agency ideally enjoyed by both parties of a romantic relationship.”

These outdated gender roles and unrealistic physical expectations are propagated as much by sorority women as by fraternity men. Once, one too many women at my house were deemed unfit to meet with the potential new members during rush, and a state pageant-queen-turned-image-consultant came to our house to give us a crash course on proper femininity. After she told us an anecdote of how excited she was when a longtime state senator referred to her only as “little lady” while she worked as a staffer in his D.C. office, she proceeded to critique our appearances and make recommendations. “My husband won’t even look at me if I walk around without my makeup on,” she said a bit too flippantly, right before she encouraged us to buy the new products in her personal makeup line.

The organizations’ national leadership sometimes plays a role in the discrimination. In the famous case of DePauw University’s Delta Zeta chapter, to combat dwindling recruitment, 23 out of 35 members were asked to leave after a review by Delta Zeta’s national officers. Included in the 23 were “every woman who was overweight” and “the only black, Korean and Vietnamese members.” After completing interviews, the national representatives held a recruiting event at the house. Most members were asked to stay upstairs in their rooms, out of sight of the potential new members. After the members were evicted from sorority housing, many had problems with low self-esteem and some were so depressed that they withdrew from classes.

Like in DePauw’s case, many universities’ hands are tied when it comes to problems in the Greek community. There are just as many wealthy alumni and donors who support the system as those who oppose it. Still, discriminatory practices in the Greek system are both an ethical problem and a student health issue. For me, the problems with my sorority led to anger, depression, and anxiety. Because I felt judged at the house, I quit going, and I lost a support system that I had come to depend on. Although it was my senior year, I felt lost and alone on a huge campus. The negative effects only grew as, stressed and anxious, I lost the friends that I had tried so hard to keep in the first place. My health suffered, as stress turned illnesses into battles and made me irritated and fatigued. Instead of losing weight, I gained even more. Friends tried to help, but, angry and emotional, I made it impossible to be my friend. Demeaning comments about my weight masquerading as advice only made me feel worse. I performed poorly in my classes. I was spiraling out of control, and no one seemed willing or able to help me stop. I scraped by and graduated, not even attending the ceremony because I was so disgusted with everything. My sorority, my former friends, even my dream university had all become reminders of all the ways I would never measure up.

Leaving college behind seemed like an escape from my problems at first, but it’s also given me plenty of time to reflect. It wasn’t until I left Chapel Hill that I realized I didn’t need to kill myself to meet the expectations placed on the female body. It wasn’t until I left that I realized that my body and my health are my business only. I’m at peace with my sorority and the women I met there, but the fact remains that my body issues fed into every part of my life as a student, and my sorority only made it worse. As I try to rekindle my love for my alma mater, one thing becomes clear: what happened to me and what happens to sorority women across the country every year is unacceptable. It seems like groups that claim to have been formed for the specific purpose of empowering university women are sometimes having the opposite effect. Instead of being retreats from a patriarchal and sexist world, they can propagate the outdated hierarchies of the past. 

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Catherine Mitchell is a writer based in New Bern, North Carolina.

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