Last spring, Kelly Foran '05 and Professor of Psychology Susan Basow presented the findings of a study on the connection between disordered eating behavior and participation in sororities at Lafayette. The study found that women in sororities were more likely to show symptoms of disordered eating.
Foran said that the survey was conducted using approximately 300 women at Lafayette. Sorority members from each house, non-sorority members, and freshmen all completed the nationally standardized Eating Disorders Inventory 2 and the Objectified Body Consciousness Scale. Although only a medical doctor can diagnose an eating disorder, the study found that members of sororities and freshmen who intended to rush scored higher on the scales measuring drive for thinness, bulimic behavior, body dissatisfaction, and scales of objectified body consciousness -- indicators of disordered eating behavior.
Foran said the study's results also revealed that the length of time a woman lives in a sorority house is moderately correlated with disordered eating behavior, where the longer a woman lives in a house, the more susceptible she becomes.
"Although this is correlational data and does not conclude causation," said Basow, "one can certainly imagine the implications of the study."
"I don't think this problem is unique to Lafayette, but I do think this could be a high-risk campus, in general. I think that the demographics are such that Lafayette is a particularly vulnerable group," she said.
Basow said there are predictors for eating disorders such as high achievement and belonging to the white upper-middle class.
Foran explained her study by stating, "Because of the way that Lafayette's Greek system was set up, my study was one of the first to show that first-year students that intend to rush already are more likely to exhibit disordered eating behavior. It looks like sororities start with 'concernable' eating behavior and that it is increased the longer they live in the house."
Basow added, "There is something about being in a social group, that there is pressure to be with the group, and this is true with men as well. Members are encouraged and get social reinforcement for their behavior. Peer pressure is the mechanism. There's pressure to appear like the other girls and to eat like the other girls."
Christie*, a current sorority member, said that girls in sororities can feel pressured to compete to look as good as other members of the house. "There's a lot of pressure for girls in sororities to fit a certain stereotype," she said, "and one aspect of that involves [being] skinny. When you are around people that look that way, it can make you feel as though you should look like that as well."
Foran agreed that competitive behavior occurs in sororities. "Competition is very common among female social groups. Women who like to be a part of a group are likely to compete with each other," she said. "I think I was fortunate enough to be part of a sorority. It gave me a lot of confidence and a lot of support, but at the same time I noticed there was a lot of competition."
Competition Within Houses
"I definitely noticed competitive eating and exercise behavior," said Foran. "Women have a tendency to report exercise and eating behavior more often then males. So when you are surrounded by it, you will have a greater tendency to have a poorer self-image or to develop an eating disorder."
Beth*, another sorority member, said she noticed differences in the behavior of women since moving into her sorority's house. "I have noticed that there is a lot more talk that goes on about how much people eat and when they worked out last," said Beth. "There is a lot of watching what you eat. And there will definitely be those moments where you hear someone say, 'Oh, I definitely shouldn't have eaten that entire brownie.'"
"You're encouraged, at times, to have dinners together and eat together, especially if you live in the house," said Beth. "Once you are in the house, it seems like you always just end up eating together [because] they are right there."
Basow explained the fact that sororities often eat meals together may increase the risk for disordered eating. "A norm is established in the houses that may vary from group to group," she said. "If binging or purging is the norm, then people will conform to it, and vice versa."
Amy*, another member of a sorority, confirmed the results of the study. "Do I really think being in a sorority [can cause someone to] develop an eating disorder? No," she said. "But I don't think it's a place where you will benefit if you have an eating disorder. A girl's self-perception is already thrown off before being placed in a house with 70 or so other girls that are said to be your sisters that you can compare yourself to."
"So there are sisters with eating disorders, [but] no one is going to say, 'They can't join because yeah, she's really nice and fits in well, but I think she has an eating disorder,'" said Amy. "What is the best way to help? Let her into a sorority where her friends can potentially help her, or not let her in? It's not that easy."
Amy said that even though her sorority did not explicitly force members to behave in a certain manner, she did say that there were implied pressures to conform to the house's norms.
"There was pressure for me during recruitment to alter my behavior, to dress nicer, [to] wear make-up, [to] watch what I say in front of people because I am representing a certain image that is my sorority," Amy said.
Amy said her sorority, however, did not promote any body objectification or body comparisons in any of her house's events or pledging.
"Nothing in [our] pledging focused on our bodies," she said. "I've only heard of negative stories about other sororities at Lafayette and other schools, whether it was telling [a girl] to lose weight, throwing stuff at the pledges, or making them partake in sexual acts with other fraternities."
Foran also said her own sorority did not objectify their members during house events. "The myth of circling fat and not getting in the door of a sorority house if you weigh more than 100 pounds is just that: a myth," she said.
