August 2, 2012
Argumentative Essay: SororiTHIN
The media does its part to play up the view of sorority sisters as mean girls obsessed with thinness and beauty, in movies such as "The House Bunny" and "Legally Blonde.” Today younger women are becoming more focused on their body image and weight. These girls feel the need to achieve the perfect body: slim, trim, and toned. After high school the pressure continues, especially for girls that do choose to join a sorority and are placed in an environment surrounded by females with the same wish for the perfect body. To lose the unwanted weight, however, these now “sisters” partake in habits like binge eating and self-induced vomiting. Some, to put it bluntly, literally starve themselves. Although little research has yet to prove a direct correlation between sororities and eating disorders, one can infer that girls who join a sorority are more likely and at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. With constant peer pressures, competition, “Rush”, hazing practices, and trying to fit in it is no wonder why so many of these girls have become bulimic, anorexic, and established habits of binging and purging.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a sorority can be defined as “a body or company of women united for some common object, esp. for devotional purposes” and an eating disorder is “any of various psychological disorders characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits, esp. anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa”(OED). So what do these two subjects have in common? Sororities offer a niche- a smaller segment of the community that purportedly helps to make college life more manageable. This may seem constructive at first glance but in reality, however, the motives for the vast majority of girls looking to join a sorority include: making friends, meeting guys, to party, and to belong to a smaller community within a campus. Hesse-Biber writes that, “Colleges and universities across the country are reporting dramatic increases in eating disorders. Several studies on anorexia nervosa in college populations report that it affects between 6% and 25% of female students. Bulimia ranges between 1% and 19%, and between 23% to nearly 85% engage in binge eating” (Hesse-Biber 170).
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 mean every member exhibits an eating disorder. In fact, there have been several research studies that have proven that there is no difference between eating disorders in sorority women and those who are not in a sorority. A current study conducted by Kelly Allison, Ph.D. and Crystal Park examined disordered eating prospectively among sorority and nonsorority women. The article, “A Prospective Study of Disordered Eating Among Sorority and Nonsorority Women,” found that women who join sororities are similar to those who do not in their baseline levels of disordered eating, but they maintain more rigorous attitudes and behaviors regarding dieting over the course of their higher education (Allison 356). In the scholarly journal article, “Health Behavior And College Students: Does Greek Affiliation Matter?” authors examined alcohol and drug use, smoking, sexual behavior, eating, physical activity, and sleeping in 1,595 college students. Results show Greek members engaged in more risky health behaviors. However, “on the dimensions of eating, caffeine use and exercise, Greek students do not differ from the rest of the student body” (Sheldon 68). Thus, eating habits were not proven to be significantly different between the two groups.
Some studies have actually shown that sororities can take an active role in preventing eating disorders. The aim of the study “Effectiveness Of Peer-Led Eating Disorders Prevention: A Replication Trial” was to replicate and extend results of a previous trial that investigated the effectiveness of 2 peer-led eating disorders prevention interventions in reducing eating disorder risk factors in undergraduate women. Researchers randomly assigned a larger sample of both higher and lower risk sorority members to either a cognitive dissonance or a media advocacy intervention under naturalistic conditions. Interventions were delivered by trained sorority peer leaders and consisted of two 2-hour group sessions. Results indicate that both interventions reduced thin-ideal internalization, body dissatisfaction, dietary restraint, and bulimic pathology at 8 months, although higher and lower risk participants responded somewhat differently (Becker 354). Thus, it can be argued that sororities can actually be counter active to eating disorders.
An advantage of working within the Greek-letter system is that sororities can mandate education for their members. Many sororities use a merit or “loyalty” points system. In order to be allowed into social functions sisters have to accumulate merit points by attending at least 70 percent (varies between chapters) of chapter activities (Robbins 95). Sororities have speaker events that are mandatory and many times feature educational speakers who lecture for about forty-five minutes on topics such as eating disorders. Providing education and developing role models with healthy attitudes toward their own bodies is the first step in addressing this complex problem, but does it necessarily prevent them?
In the weeks before college, many young men and women are deciding whether to “rush,” a process in which undergraduates campaign to be invited into a fraternity or sorority. The process of being invited into a sorority can be very shallow, based solely on a young woman’s appearance and social appeal. Women who join sororities are more likely to judge themselves on their appearances and display bulimic tendencies, according to a new study published in the journal Sex Roles by researcher Ashley Rolnik. The study reports that women who rushed and ended up joining a sorority were found to have higher levels of body shame just one month later. This concept seems feasible for new pledges since they suddenly find themselves in a house surrounded by hundreds of young women telling you if you look good, influencing the way you dress, even prompting you to exercise because no one wants to be the “fat girl” in the house. Women who dropped out of the rush process, the study shows, were found to have a significantly higher body mass index [BMI] than those who pledged -- yet those women were not found to be overweight. They had healthy BMIs on average, but were just less thin than the women who actually joined sororities. The researchers concluded that rather than an anti-fat bias at sororities, a bias exists against women who don't live up to the "thin body ideal," not the healthy body ideal.
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 is interesting though not surprising is the incidence, condonation, and even camaraderie, of eating disorders in sororities. Robbins first describes the process of Rush, or membership selection. It has become so competitive and elaborate a process at determine mothers have taken to hiring “rush consultants” to groom their daughters so they will be accepted by their desired sorority. These consultants are a cross between beauty pageant coaches and college preparatory service counselors and train rushes on everything from attitude to outerwear. 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 must 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” (Robbins 224).
