Kappa Kappa Skinny: Do Sororities Encourage Eating Disorders?

My name is Leslie Goldman, and I was a sorority girl. (“Hi, Leslie!”)

I will not apologize for this fact. I rushed my sophomore year of school at University of Wisconsin-Madison, joining Delta Gamma, and I can honestly say it was the best move I made in college. I absolutely loved Greek life – DG gave me a sense of community, a forum to explore and grow and learn about women from different communities and backgrounds. I did not “buy” my friends any more than I “bought” the friends that I made while living in the dorms freshman year. (In fact, the cost of living in DG – a gorgeous mansion filled with 55 fun women which was every bit as chaotic and comforting and fantastically frenzied as it sounds – was about the same as renting an apartment on campus.) We did not get wasted night after night on Jungle Juice and let frat boys pass us around like joints. Did we party? Yes. Did we get dressed up for silly theme bashes and do skits for incoming rushees and roam around in sweatpants with our Greek letters plastered across our butts? Yes. But we also studied at the library every night and all day Saturday and Sunday (at least my close friends and I did). We completed hours of community service. We boasted the top GPA on campus. It was a fabulous, fabulous time.

We also had eating disorders. Some of us, anyways. You all know my story, of course, but by the time I rushed, I was over the hump and able to help some of the other girls. But were all 200+ of us participating in carefully choreographed post-dinner barfing routines? Hardly. Did we have to have the plumbing in our house reinforced because of all the bile acid eating away at them? Only once. (Sorry, I had to.) Did I see more eating disordered behavior in the Greek system than outside? Perhaps, if I’m being honest, but I can only imagine that such a phenomenon would be more prevalent among an all-female community of over-achievers than a mixed-gender group (i.e. the general college population.)
I’m writing about this in response to the new Sex Roles study which shows that women who joined a sorority are more likely to judge themselves based on physical appearances than women who did not.  The study also found that freshman rushes demonstrated more dysfunctional eating behavior -- bulimia in particular --  than non-rushees. A month post-rush, new members demonstrated elevated levels of body shame compared to non-Greeks, and that rushees who dropped out of the rush process had significantly higher BMIs than those who completed it.

From the sound of these results, you’d think only hot, skinny girls who carry a bottle of Syrup of Ipecac strapped to their thigh with a garter are invited to join the Greek system. It’s just not true. We had problems, but we also had successes, and while the pressure of living under the same roof as dozens of other girls can invite looks-based comparisons and judging, it does NOT give us all eating disorders. In fact, in DG, we had a strong contingent of Wisconsin born-and-bred ladies who actively lobbied against the requests for fat-free salad dressing or cheeseless pizza or pasta without butter. These girls wanted cheese curbs and brats and stout, not Lean Cuisines, apples and air.

Bottom line, no one ever made me stand on a table in my underwear and circle my fat. No one scrawled “fat piggy” across my forehead in eyeliner while I lay, passed out after a night of 21 shots. No one ever made me run wind-sprints up and down Bascom Hill at 3 a.m. Is the rush process-based on looks? I’d like to say no, of course not, we cared much more about personality and intelligence. But the truth is, in ANY sort of recruiting process, from going on a job interview to a blind date to auditioning for American Idol, you typically have a very short amount of time to make the best impression you can. I can’t say looks didn’t matter at all, but our house was not embarrassingly homogenous, looks-wise or otherwise –- at least not any more so than any group of closely knit girlfriends who bond over shared life experiences and goals.

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