Entering my freshman year of college at a school without any Greek life made adapting right away a little more difficult. My first few months were filled with quiet Saturday mornings with no big “game days” or socials to go to. I lacked those 2-3 letters that all my other friends seemed to be finding a community in. I spent the entire college application process promising myself that I did not need sororities to make friends, and that I would be able to find a sense of community easily without that social group. Nevertheless, I still found myself spending a lot of those quiet Saturday mornings questioning my decisions about my school choice.
Sororities are presented as a place blossoming with solidarity. They typically involve a group of like-minded girls coming together and eventually considering themselves sisters, implying that they’ll all be as close as family for their four years at school and then some. When I saw these groups of girls laughing and smiling together on my Instagram feed, I instantly wanted to belong. Unfortunately, I learned fairly quickly that I had been caught in smoke and mirrors, and sorority life was not quite what it was cracked up to be.
The idea that sororities are a gateway to a promised land of solidarity is incredibly flawed. This concept is, at first, not always clear to every girl that rushes. However, once she is tied down to her so called “family,” the disquieting emotional turmoil appears more relevant and her new “family” quickly turns into a group of critics.
I recently watched a startling conversation happen right in front of me: one of my friends blatantly said she had to “look skinny and perfect” for every rush event, in order to claim a spot in a sorority. I have repeatedly watched my friends and peers feel as though they had to be a perfect version of themselves in order to be accepted into these “families.” I know people who have suffered terribly stress-filled experiences just to feel accepted by a sorority. This stress would take away from their school work and sometimes cause mental and physical ailments like anxiety attacks and stress-induced hives. “I have had multiple panic attacks because of my involvement in my sorority,” explains my friend Maggie, a member of greek life at the University of Michigan. “I came to this school to do theater and that is very difficult to do when my rehearsals and chapter happen to fall at the same time. I end up getting fined for missing the meeting of a social group that I can already barely afford to be apart of, and that’s really stressful because it makes it hard for me to be a student first.” Should there be a price tag on having solidarity, comfort, and a “family?” At a time in one’s life that they are opened up to many new opportunities, it could be very damaging to one’s sense of self and future to feel, as Maggie puts it, “jailed and controlled by a social organization.”
Carrie Dennis, a former writer for The Thrillist and a former sister of a sorority herself, wrote an article for the website about how she realized the flaws of the system once she was already on the inside. “But that’s what this system does; it fortifies stereotypes, misplaces value, and sweeps kids up into a life of social politicking at a time when they’re most vulnerable and desperate to figure out how to navigate a new order.” This desperation is very much what I felt at the start of my college career, and what pushes many people like myself into the toxic relationship that sororities sometimes promise.
That being said, I know there are sororities out there that do not exist to give college students abounding amounts of anxiety. There are some schools where my friends have explained their rush experience as something that is fun-filled rather than stress-filled, and it is a similar theme at those schools that people pick their sororities based off of personality: not only off of looks.
One school in particular that I personally think is doing Greek life right, is the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. While they do face some senseless exclusion and judgement that is the regular trend in Greek life, there are steps being taken to improve their Greek system. “We have things like wellness committees for the sororities,” explains my friend Allison, who is a member of Greek life at William and Mary. “The committee I am apart of is called ‘Greeks for Respect, Inclusion and Diversity.’ This committee is working towards making greek life less exclusive especially in terms of only being available for people of a certain socioeconomic background.” Schools like William and Mary prove that the way sororities are run and organized at other schools does not have to be overwhelmingly judgemental and based heavily off of someone’s looks, wealth, or status.
There are also schools that are doing sororities the traditional way, and are showing, at times, positive results in the mental health of their students. In the 2004 book Pledged, author Alexandra Robbins goes undercover in a sorority to get behind the scenes information through interviews, research, and observations. At the book’s conclusion, Robbins explains how she has “deeply mixed feelings” about sororities. While it does provide for a network of female friends and a sense of confidence, it also has the power to do the opposite on one’s sense of self worth. As Robbins states, “for every girl who emerges from a sorority with an improved self-esteem, there are numerous others whose confidence has been crushed.” It seems that while the sorority life comes with its own benefits of friendship, connections, and confidence, the price tag that is tacked on costs one insecurity, an actual monetary price (usually a large one at that) and a drop in confidence that was supposed to rise them up.
This in no way meant to be read as a call to action to disband the entirety of the National PanHellenic Conference. What the system of sororities needs in this country is a re-vamping, and not the continuation of values that turns this center for solidarity into something that requires people to lose their originality and sense of self.
The problematic issues surrounding Greek life will unfortunately not go away if people simply choose to forget about or ignore them. There is a real issue within the system, as it is laced together with judgment, bigotry, and invalidation. An organization that relies on isolating girls and making them feel low and anxious instead of creating an inviting space to find friends, “family,” and solidarity is one that is clearly in desperate need of change.