The Sorority Body-Image Problem

These outdated gender roles and unrealistic physical expectations are propagated as much by sorority women as by fraternity men.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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