Greek Life: How Sororities Can Support Members With Eating Disorders
Sorority girls and frat boys. The words often evoke a visceral reaction. Whether it’s the media, those not involved in “Greek life,” or those who are or have been involved, there’s a reaction one way or the other that makes writing about these groups an interesting and delicate experience.
Whatever side of the coin you fall on, the reality is that sorority and fraternity life is a staple for millions of U.S. college students. It represents a lifestyle, a social evolution, and, for many, a beloved bonding in brotherhood or sisterhood. It’s a way to meet people, to feel like part of something -- and I am no stranger to it.
I was in a well-known sorority during my time at the University of Arkansas. From my personal experience, while there are sororities all over U.S. campuses, there’s something about a traditional southern First Congregational Church school that seems to push the sorority lifestyle a bit harder than in other places. I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas and was expected to join a sorority. My friends and I talked about it from the time we were sophomores in high school.
In preparation, during senior year in high school it was imperative to collect many recommendations from teachers, friends, and other members prior to “rush,” and it was necessary to send in the most glossy, professional photos of oneself, as if one were submitting headshots to a reality television show. I had an entire photo shoot on the beach in Florida. My mother still has one of those photos framed in our hallway.
I remember vividly the months of anxiety leading to “rush week” at the University of Arkansas. Did I choose the right pictures and how did I look in them? Did I have enough recommendations or did X and Y have more? Not only that, but there were rumors that any girl who went out too often or was seen around too many men at the fraternity houses would be immediately expelled from consideration.
It was a moment of time wrought with anxiety. And while I could spend hours dissecting the harmful psychological implications of those societal narratives around reputation and women’s social behavior, today I focus on another nuanced issue that often comes to play in sororities: the nondebatable discussion about food and body size that occurs when groups of women get together.
Not to say this doesn’t happen in fraternities, but I can only speak to my lived experience in saying that food and body conversation was a never-ending constant from the first day of rush. The way women were talked about in rush, I later found out when on the flip side as a college sophomore, had mostly to do with their reputation, their body, their looks. Brains were secondary. We spend hours flipping through a projector screen of girls’ images and recommendations.
While I don’t think every aspect of sorority life is damaging, there’s no denying that some of the things I heard in that room still ring in my ears more than a decade later. When we were all grouped in a room together for hours, there was a buzzing anxiety that held in the air, with each girl wondering if she was being judged in that way. I was deep in an eating disorder during those years (one that had begun long before I joined a sorority), and I remember my acute discomfort when eating around the women as we shifted through photos and resumes of the women we were considering for the next year of our sorority.
I recall vividly the self-deprecation of so many when they did choose to eat something that was collectively viewed as unhealthy -- the way they tried to make excuses for eating it, the putting down of their lack of “self-control,” the hesitancy that was apparent with every bite.
Now, I will preface that this was years ago. I think body positivity has taken the world by storm since my years in a sorority, and I want to note that. Not everything is black and white, and not every experience I had in the sorority was detrimental. I met women I’m still friends with today. I’m an auntie to their children and have been a bridesmaid in their weddings.
But the accepted social cues and conversations around body and food were harmful. In later years, the more I learned in my advocacy work about the psychological and cultural messages around food, the more I found myself apologizing to friends from college for the ways I’m sure I perpetuated disordered eating behaviors.
I spoke to ladies from my Instagram account to investigate if behavior like this still occurs. While all of the ladies I spoke to had their own unique experiences, some of the patterns remain similar to my own. As one woman mentioned, “Encouragement of drinking your calories on the weekends is just one topic that brought me to question my own relationship with food after having spent multiple years myself in therapy discussing my own eating disorder.”
I related to that entirely, having been a very public spokesperson on the topic of “drunkorexia” and its effect on college students. This was accepted behavior in my day, and I have vivid memories of laughing about the behavior with friends over wine. Perhaps I knew then that it was disordered behavior, but when something feels accepted by so many, one wonders if one is being dramatic or overthinking the matter.
A current college student recounted, “I think something that is normalized in college is this toxic cycle of being extremely restrictive during the week and then drinking/overindulging on the weekends since that is the time you are ‘allowed to.’ And don’t get me wrong, the weekends are a perfect time to go try that new restaurant and such—but there’s this diet mentality during the week to wait until the weekend to indulge and then restart Monday.”
Now, I want to hold the balance here. This same person who shared this perspective with me also said she loves her sorority and every person she’s met there, and she feels that being in a sorority does indeed help with connection and finding yourself in college. She feels truly supported in many ways whether it be for personal or recovery goals. She hadn’t planned to join a sorority in college but now doesn’t know where she’d be without it (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic).
I heard many similar perspectives as well. And no issue is black or white. The question at hand in this piece today is how sororities can better support their members, and how people in a sorority can better support one another.
Education is key.
Unless one is well equipped with knowledge about intuitive eating and how disordered eating causes physical and emotional damage to body and mind, there is little hope to break a cycle of toxic relationships that are often built around food among sorority women. Sorority leaders should not skirt the issue; rather, they should organize events and invite expert speakers to discuss these subjects frankly and in a safe space for their members. This could take the form of social workers, counselors, and other mental health professionals providing annual presentations to Greek life organizations on harmful rhetoric surrounding food restriction, the role that comparison (especially among young women) plays in disordered eating, and ways to be kinder to ourselves and each other.
Another means for mitigating the problem starts with every individual. It is easy to self-deprecate about our bodies or workout habits. But negative self-talk is contagious, and changing the conversation of how we talk about ourselves in groups of people can help to change the dialogue that takes place.
If we look at tangible ways in which sororities can make their homes more appropriate for members who have eating disorders (since more than likely there is at least one person in every sorority struggling with an eating disorder), removing any notes about calories or workouts or the “healthy living” diet culture messaging that runs rampant is a great place to start. Furnishing the house with food of all varieties, with no mention “good” or “bad” food, is helpful as well.
Years ago, thousands of young adults in the Tri Delta sorority on at least 35 U.S. campuses participated in “Fat Talk Free Weeks,” a national campaign to eliminate language that is damaging to students' body image. The initiative's motto was "Friends don't let friends fat-talk." Participants learned, for example, that when a gal pal asks if those jeans make her butt look big, the best response may be to persuade her not to ask the question at all. This went on for years, and may continue today though I could not verify that online.
The anti-fat-talk campaign was designed first to help people identify the "thin ideal" -- essentially a prepubescent girl's body, plus breasts -- that is perpetuated by the media and pop culture, and then learn how to reject it in favor of a healthier, more realistic attitude.
Ultimately, there are any ways sorority members can band together to help ease the sort of conversations that may be toxic or harmful. So much of it, it seems, starts internally. The more conversations we are willing to have about the prevalence of eating disorders on campus, the better able we are to start and unwind the long history of hurtful language in how we talk about ourselves and others.