Forgive me, readers, for I have socially sinned. I was a sorority girl.
Whew. It feels good to say that out loud. For years, I’ve tried to avoid the topic when it comes up (and believe it or not, even after fifteen years, it still does). I know it’s different in the South where I grew up, but being Greek here in uber-liberal San Francisco pretty much renders you completely unhip and a total social misfit. So I’ve kept my secret quiet.
But a few days ago, I read something in the New York Times that brought back some bad memories of sorority life.
The national advisors of Delta Zeta sorority recently came to the conclusion that the members of their DePauw University chapter were not committed to recruitment of new members. Ironically enough, this epiphany came after a psychology professor at DePauw released the findings of a student survey about perceptions of Greek organizations. The Delta Zeta chapter was considered “socially awkward” by their fellow students. In an effort to find out if this was linked to the low number of women choosing to pledge Delta Zeta, the advisors interviewed the thirty-five members to get a deeper understanding of their dedication to new member recruitment.
After conducting the interviews, twenty-three of the thirty-five members were deemed “insufficiently committed” and were asked to leave the sorority. Interestingly enough, this group of twenty-three included all the women in the sorority who were overweight and also the only African-American, Korean, and Vietnamese members. The twelve members that were allowed to remain were, according to the Times, slim and pretty and “considered popular with fraternity men.”
When I first read this, I was outraged and in complete disbelief. How could this still be going on? Why would young women still pay monthly dues to subject themselves to a hierarchy of bossy women who get to decide what’s right and what’s wrong?
After I got through my initial angry phase, I remembered that I too had once subjected myself to this life. Why had I done it? I’d certainly never pay anyone now to be told what to do by those same bossy women, fifteen years later.
But in college, not only did I subject myself to the day-to-day ridiculousness of sorority life, I became an officer in my sorority, the Rush Chairman, of all things. (And interestingly enough, that’s what we called it—not Rush Chairwoman as you might suspect for a women-only organization.) Thinking back on this time in my life, my thirty-something self is mortified and a little confused about why I did it.
As Rush Chairman for my sorority, I was responsible for recruiting new members. I planned our rush parties and I was responsible for that sneaky rotational conversation system, which included hand signals for when we were talking to a fantastic prospect and rescue signals for when we were talking to a complete dud. I also led those horrific bid sessions, the meetings when we jogged our memories about the potential new members by looking at the photographs and comments we’d taped to a wall. I mediated between members as they offered their comments on potential new members, sometimes constructive (“She’s got a 4.0 GPA—we need her!), sometimes not (“She’s fat and ugly and I know for a fact that she’s slept with half the football team”).
I escaped to the bathroom to cry many times during Rush Week. I felt horrible judging people, and didn’t realize how hard the job would be when I ran for the office. I only wanted to do it because a woman and friend I really admired had been in the office before me and encouraged me to do it.
As I was thinking about those poor women at DePauw University, I wondered if they—like me—really hadn’t fully understood what they were getting themselves into when they decided to rush. At eighteen, most young women probably don’t understand or really want to believe that they’re subjecting themselves to a ridiculous, elitist system the way many of us in our thirties and beyond can—with lots of hindsight, of course. I’d bet that even if they had the slightest inkling that Greek life might treat them unfairly, they probably pushed that worry aside, never thinking that the system they believed in might someday come back and bite them in the ass. Why would they? They wanted to make friends. They wanted to believe in the whole idea of a sisterhood. And most importantly, they wanted a membership bid. Once they got that, I’m sure they assumed they were in. They probably never dreamed that after being accepted—after being judged and then selected during the emotional roller coaster of Rush Week—they’d be kicked out.
What happened to the women at DePauw makes me sick. It makes me feel bad that I was ever part of something so wrong and dare I say, evil. But it also begs the question: is real life really all that different from sorority life? As crazy as it sounds, did Delta Zeta do those women a twisted favor by toughening them up for the future lessons that life will surely bring them?
We’d all like to think that life is fair, that we get jobs, significant others, and random good fortune thrown our way because we’re competent, deserving people, not because we’re beautiful, look great in jeans, or a member of a certain race. But I think we all know that this—unfortunately—isn’t always the case.
All you have to do is turn on your TV, pick up a magazine, or surf the Internet to see images of women that the media and our society consider beautiful. We apparently worship wealthy women with eating disorders who love to go out, get drunk, and forget to wear their panties. Do we really not think this is going to have a trickle-down effect on young girls and women? It seems as if the trickle-down hit the Delta Zeta advisors, too.
In my previous life in advertising, I heard more than one creative director brag about hiring a woman because she was hot, and laugh about passing on a candidate who wasn’t hot and therefore deemed as probably not hip enough to be able to create “great advertising.” In the dating world, plenty of people have been the rejected and the rejecters because of their religion, the amount of hair they have on their head, the size of their nose, and even the kind of music they like. I’ve personally been rejected because I wasn’t young enough (what?) and also because of my size (ouch).
The cold, hard truth is that life just ain’t pretty—it’s downright ugly, in fact. It’s completely unfair and we all eventually get hurt by something subjective that we have absolutely no control over. This doesn’t mean that the women of Delta Zeta deserve what happened to them (they didn’t) or that they should just buck up and take it (they shouldn’t). But maybe it’s time for all of us to consider our world beyond Greek life. There’s a problem there, for sure. But maybe we should take a long, ugly look at ourselves, the society we’ve created, and the behavior we tolerate. It’s hard to point fingers at the Delta Zeta advisors when the rest of the world isn’t much better.