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 other side of the rush process, we were instructed to rate each woman on a scale of 1-5 (1 being the best, 5 being the worst). We had to shout out the numbers in front of the entire house and sometimes even explain our ratings in heated debates. Since hundreds of women had visited the house each day, we relied on notes we had to scribble down on individual girls to jog our memories. According to Robbins, a West Coast Delta Zeta she interviewed said, “If some really fun, interesting girl came in and she was really fat, she wasn’t going to be invited back, that’s for sure. Ugly girls wouldn’t make it. That would look bad for the sorority” (225). Having sat through the process one year, I dropped the sorority the next. How can you rate a person on a scale of 1-5 after just meeting and having a short conversation? And even more importantly, how can this rating not be soley based upon looks and appearance?
Once girls are pledged into a sorority the urge to fit in can be extremely petrifying, especially at the start of the year, that the new girls often go to extremes to blend in quickly. This explains the rampant eating disorders, group piercings, and the similar hair color and dating patterns of sisters in the same sorority chapter. The girls worry that if they do not conform they could be deemed unsuitable sister material and be cast from the group.
Pledging practices, many of which are not spoken about or also known as “hazing” also encourage eating disorders. 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, pledged 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” (259).
The thinness ideal is easily enhanced because of competition between girls. Many sororities have one cook who prepares the meals for member of the house. While some may cater to vegetarian needs, others may have to prepare meals that are not the healthiest due to budgets. Either way, everyone watches what everyone else is eating and tries to eat the same amount of less because no one wants to be the heaviest eater at the table. If a thin ideal is the standard being set in this culture, women who fall short of that ideal may become more dissatisfied with their bodies and may pursue what is considered an acceptable method in their sorority (for example, dieting, purging, or excessive exercise) as a way of changing their bodies to conform with the ideal. The vigor with which the women pursue weight-reduction methods may be influenced by the emphasis their sorority sisters place on achieving and maintaining that slender ideal and the individual member's own desire to maintain her status within the sorority.
Peer pressure is one main causes of this self-destroying activity in sororities. In the United States, popular culture instills in females unrealistic expectations about physical perfection. The media constantly delivers the unhealthy message that if you're not youthful, thin, and beautiful, you're not happy. A sorority member may feel pressured to lose weight by a romantic partner or “sisters” who are overly concerned about their own appearance and images delivered by the media. Robbins claims that it is common for individual sororities to have a tendency to acclimatize to and disseminate a house standard. She proves this with evidence from a Texas College. Plumbers would be regularly called to one of its sorority’s houses to clean out the pipes, which would be clogged with vomit. At this same sorority, girls often gorged themselves on the weekends when the cooks and the house mom were gone. After their enormous dinner, they disappeared into the bathrooms- a regular weekend binge trend. (27- 28) Robbins sat in on an meeting of the Panhellenic Council at a certain university to which she referred to as “State U” in her book. Surprisingly, representatives from all eighteen sororities said their houses had a problem with eating disorders. Robbins follows up this information with more evidence regarding peer pressure. During a talk with a Delta Zelta from a large east coast school, this sorority member blames her sorority for her own eating disorder. She states, “I would never have thought about starving myself to get thin. Then I saw other people doing it and they got kind of crazy, but it was catchy.” She also says, “Everyone had done it, and since sororities revolve around looks, starvation became an acceptable thing to do” (28). Another example of this disturbing behavior that Robbins mentions is when a sorority president from a northeastern university investigated the disappearance of hundreds of plastic sandwich bags from the sorority’s kitchen. She found the hundreds of plastic bags filled with vomit in one of the bathrooms. The pipes also had to be replaced in this bathroom because of the erosion due to gallons of stomach acid. The sorority president told People in 1999 for an article about eating disorders, “It made sense” due to the fact her sisters were vocal about their extreme weight concerns. Robbins includes that a 1990s study reported that a whopping 80 percent of college women who frequently self-induced vomiting were sorority sisters. Other sorority girls have said that the pressure to look good was so intense that they turned to plastic surgery to better fit in” (29).
All in all, peer group and relationship pressures, media, competition, “Rush”, hazing, and trying to fit in all are contributing factors to why sorority members develop eating disorders. Overall, it appears that eating disorder rates are increasing in other Western and non-Western societies. As this globalization spreads Western values to other nations, American society’s “Cult of Thinness” message promises to envelope these nations’ young women in a complex web of eating disorders and eating problems (Hesse-Biber 787). One cannot help but question the ideals of today’s society. This idea that looks are the most important has taken over. From a very young age, it is emphasized to women how important it is to be pretty-- and to be pretty by society’s standards means being thin. The American standard of physical perfection promotes both eating disorders and an obsession with thinness among women, and consequences of this obsession can often be tragic. Since sororities provide an environment where women live together and conform to the group’s culture there is a greater likelihood of eating disorders to arise, especially with societies thinness ideal. It is clear that media, television, and acquaintances all stress the importance of being thin and beautiful to impressionable young women. If we as a society could only change the emphasis to be on the mind rather than on the body, women would benefit with increased self-esteem, healthier lifestyles, and increased confidence. How do you think this society can change this emphasis?
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