Monday, January 28, 2008

Sorority Girls


In the New York Times bestseller, Pledged, Alexandra Robbins goes undercover among a group of sorority members in order to expose the inner workings of female Greek groups. What's interesting, though not surprising, is the incidence, condonation, and even camaraderie, of eating disorders in sororities.

Robbins covers everything from "Pig Runs" (when newly selected sorority members, termed "pigs," would sprint to the houses that chose them) to gym attendance: "Gymming had become a popular gerund [in sororities], as in, 'I need to go gymming if I eat this cookie.'" One sister was dropped from the school's cheerleading because she was too fat. . . a size 2.

According to Robbins, women's bodies are front and center through the sorority selection process, and according to a rush manual (Rush: A Girl's Guide to Sorority Success) she quotes:
For example, if you are overweight, you must try to lose weight before rush. If you have acne problems, you should work on clearing up your face. whatever problems you have, you must do your best to minimize them. Physical attractiveness plays a large part in the overall evaluation process.
Not having much to go on besides looks, sorority members rate rushees after just several minutes of conversation. When I was in a sorority and new to the "better" end of the rush process, we were instructed to rate each woman on a scale of 1-5 (1 being the best, 5 the worst). We had to shout out the numbers in front of the entire sisterhood, and sometimes debate ensued. Since hundreds of women had visited the house each day, we relied on the notes we had scribbled in unobtrusive notebooks (hidden under couch cushions, in the stairwells) to jog our memories. Having sat through this process for one year, I feigned illness the next. How can you rate a person on a scale of 1-5?

It's not hard, according to some. A visitor from our national office, who was sent to advise us on selecting appropriate women during rush, rhetorically asked: "You don't want any dogs in the house, do you?"

Once selected, and now pledges, the women are subjected to similar scrutiny. Robbins writes:
I had been under the impression that pledging practices such as 'circle the fat' and 'bikini weight' were the stuff of urban legend. I was wrong. During circle the fat, pledges undress and, one by one stand in front of the entire sorority membership. The sisters (or, in some chapters, fraternity brothers) then use thick black markers to circle the fat or cellulite on a pledge's body. The purpose is to help the pledge learn what parts of her body she needs to improve. During bikini weigh, or "weigh-in," pledges are weighed in front of either the sisterhood or a fraternity; the audience yells the number displayed on the scale.
I'm guessing this doesn't come with the same degree of support and respect as the weigh-ins on The Biggest Loser. And, helping pledges identify what parts of her body she needs to improve? Is that new information for them? Thankfully, these practices did not occur in my house, though sisters frequently binged, restricted, and over-exercised together. It's no wonder that plumbers must frequently service sorority houses, as Robbins notes, to unclog the bulimia-ravaged pipes. In an overall university environment where eating disorders are rampant, they flourish, perhaps to an even greater degree, in sororities that maintain such practices and expectations.

18 comments:

CEDquiz said...

Eating disorders can develop from a number of things. Having to participate in events as self-defeating as described in this entry could quickly lead to the development of low self esteem and possibly an eating disorder. I want to suggest an anonymous tool from the Center for Eating Disorders for any readers who may have questions about eating disorders. www.eatingdisorder.org/about_eating_disorders/resources/quiz.php. Thank you for researching the world of sororities Thank you for researching the world of sororities and the impact a community that supports negative body image can have on a woman's life.

azusmom said...

It's sad that often we women are so hard on each other. Shouldn't we be supporting one another? It's as if the Suffragette and Feminist movements never even happened. Isn't sisterhood supposed to be powerful, and not degrading?

Anonymous said...

Hi! This comment isn't about this particular entry, it's about your contention that every woman has an eating disorder. I was pretty surprised by that, because I am pretty sure I don't have an eating disorder. I don't think I'm overweight and I don't feel any particular need or want to lose any weight. (I'm eighteen, in case you were wondering) So I read a few entries in your blog and it sounded like you don't have an eating disorder either. So I wondered, did you disclude yourself from that statement? Oh and I'm not saying you're wrong or anything, I was just wondering. Oh, and I'm sorry to bother you if you didn't mean EVERY woman.

Anonymous said...

Makes me happy I never entertained for a nanosecond the idea of joining a sorority. Who wants to live with a house full of superficial, catty bitches?

ps22 said...

I was in a sorority, and thankfully, I never experienced any of those horrible rituals. But I can see how just by nature of having a group of women together, it can serve to maintain habits together.. whatever those habits are. In the sorority, I'm remembering a group of 3-4 girls who were always together and who clearly seemed eating disordered (in a restrictive way) to me, and it was like their "lifestyle" made them friends. But at the same time, I see women who feel the need to eat in front of other women, even when not hungry, for fear of backlash (being unfairly judged as "anorexic", "restrictive", or assumed that they are dieting). Can't we just eat (or not eat) without judgment?

cggirl said...

ps22 those are good points.

this stuff about sorrities is horrible and doesnt surprise me,

and it's interesting that she compares it to "the biggest loser", which to me, is one big televised eating disorder tho i'm sure at least there people mean well.

statistics show most of the people on that show will gain back all the weight and then some.
and the only reason they get support is because they are TRYING to lose weight, in an extreme way i might add, so therefore they are good and moral.

but of course those horrible things in the sororities are awful...
makes me happy and proud that we don't have sororities in israel. cuz, u know, we're busy STUDYING.

tho, in all fairness, i can imagine not all sororities are like this, so no offense to those of you who were in one... i understand that they are not all the same.