Is the College's Social Scene to Blame?
Some sorority members blamed the college social scene for the correlation to disordered eating.
"I feel like the thing that makes it harder to have a good body image in a sorority is Lafayette's social scene," said Beth. "[It] seems to be centered around people hooking up, so if there is a girl that isn't getting that sort of attention from guys, they may begin to feel uncomfortable with their bodies."
Amy said that that a sorority's social focus on Greek events may also encourage disordered eating behavior.
"We're constantly organizing parties with fraternities, and the theme parties promote negative images of girls," she said. According to Amy, these parties may have themes ranging from "Get Hammered and Nailed" to "Anything for Beads."
"Our behavior and attitude is to dress like a 'slut' or see what others are wearing," she said. "And so someone with an altered image is not part of an environment that encourages healthy behavior. A girl is seen through her body and the image of perfect and feminine is small and sexual."
Beth, however, said there are positive aspects of living with a large number of girls. "As much as being around girls can kill your body image," she said, "since we are all good friends and help each other get ready to go out, if you are having an 'I'm fat moment,' then there is always someone there that will help you feel better about yourself."
Some sorority members also felt that their house is incorrectly labeled as having an eating disorder.
"Many people have ideas about sororities, such as they have eating disorders or that they drink too much," said Christie. "But 40 percent of the females at our school are in a sorority. So I do feel labeled incorrectly, because I don't think that 40 percent of all females at this school have these issues."
Foran also thought that sororities can be mislabeled. "At Lafayette, unfortunately, there is a tendency to judge sororities as having an eating disorder label," she said. "While it is an important issue that needs to be monitored, to say they have eating disorders is inaccurate. People also under-account for the amount that sororities are also being proactive to help reduce eating disorders."
What Can Be Done?
What is Being Done?
According to Karen Forbes, director of the college counseling center, members of sororities do come and seek advice on how to help and intervene on behalf of friends who are showing symptoms of disordered eating behavior.
"Students may call and say they're worried about a friend," said Forbes. "We act as coaches and say how to intervene. If they are so concerned, we tell them to go through [Residence Life] to notify their [resident advisor] if they are very worried about a girl's safety."
Forbes said that there is not one specific guideline for sororities to deal with a house member's disordered eating problem, and that it is relegated to the Executive and Standards Boards of each sorority.
Many sorority members, however, said they were either confused or unaware of the procedures for helping a peer with disordered eating patterns.
When asked about her house's policy, Amy said, "I've been told we do [have procedures in place] by the counseling services at our school, but when I asked people in my sorority, I was never given a straight answer. I don't think enough people really know."
Amy added, "And I got a lot of answers like, 'Her friends know about [a disordered eating problem] and are monitoring what she eats and how much she works out, and her parents know.' [But] no one is really dealing with it. A friend is not qualified to handle it and can't be with them 24-7."
"It's hard to see [a disordered eating problem] when you really care about someone and so it makes it harder to act," said Amy. "You're trying to do something, but [also] trying to not upset this person and lose their trust and friendship."
Beth said she was also unsure of her house's procedures. "I don't know if there is a system set up in place to help the girls if they develop an eating disorder," she said, "[but] I'm sure that if there was a problem, it would become very visible quickly."
Debbie*, another sorority member, said in the case of a house member who is suffering from disordered eating, the sorority is not able to reveal their name to seek treatment.
"The difficulty with eating disorders is that we can't approach a parent or an authority to tell them," Debbie said. "It's a violation of personal privacy. They can't be forced to seek help."
She did say that the leaders of her house are encouraged to contact alumni of the sorority to seek counsel on how best to deal with such issues.
Debbie also said that through the school's Compass program, each sorority is required to present a program on the issues of alcohol, diversity, gender awareness and sexual assault, and hazing. "However, almost every year, one house addresses eating disorders," she said.
Amy said she was skeptical of the usefulness of such presentations. "I know we have a mandatory speaker [once] a year or semester that talks to the house about eating disorders," she said, "but I think going to a speaker is too easy; it only benefits members that don't have a problem."
Foran, however, said she believes that even though a correlation may exist between sororities and disordered eating behavior, there are still many positive qualities about the houses.
"In just the same way women could be competitive [and foster] an eating disorder, they could also develop a positive competitive behavior where they no longer compete, but strive for a healthier lifestyle," she said. "They could establish a norm where they maintain healthy eating habits and healthy exercise behavior. I think they are working towards it more than they have in previous years, but I think there is a lot more to be done."
Forbes agreed, and said, "There's such powerful potential with a group like that. But remember, you're not protected from an eating disorder by not joining a sorority."