Outfits Aren’t the Biggest Problem With Sorority Recruitment

Is it really that oppressive to tell sisters that they should brush their hair, use deodorant, and wear a little makeup to cover the bags under their eyes?

There are plenty of valid things to critique about Greek life, but what sorority women wear during recruitment—that’s a fairly innocuous topic. So why did various mainstream media outlets describe a leaked email detailing wardrobe guidelines from the University of Southern California’s Alpha Chi Omega sorority chapter as "batshit," "crazy," and "authoritarian"? While sorority life may evoke images of the Stepford Wives, that perception is often far from the realities of sisterhood.

The guidelines outlined by Alpha Chi Omega aren’t particularly scandalous—these emails, which are typical of virtually every sorority during recruitment, are little more than banal outlines of what outfits and nail polish prospects should wear during recruitment. I should know; after all, I, too, sent out an almost-identical email about beauty regimens to my sorority at USC, where I was vice president of recruitment. And in my daily life, I admit that I rarely appear "put together"—everyone primps a little for recruitment, just like you would for a job interview or a first date.

It’s worth mentioning that at USC, and at most campuses that have a large Greek systems, there’s a ruthless mechanism known as a "tier system." This system ranks individual houses based on how attractive and popular they are—think Mean Girls and its cafeteria map, writ large. Neither my house nor Alpha Chi Omega falls into the top-ranking tier, so I don’t have any idea as to what life is actually like in those houses; upon going through recruitment, I did, however, get a glimpse of the facade they presented to the world. As a freshman visiting these "top houses" during the formal recruitment process, I felt like I was walking into a CW show. The houses were gorgeous, the sisters were stunning and stick-thin, and their smiles shined brighter than that of Miss America.

The recruitment process I’m referencing involves a meticulously planned week-long event that takes months to prepare. That includes the election every December of one young woman to serve as a sorority’s vice president of recruitment. This person works with advisors from the sorority’s national organization; the campus Panhellenic, a governing body that includes representatives from every house at the school; and the sorority itself to craft an impressive presence during recruitment. Every day of recruitment has attached to it a theme for decorations, outfits, and nametags. Some days have high-tech video presentations comparable to Hollywood productions. Each sorority has its own set of traditional greetings and farewells, too, most of which involve whisper-singing Top 40 songs of yore with the house’s name substituting the original lyrics. And it’s worth noting that while the total budget USC allocates for recruitment week is capped at $15,000, many, if not most, houses spend far more than that—and conveniently forget to report their actual expenses to the campus Panhellenic.

Human beings across the board strive to create good first impressions. And like it or not, sorority members consider these initial interactions incredibly important during the recruitment process. The young women who eventually join Greek life at the end of the week will have only spent 165 minutes total with their prospective new sisters, time that the campus Panhellenic association measures with military precision, even fining the sororities for exceeding the limit. Roughly a quarter of those 165 minutes is spent walking each of the 60 candidates in and out of the houses, meaning that the "Potential New Members," or PNMs in sorority speak, have just over two hours to chat with their sisters-to-be. That’s an extremely short amount of time for a prospective sister to figure out if she wants to spend the next four years with a group of women as her roommates, confidantes, de facto social circle, and—pardon the cliche—"future bridesmaids." A lot rides on that first impression.

I’m an unapologetic feminist, largely thanks the role models I befriended in my sorority; I also adamantly disagree that anyone should feel obliged daily to conform to patriarchal beauty standards. At the same time, though, I don’t think it’s oppressive to tell women who have voluntarily joined sororities that they should have clean, brushed hair; use deodorant; and wear a little makeup to cover the under-eye bags from which all the sisters suffer after two weeks of limited sleep and days of prior preparation. I think all of my sisters are beautiful inside and out—but considering the amount of stress sisters and PNMs undergo during recruitment, it doesn’t hurt to borrow a few tips from beauty magazines to enhance one’s appearance. On an olfactory level alone, deodorant, mouthwash, and freshly washed clothes are essential when 120 women are put into a room with feeble air conditioning during the hottest month of the year. And while a sorority member’s new sisters will eventually love and appreciate her on her most slovenly of days, it’s better to opt for a polished ensemble—not a mid-finals aesthetic. It’s easy to criticize the apparent superficiality of formal recruitment procedures such as these, but doing so is facile and ignores the bigger problems surrounding Greek life.

I learned and grew a lot during my time in my sorority. I’m still largely the same person I was when I joined the house, but I’ve since developed as a leader, friend, and member of society; I’m no longer the loner I was in high school. I built a network of friends and women who I truly consider my sisters, and I learned to judge less. I used to look down on these kinds of people as party animals but soon discovered there’s much more to Greek life than crazy ragers.  And I learned how to lead 60 girls through a recruitment process that for many of them was antithetical to everything for which they stood.

I am, however, acutely aware of the many shortcomings that plague the Greek system, including the protocol governing recruitment. The week when all this happens is time-consuming and relentless; active members often have to host dozens of parties in an effort to meet all the 1,000 or so potential sisters, while candidates rarely have enough time to get acquainted with the system. The recruitment events are outlandishly expensive, and interactions between individual sororities are rife with nasty competition. Every sorority feels pressured to recruit the best group of new members—or at least a better (read: hotter) group than the other houses in its tier. Consequently, the focus shifts away from compatibility and toward social climbing. The stress is omnipresent: The sisters are pretending to be perfect around the clock, while most PNMs are dealing daily with the rejection of not being invited back to sororities they loved.

Sorority recruitment can be physically dangerous, too—tottering around in three-inch heels is just the beginning. Take an unwritten tradition at USC known as the "door stack." The ritual, which the university now prohibits as of last year, entails piling 20 or so young women into a doorway and having them shout chants extolling their sororities while flipping their hair back and forth. It looks ridiculous, but the school’s Panhellenic didn’t ban the practice because of the absurdity—rather, too many young women were reportedly getting concussions, hitting their heads on each other or on the door frames.

Door-stack concussions are among the plethora of physical risks women face when joining a sorority—there’s also the threats of potential hazing, alcohol poisoning, sexual assault, and, of course, falling down and injuring oneself at a party. And while none of those perils is exclusive to Greek life, the public seems to pay more attention to these incidents when they’re associated with sororities and fraternities. For better or worse, Greek life is present on most college campuses—and that presence, perhaps ironically, perpetuates a perceived divide between the students who take part in it and the students who don’t. Greeks who are proud of their affiliation, for example, call non-Greeks "GDIs" (slang for "God Damned Independents"). Meanwhile, non-Greeks often shake their heads and wring their hands over the systemic problems they associate with sororities and frats—sometimes chiding them as groups that merely "pay to have friends."

All this amounts to an unhealthy dynamic that probably won’t change anytime soon; just look at the comments section of any article about Greek life. And the secrecy that characterizes many parts of this lifestyle—no one’s going to publicly admit his or her organization’s historic rituals, much less all of its internal struggles—further compounds the matter. But the curiosity could be overcoming the disdain: Despite all of the problems sororities and and fraternities are chastised for in the news media, the fact remains that, nationally, more and more students are going Greek.

Hopefully, this heightened interest in Greek life will bring about a constructive response. If the system’s problems are left to fester in a culture of secrecy, the status quo won’t change; exposing its flaws inspires change for the better. But sorority recruitment outfits? Please. There are better problems to fix.