Sarah said...

I was in a sorority and we didn't do this . . . but I know others did. I think being in a sorority can be an absolutely wonderful experience for a young woman, but like any organization there can be bad apples.

PalmTreeChick said...

I like PS's statement too: "Can't we just eat (or not eat) without judgment?"

That whole sorority hazing biz is horrible. They talk about the hazing that athletes endure, but I don't it's as bad as that.

Spectra said...

I never pledged for a sorority in college, mostly because I had heard horror stories like this. Young women can be incredibly catty and competitive and I didn't really want to be part of a group of people that did that sort of thing.

Sally Parrott Ashbrook said...

I am so grateful I never had any interest in joining a sorority.

Anonymous said...

I am not denying that there may be some sorority houses where this type of behavior is prevalent, however, it is far from the normal experience for most women who decide to go Greek. In my experience both as a sister and working with sorority women in my post-graduate work, I have observed that Greek membership improves student retention rates by giving young women a home and sense of community within the large and often overwhelming University structure. Unfortunately so much press is given to the perceived evils of sorority life, regardless of the truth, that the good that these women accomplish in terms of academic achievement, philanthropic and service work, and leadership experiences fall by the wayside. I personally experienced far more pressure to engage in disordered eating in my years studying dance than I ever did as a sorority sister. Through my sorority, I found a group of women who were supportive and continuously bolstered my self-confidence when it seemed that the outside world was determined to destroy it. To simply regurgitate these stereotypes of Greek women as anorexic, "superficial, catty bitches" is frankly irresponsible. Is Greek Life for every college student? Of course not, but there are those of us who found a great deal of value in our sorority experiences which do not deserve denigrated and devalued by the propagation of these stereotypes which differ so wildly from our actual lived experience.

drstaceyny said...

ced--thanks for the info.

am--yes, I agree!

anon 6:16--I've struggled a lot w/the title and have addressed it in previous posts. Read my intro for clarification. I appreciate your point, and you CAN say I'm wrong!

anon 10:16--sounds like you made the right decision.

ps--"Can't we just eat (or not eat) without judgment?" A goal for all of us to work toward. . .

cg--I wrote abt TBL once, and may not have posted it (thanks for the reminder!)

sarah--thanks for the counterpoint. I thought it important to mention that I was in a sorority too (for this reason).

ptc--it can be deadly. So sad.

spectra--that makes sense.

anon 2:17--I appreciate what you wrote. Despite the concerns I raised, my sorority experience was largely positive in that I made some long-lasting friendships that I maintain to this day. I never would have met these wonderful women had I not pledged.

PIJill said...

This author is known for sensationalist writing, not factual writing. Isn't this the book that suggests that she visited a sorority that had a 'drug room' in it, where there were open vials of cocaine? Because yeah, we all know drug users love to share their drugs!

I don't think that sororities are particularly a problem - I was in one, and advised one as an alumna, and we never evaluated new members based on looks, or weight, and we did a lot of firesides on disordered eating. Unfortunately, I think there is a preponderance of disordered eating becoming 'contagious' in populations of young women - all populations of young women, not particularly sororities. Female college athletes, for example.

Anonymous said...

This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever read in my life. These are bullshit assumptions made by uneducated people who apparently think they know all about sororities. Well just in case you were wondering, this is not 1985, and things like this are not typical. I was never asked as a pledge to do such outrageous things. Most women are not satisfied with their bodies, not because of sororities, but nice try. I know everyone would love to believe that sororities are evil and the cause of all negativity in the world today, but its not true. I have done more good in the world as a member of a sorority than I ever did in SGA or as Vice President of my senior class. Just becuase you were intimidated in college by these beautiful, successful girls, does not mean that you can make up LIES about their sisters.

Tamara said...

I am in a sorority and no girl in my house has an eating disorder. So I don't think that you can make that assumption on sorority girls. Maybe you just talked to some fucked up sorority girls.

Anonymous said...

I was in a sorority and know for a fact that half the girls there had eating disorders, which led me to leave it. This past year I have read Robinson's book. There is no doubt in my mind that what she observed really did happen. I am not saying that this happens at every single sorority BUT I think it depends on which one you are in and which school, state, or even town it is in. My friend is pledging and she did not go through half the hell I did. It all depends on your situation.

Anonymous said...

Every woman does NOT have an eating disorder. Nor is every woman obsessed with her body. I choose healthier foods out of habit and I exercise 3 times a week for my health. This does not mean I have an "eating disorder." I do not count calories. If I want something, I eat it and I don't feel the least bit guilty. I am 5'8" and a size 8 and I am fine with that. There is much more in this world worth worrying about than how your body looks in a swimsuit, and if women are stupid enough to waste all their time obsessing about such superficial things, I have no sympathy when they ruin their health with an eating disorder. Get over yourselves.

Girl said...

to last "annonymous" comment, "if women are stupid enough to waste all their time obsessing about such superficial things, I have no sympathy when they ruin their health with an eating disorder. Get over yourselves."---WOW! You obcviously have NO CLUE about eating disorders so I'll try not to take offense. ED are not about girls being "superficial". Being "skinny" is not the real issue. It's how girls deal with deep, interpersonal emotional issues. Your comment is super naive and extremely rude.