When I joined a sorority at the beginning of my freshman year, I honestly didn't know what to expect. My parents were never members of Greek life and I didn't have any older siblings who had already been a part of it to show me the ropes. The extent of my knowledge came from a handful of mediocre movies that I watched as a kid. I knew that I would find friends that I would have for the rest of my life, people who would likely be bridesmaids in my wedding, and that I would have a constant support system. But that was about it.
The past two years in a sorority have been both exactly what I imagined and nothing I could have expected. Sure, many of the things you hear about Greek life definitely exist. Your sorority can be an incredible support system; you are constantly around people, many of whom are eager and ready to celebrate your highs, and comfort you during your lows. Members of your chapter will see you at all versions of yourself, allowing the vulnerability in those interactions to turn into strong connections, many of which you will keep for years to come. And living in a sorority house can sometimes feel like a 24/7 sleepover.
But one thing I never imagined when I joined this community was what being a part of it would do to my body image and how I felt about myself and the choices I made.
As much as Greek Life, both at Northwestern and around the country, tries to be more inclusive and diverse, the organizations are rooted in their traditions. Women in sororities tend to look a certain way, typically skinny and attractive, whether we consciously try to attract these individuals or not.
That isn't to say that those outside of the stereotype are any less valued in sororities. The truth is that they're just underrepresented in Greek life.
This likely stems from the fact that Greek life is expensive and thus, those involved in the community tend to be wealthier. Most of the people who can afford to be in Greek life are also those who can afford to eat a healthy diet and have the time to exercise, resulting in these trends we see in our chapters. The stereotypes we unknowingly create are further perpetuated, as people who don’t necessarily fit these trends aren’t always comfortable being part of organizations where they don’t see people like them. This further contributes to the lack of diversity in the Greek segment of the population.
I tend to spend most of my time with members of the greater Greek community, and I know I'm not alone in that. I'm not sure if it's a product of the fact that we're often in the same chapter, or the fact that there is a common experience shared by those in Greek life, or because it's just something that happens by chance. But what I do know is how hard it can be to maintain a positive image of yourself and your body when you're constantly around individuals who tend to look a certain "ideal" way (as defined by societal expectations) and often are actively trying to maintain it.
Personally, it has put a lot of pressure on me.
As someone who loves carbs as much as just about anything, and can't say no to a second piece of banana bread (ever), it has been really hard to be okay with my choices as part of this community. Sure, some of my eating choices are not the healthiest and I'm aware of that; I'm not saying that I shouldn't be conscious of what I'm putting in my body, because I realize how incredibly important it is.
But when we, myself included, constantly talk about how much we go to the gym, or how many steps we have gotten in a day, or how gross it would be if we ate another piece of dessert, it creates an environment that makes being happy with your choices and your body really hard. At least, that has been my experience. If I'm having a tough week, and am too caught up in the stress of midterms and other pressures, and don't have a chance to go to the gym that day, god forbid that week, or if I come home from a long evening at the library and am craving Easy Mac (I know, I never thought I would "crave" Easy Mac either, but college does things to you), I feel really bad about myself for doing so. Each time I eat something I "shouldn't" or can't make time to go the gym, I look in the mirror and just feel disappointed in myself.
Maybe this is a product of the over-achieving culture that exists at universities like Northwestern. If you ask everyone who knows me, they will tell you I’m a perfectionist and the most "type-A" person that you will probably ever meet. I set unrealistic expectations for myself and put immense pressure on myself to live up to these standards, something I know I’m not alone in. I think at schools like Northwestern, compared to other places, this issue is especially exacerbated. There is a desire here to be the best at everything we can be. We not only want to be able to excel in school and the extracurriculars that we are passionate about, but also to have an ideal body and to have the self control to say no to foods and behaviors that aren’t going to allow us to achieve it. This not only puts pressures on people who want to indulge, but causes and contributes to the culture that we live in here.
But ultimately, this is not a Northwestern thing. It's not a particular chapter thing, and it's not even a completely Greek thing. There's no one to blame. It's a product of the environment that Greek life fosters. With the amount of women you are around at all times, who tend to look a certain way, and are often feeling many of the same pressures you are, it's bound to happen. Women already face so much pressure from society to fulfill unrealistic beauty standards, that it makes me sad that we perpetuate these even within groups of our own. We need body positivity.
We need to be aware of the things we say and the environment that we foster, and try to make a positive change towards bettering the community for us and for those to come. The positives of Greek life shouldn't be overshadowed by something that we can all work towards fixing, and something that desperately needs to change. While it may not be our "fault," it's in our hands to change it. And I believe we have all the power to do so.