Women in Sororities More Apt to Have Bad Body Images, Eating Disorders, Study Says

Filed under: Social & Emotional Growth: Teens, Research Reveals: Teens

Do sororities cultivate mean girls or future humanitarians? Credit: Corbis

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.

Each year, thousands of women participate in the rush process to join sororities on college campuses across the United States, and millions of women around the world are already initiated members, according to the National Panhellenic Conference, an umbrella group for 26 international sororities and women's fraternities.

Yet, while sororities were created to provide college women with opportunities for personal growth and enrichment, researcher Ashley Marie Rolnik reports they are often criticized for their potential to lead women to focus excessively and unhealthily on their appearances.

"I was drawn to this study because I'm interested in social groups that promote a culture of thinness among women," says Rolnik, who chose the topic for her senior honors thesis at Northwestern University. "I am specifically interested in sororities because of their norms and standards regarding the body and appearance."

But do sororities get a bad rap? "Leading with values" is the motto for the national chapter of Pi Beta Phi, yet, several weeks ago, the Cornell University Pi Beta Phi chapter was thrust into the headlines when the sorority's dress code was leaked to IvyGate, an Ivy League school news and gossip blog.

The guide includes "yes" and "no" lists of acceptable and unacceptable clothing, shoes and accessories for all occasions. "No's" include muffin tops, camel toe and pleather, with a special consideration for satin dresses that explains, "No one looks good in satin dresses unless it's from Betsey Johnson or Dolce and Gabbana, you weigh less than 130 pounds, have three pairs of Spanks on and it's New Years Eve."

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." There's even a Facebook game called "Sorority Life" with more than 5.7 million monthly users. To advance in the game, you do things like socialize, fight, rank girls on how "hot" they are, choose a sweetheart, shop and go to the spa -- all of which earn you virtual money, confidence and influence.

Edie Feinstein, a sophomore who recently joined a sorority at Cornell, tells ParentDish she can see how sororities have earned this reputation.

"As much as they say it's not based on appearances, the whole rush process can be very demeaning if you're not comfortable with yourself," Feinstein says. "If you're shy or don't put yourself together well, then you won't do well getting into a house."

The study supports this, reporting that women who rushed and ended up joining a sorority were found to have higher levels of body shame just one month later.

Feinstein says she understands how this can happen to 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, as "nobody wants to be the fat girl in a sorority," she says.

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.

Lauren Hildebrand, a New York City-based sustainability consultant who pledged a sorority at a small college in Pennsylvania in 2000, disputes the stereotypical view of sororities.

"There are some sororities that probably demanded a certain look, which might have been a lot of pressure for people pledging," she tells ParentDish. "But there were also others that were more open and diverse -- it really depends on the individual sorority you're rushing."

Whether or not today's sorority women focus on designer dresses and the perfect pair of shoes, the study concedes it is possible that the sorority rush truly has no effect on the way women look at themselves. It suggests that women who hold these views and women already engaging in, or at risk for, eating disorder behaviors and attitudes may be more likely to participate in sorority rush, and that membership in a sorority may "amplify pre-existing, problematic attitudes and behaviors."

Rolnik tells ParentDish via e-mail that she is "hoping to do more work with this population in order to gain a better understanding of what is going on [body/eating/appearance-wise], and how intervention and prevention programs can be created in order to suit the needs of sorority women."

When contacted by ParentDish to comment on the study, NPC chairwoman Eve Riley gave the following statement by e-mail: "The National Panhellenic Conference does review surveys for distribution to its members under its Research Committee. This student thesis was not submitted for our review, so we cannot comment on the results, how the survey was conducted or validity of the sample size. The National Panhellenic Conference is one of the largest and oldest membership groups for women and is often asked to participate in surveys. We were not asked in this instance and are not familiar with the journal in which it was published."

Related: Sorority Suspended Over Allegations of Starving, Abusing Pledges

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