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Why joining a sorority may be bad for your health

Posted May 04 2010 2:58am
Women who went through the process of joining a sorority are more likely to judge themselves based on physical appearances than women who did not, according to a study in the journal Sex Roles.

The research, part of a senior honors thesis, also showed that first-year college students who went through the often stressful recruitment process known as rush had showed more dysfunctional eating behavior--particularly bulimia--than non-rushees. A month after rush, new members also displayed higher levels of body shame compared to those who did not join a sorority. 

Another key finding involved body mass index (BMI). Women who dropped out of rush had significantly higher BMIs than those who completed the rush process, the researchers found. 

While that might suggest support for the theory that sororities have an "anti-fat" bias, the women who dropped out of rush were not, on average, overweight. Instead, they were simply less thin than those who accepted bids.

"If these finding point to bias, they point to bias against those who deviate from the thin body ideal, not from a healthy body ideal," wrote lead author Ashley Marie Rolnik of Loyola University, who completed her thesis while at Northwestern University.

On college campuses across the U.S., thousands of women join sororities every year. Although the "sisterhoods" give college women opportunities for growth and enrichment, they have been criticized for an excessive focus on appearance, the researchers noted.

"It is the worst week many freshman girls experience,” one study participant wrote in a questionnaire. “It was awkward, ego-crushing, and brought us to the depths of shallowness. ... The two minute convos (conversations) are just a chance for as many girls as possible to judge how pretty you are; that's the only thing they could determine in such a short amount of time."

The researchers hope their work will shed some light on problems they say are exacerbated—but not necessarily caused--by sorority rush. It’s possible, the researchers said, that women may be drawn to sororities in part because of the focus on appearance and emphasis on the thin ideal.

"As sororities are very powerful at influencing the norms and ideals of their members, a move away from a focus on appearance and towards a set of norms that encourages healthy eating habits and more positive approaches to body image has real potential," they wrote.
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