Thursday, October 16, 2014

With sisters like that...

I will admit that I've always had a sense of discomfort about college sororities.  I know it's not based on much personal experience, but as I approached my college years, I viewed sororities as groups of girls that banded together to promote their eliteness, to exclude girls who weren't "good enough," to meet boys, and to have parties.  That impression wasn't dispelled by the one sorority information meeting I went to when I was a senior in high school and shopping for colleges.  One after another, bouncy, Barbie-pretty girls stood up to describe the reasons to join a sorority.  Making friends, having fun parties, having a great social life on the weekends. One girl went on at some length about the wonderful file of past student-written essays and term papers that many sororities maintained, so that its members could "share" them when work was due.  She was beaming, talking about this wonderful resource.  And I was thinking, "Isn't that called... um, CHEATING?"  That meeting didn't improve my view of sororities.

I went on to a college that was relatively new, had no residential sororities on campus, and perhaps because of the time period or college location, sororities and fraternities were considered pretty uncool.  So that was that.

But since then, I've assumed -- or maybe hoped -- that the role sororities play in the lives of college women has evolved.  The days of viewing women as merely decorative helpmates are behind us, aren't they?  And the idea that women go to college mainly to find a husband -- that is surely outdated.  Isn't it?  I've assumed that sororities had evolved to focus on emphasizing qualities like leadership, accomplishment, teamwork, community, and diversity.

So I was genuinely shocked this week when I learned from a friend that her daughter -- a striking, intelligent, confident young woman of Chinese heritage, was told by an officer in her sorority that she wasn't "pretty enough" to meet the new rush recruits.  Appalled doesn't even begin to describe my reaction.  The girl's mother -- herself an alumna of that same sorority -- is incensed and expressing her reaction up the sorority's chain of leadership.  Not surprisingly, the young woman is embarrassed and doesn't want to make a big deal out of it.  Her take on it?  The sorority just wants to make sure that it is represented well to prospective members, and it's no big deal.  She apparently doesn't question the message that she's not good enough to represent her sorority.

But I can't stop thinking about it.  That could have been my daughter.  That could have been any of our daughters.  For any girl, that's unacceptable.  It's Mean Girl behavior, even more dangerous because it's disguised in a sweet-smelling package of "sisterhood."

It breaks my heart to think of that young woman and how devastating a message like that must be to her self-esteem, her belief that she belongs, her view of those women as her "sisters." The message that you're not "pretty enough" to meet other people is a deeply damaging and demeaning message.

I think what's troubling me more, though, is that a message like that can be so deeply embedded in an institution like a sorority, so that its members -- even in 2014 -- accept it as valid and not worthy of serious objection.  I can't stand the thought that those young women are internalizing that belief, because it's the sisterhood they trust -- the very "sisters" who are supposed to "have each other's backs" for life -- telling them that they're not good enough for ANY reason, let alone for how they look.  And what girl (yes, these are girls, not fully formed, experienced women) can stand up to that sort of crippling message?  In that setting, belonging and being a good group member means being quiet, accepting, pushing down one's own hurt, not making a fuss. That's how women learn to accept the devaluing of their worth and the diminishment of their feelings.  It's an especially insidious and powerful lesson when it comes from the people those girls trust and want to emulate.  

So the words-- yes, those were harsh and stupid and hurtful and just wrong. But it's the big message -- that it's okay for a group of young women in an academic setting to be valued, and to value each other, by their appearance -- that is shocking and damaging.  I'd like to think that this young woman will realize that a group that expresses its values like that isn't worthy of her.  I'd like to think that she knows that she's already too good for a group that places a girl's physical appearance above all of her other characteristics.   But I don't know what she'll do.  The mother who's complaining -- Will she be heard as expressing legitimate concerns about what the sorority's values are? Or will she be viewed as an over-protective mother angry because her daughter was deemed unsuitable?  I don't know what she will be able to do, either.

I'd like to see that young woman and her mother go public. I'd like to see that girl quit the sorority and tell the world why.  I'd like her to make video for Youtube about her experience. I'd like it to go viral, and I'd like to see her on the Today Show talking about why sororities that give messages like this have no place in today's world.  I'd like to see women rise up to support her, and I'd like to see the leaders of that particular sorority publicly apologize and pledge to work with its members to eradicate harmful messages like that.

I don't know if any of those things will happen, either.  But I can write this.

 As women, we get the message that "we're not good enough" all of the time.  We're told, through deeds if not words, that we're not worth the same pay as men who do the very same work we do.  We are too emotional.  We're not capable of leading a nation nation or a business.  We're bombarded with messages all of the time that how we look is at least as important, if not more, than how smart we are or how well we communicate or how effective we are in our work.

Thank goodness that there are so many people all over the world fighting those messages.  Thank goodness there are adults who tell and show the girls in their lives that they are "good enough" because they are just who they are, that their uniqueness makes them beautiful and important.  Because if any college sorority is teaching young women the sorts of values demonstrated by this incident, we're all going to need to fight a whole lot harder.


  1. And the bouncy Barbie-pretty girls also get dismissed and denigrated (often by other women) as being stupid and shallow based solely on their looks. I've seen the looks on people's faces when they hear my story and discover I'm not some dumb blond who has it easy. Women lose all the way around.

  2. Nikki, you made a good point. I didn't mean to imply that the pretty blond girls were not smart or sensitive. It is a strong stereotype and I didn't mean to further it. I was struck back then, though, by a certain consistent look that the sorority representative girls had.

  3. Excellent post. I'm sharing this everywhere. Thank you for writing it!

  4. This hurts my heart.

  5. Fortunately for me I belonged to a national sorority when I was in college and yes, those girls... women really... had my back. We were sisters in the best sense of the word and we banded together for many community service projects. Now, many years later, there are many things I dislike about sororities, mine included. I probably would not rush a sorority if I were attending university now but I appreciate that our group had room for this rather gangly, awkward, geek. They helped me grow.