New study finds sororities have a negative impact on body image

By Sam Butterfield

Every fall, as the daily grind of college life kicks in, a migration is happening.

Legions of hopeful girls are making the trek from Greek house to Greek house with one aspiration: rushing a sorority.

A new study, however, finds this tradition may be more than just a rite of passage for many college women; it holds that rushing sororities may have profoundly negative effects on body image and self esteem, as optimistic pledges are often evaluated predominantly on their outward appearance, putting a great deal of pressure on them to look hot to find a spot.

The study, “Here’s looking at you: self-objectification, body image disturbance, and sorority rush,” was published in the Feb. 2010 issue of the research journal “Sex Roles” by Northwestern University graduate Ashley Marie Rolnik, with support from researcher Steven A. Miller in the psychology department at Argosy University in Chicago.

The study followed 127 girls at a mid-size private Midwestern university between the ages of 17 and 20-years-old, 68 of whom were rushing sororities and 59 of whom were not. 67 percent of the participants were white, 16 percent were East Asian, six percent were Hispanic, two percent were African-American, four percent biracial, and five percent other.

The study attempted to determine whether or not sorority participants were more likely to practice self-objectification, defined as accepting a self-image based on an outsider’s perspective, as well as whether women rushing sororities were more likely to show signs of eating disorders.

Participants were initially asked a series of demographic and personal questions, including their age, height and weight, whether they planned to rush a sorority, and whether they participated in other extracurricular activities. The study’s respondents were entirely first-year students, who were sent e-mail surveys at four intervals, one pre-screening asking if they would be participating in rush, an initial study asking about body image and demography five days before rush, one four days into rush week, one on the seventh day of rush, the day on which students typically receive bids to commit to a sorority, and a final set of questions one month after rush. At the final interview, participants were asked their opinion of the rush process and if they had accepted a bid to be in a sorority.

The study finds that the mean score on the Eating Attitudes Test (EAT), which measures eating habits and opinions, for both rushees and non-rushees, was “well below the proposed cut-off score that indicates a clinical level of eating disturbance.”

Only women who accepted bids to sororities were included in the rush group, and only those who did not participate in rush at all were include in the non-rush group.

The study further finds that “women who participated in sorority rush had higher levels of self-objectification,” adding that there was a negative correlation between body mass index (BMI) and finishing rushing a sorority.

The survey, however, did not find that body consciousness increased for rush participants during the rush period, nor did it find that participants’ attitudes about eating and eating habits changed over time throughout the survey, which it had predicted. The rush group, did, though, score “significantly higher on the bulimia and food preoccupation subscale at each time point.”

Further, in terms of self-objectification, the process of defining oneself according to the physical standards of others, the rush group scored significantly higher.

“There was a significant main effect of membership, such that new sorority members showed higher levels of self-objectification compared to those who did not rush,” it finds.

On another metric, body-shame, which Rolnik measured according to feelings of guilt and shame in terms of appearance, time and sorority interaction were significant variables, as rush participants increased growing feelings of shame about their bodies over time and as they interacted more with fellow members.

Appearance, or perceived attractiveness, certainly had an effect on those who went through with rush.

At the study’s outset, those who said they would rush and those who planned not to had nearly identical BMIs. Among rushees, however, BMI was negatively related to satisfaction with the rush process. A sizeable number of women who began the rush process, 31 percent, did not complete it, and those who dropped out of rush had mean BMIs of 23.5, compared to those who accepted bids, where the mean was 21.07.

“For every one point increase in BMI, a rushee was 44 percent more likely to drop out of rush,” noted the study.

While the study finds no reason to criticized sororities for being bastions of breeding self-resentment, it does raise some interesting questions about who chooses to rush sororities, what they are looking for, and what issues they experience in joining a sorority.

“The most consistent finding was that women who chose to rush scored higher on self-objectification and eating disordered behavior and attitudes (particularly attitudes and behaviors associated with bulimia) compared to women who chose not to rush,” holds Rolnik. “Furthermore, the group differences in these variables were stable throughout rush and at the one-month post-test.”

Although those who rushed had different standards in terms of body image initially, these perceptions seemed to hold throughout. In other words, rushees did not necessarily develop these traits over the course of the rush process.

“The body shame finding suggests that while rushees may begin the rush process with higher levels of body image disturbance compared to those who choose not to rush, becoming a member of a sorority has the potential to exacerbate these variables further,” Rolnik writes.

Rolnik is hardly alone in studying the effect of sorority recruitment on body image. A 2007 New York Times article describes how one sorority at DePauw University in Indiana dealt with what it saw as an image problem: evicting its overweight members.

“Worried that a negative stereotype of the sorority was contributing to a decline in membership that had left its Greek-columned house here half empty, Delta Zeta’s national officers interviewed 35 DePauw members in November, quizzing them about their dedication to recruitment. They judged 23 of the women insufficiently committed and later told them to vacate the sorority house,” the article reads.

The 23 women evicted were all the sorority’s overweight women, and of the 12 members allowed to stay, six quit the sorority in indignation.

Sam Butterfield can be reached at [email protected]