With Friends Like These

Inside a real college sorority

The obsession with image only gets worse after you join. Clothes are scrutinized, and those who don't fit the fashion profile are told to change. Girls are sent to the salon if their roots aren't freshly dyed. Being overweight is simply not tolerated. Food served at the house is low-fat, and anyone who takes what's deemed to be a large portion is teased. Members take group trips to the bathroom to throw up after eating. All of this is deemed necessary, since sorority life is crowded with social events that include meetings, exchanges and cocktail parties. They'll tell you the basis for sororities and fraternities is philanthropy, public service. But in my four years as a member, we never as a group went to a function for a worthy cause.

The worthiest of causes was the continued success of the sorority and its members, usually by means of alcohol and men.

Monday, there was usually an all-Greek executives meeting attended by several of the chapter members. Later in the day, the chapter meetings began with either an executive board meeting or meetings of the various chapter committees. In our chapter, we always had dinner at 5:30 p.m., but those who were still in their meetings had to do without. Monday nights typically wrapped up around midnight because there was an Honor Board meeting afterward. Honor Board sounds like something uplifting—something vaguely academic or moral. It's not. If you were called into Honor Board, it was because you were not making it to 90 percent of social events. Below 90 percent meant that you deserved less than an "A" for socializing. If your excuse was unacceptable—and there was rarely an acceptable one—you were either fined or given chores. Maintaining your grades was not an adequate excuse: the thinking is that you can't get kicked out unless you consistently fall below a 2.0. Almost all Greeks at my school averaged under a 2.8.

On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, there were recruitment and marketing meetings; you had to make at least 75 percent of them each year. These meetings were semisocial occasions since the senior members were often drunk or in the process of becoming inebriated during the meeting. Afterward, it was a must to go out to bars with our brother fraternity. If you weren't 21, you would stay at the fraternity's house and drink with some of their members. Many would frequently stay behind to take advantage of the younger sorority members. The older actives encouraged the younger ones to take part in this type of socializing. So a Tuesday or Wednesday night at the fraternity house often turned into the next afternoon. If you didn't stay at the fraternity house, there was always an onslaught of questions. "Why didn't you stay?" "Didn't he like you?" "Was it just going too slow?" Even if you had a boyfriend, these questions came up again and again.

Thursday evenings were usually composed of an exchange with a fraternity, an event that included more hard drinking. Thursday's partying turned into Friday's fraternity party, and the week usually ended with a Saturday-night cocktail party. These cocktail parties and formal occasions were sponsored by both fraternities and the sorority, and if our chapter wasn't having one, we were encouraged to be aggressive and find a date to one—or a date was found for us.

Classes? Oh, yeah. They were supposed to be during the day, but girls often traded going to class with another sister, who would return the favor later. This way one of them could always sleep. Myself, I never did any homework or reading, since the sorority already had hundreds of study files for every subject and test given at the school during the past 10 years or so.

My freshman year, I was appalled by the cattiness, the body emphasis, the teasing about food. Gradually, I not only got used to it but also joined in, partly because I figured that the presence of other targets for criticism improved the situation for me. But it was also because after a while, I had become so indoctrinated that I simply didn't know any better. By my sophomore and junior years, I found myself calling every other person who walked through the door a "dog" or "slut" or "too big" for our house. I told girls what was appropriate and inappropriate to wear for rush and other public events, tailoring each woman to a certain outfit that would show her best features. "She's way too big to wear those shorts," I'd say. "Somebody needs to go shopping with her." I saw not only logic but also wisdom in having the not-so-attractive members work in the kitchen so as not to scare away the good-looking rushees. When a school official called the house begging us to accept a girl whom none of the other sororities wanted, I said, "No. She doesn't fit."

The surrender of identity is something every member goes through and is central to the sorority's success. Other organizations, needing the same results—unquestioning loyalty, willingness to do things normally abhorrent—use the same methods: football teams, religious cults, the Marines. All are given relatively normal, decent folk to work with, the kind of people who would have a hard time killing someone or telling someone she should stay in the kitchen until the good-looking rushees leave. The novices are young, confused, eager to measure up, scared. You isolate them and take over their lives completely. You control how they dress, when they eat, whom they speak to and whom they date. Speaking to those outside the group isn't just frowned upon; it's dangerous. Outsiders bring different ideas; they can create doubt and begin the process of independent thinking—and that would be death to the Greek system.

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