Currently, there are several well-known risk factors in the development of eating disorders. These factors include poor body image, endorsement of the thin-ideal, dieting, childhood weight concerns, and having a family history of eating disorders. In addition to these factors, certain times of life, such as the college years, are associated with a high risk of disordered eating. Among college students, students affiliated with Greek life often engage in higher levels of disordered eating compared to individuals who do not participate in Greek life. Although this relationship is far from causal (i.e., being in a Greek organization does not cause an eating disorder), there is a strong positive relationship between sorority membership and the use of diet pills, laxatives, self-induced vomiting, and dieting in an attempt to lose weight. The purpose of this article is to examine sorority membership and eating disorder behaviors. This article will conclude with a discussion of the risks of sorority membership for individuals in recovery and the possible interventions targeted at sororities to reduce this risk.
Body Dissatisfaction, Peer Affiliations and Compulsive Exercise
While being in a sorority is associated with eating disorder risk, not all women in sororities develop eating disorders or disordered eating. Thus, several factors besides sorority membership influence eating disorder risk. One of these factors involves being associated with “powerful” or “important” members within one’s sorority, which is predictive of compulsive exercise patterns and negative health outcomes. In addition, body dissatisfaction and increased levels of physical activity are predictors of compulsive exercise among sorority members. Further, college-aged women who report conforming to female gender norms (i.e., sweet disposition, modesty, thinness, and investment in physical appearance and sexual attractiveness) are at an especially high risk of eating disorders; in fact, conforming to female gender norms is more predictive of eating disorder risk than sorority membership alone. Sorority members who endorse female gender norms are more self-conscious of their bodies and more dissatisfied with their bodies when compared to sorority members who do not endorse the female gender norms. These findings are of importance because they suggest that it is not just sorority membership that predicts eating disorder risk, but certain social positions within the sorority and certain thoughts/behaviors among sorority members that are particularly risky.
A Subgroup At Risk Prior to Joining?
As stated previously, college women in sororities have an elevated eating disorder risk. However, it is possible that those vulnerabilities were present before joining a sorority. Several research studies have surveyed women planning to join sororities and, found that these women have higher levels of eating disorder attitudes as well as higher levels of self-objectification (i.e., the tendency to view one’s body in terms of physical and sexual attractiveness. When comparing individuals prior to joining a sorority versus one month after joining, eating disorder attitudes and body dissatisfaction increased. In sum, although individuals who already have some risk factors towards eating disorders may be more likely to join a sorority, sorority membership serves to worsen and intensify these symptoms.
It should also be noted that not everyone who wishes to join a sorority is accepted into one, and weight and physical attractiveness appear to play a role in who gets selected for sorority membership in some cases. The Delta Zeta sorority chapter at DePauw University captured national attention in 2007 when 23 out of 35 sorority members were asked to leave the chapter; women in the chapter who were at the higher end of the weight spectrum were asked to leave and the 12 remaining members of the sorority were described as the thinnest and most conventionally attractive of the group. Though this is an extreme example, sororities are often criticized for their intense focus on appearance and attractiveness. A number of research studies have found that sorority members are more likely to favorably rate other members who have similar body mass indices. This is of importance because these results suggest that in order to gain approval and acceptance from one’s peers, a member must appear a certain weight which, could place a strong emphasis on the pursuit of weight loss or weight maintenance.
In conclusion, individuals involved with Greek life may be at risk for the development of eating disorders and other problematic behaviors. Currently, the literature suggests that the relationship between eating disorders and Greek life affiliation is far from causal but that particular individuals within Greek life may be at greater risk than others. Such individuals include those who enter with a predisposition for eating disorders based off of self-report questionnaires that measure attitudes and beliefs about one’s body, and being associated with powerful members of the organization. Further, it is important to note that there is a possibility that individuals who have interests in joining Greek life already possess certain risks towards eating disorder behaviors (i.e. self-objectification, endorsement of eating disorder behaviors/attitudes) but that these problematic views may worsen after becoming a member of a Greek organization.
Despite the risk sorority membership may pose, it appears that interventions targeting women in sororities may be effective and beneficial. For example, it appears that interventions such as cognitive dissonance (i.e. creating conflict in one’s beliefs to promote change through the individual’s discomfort with holding conflicting beliefs) may reduce eating disorder symptoms and other risk factors such as the internalization of the thin-ideal and unhealthy behaviors such as the restriction of food among sorority women. These findings are notable, as the intervention decreased risk among individuals who were classified as high and low risk, indicating success with members at differing levels of risk. Further, peer-based programs have also been suggested as an effective method of reducing risk for eating disorders within sorority women when utilizing cognitive dissonance. Thus, it is likely that, with the proper training, sorority women can assist in promoting healthy thoughts and behaviors rather than those which promote eating disorder thoughts.
Sororities in Recovery
In closing, it is of importance to have an understanding of the risks associated with being involved with a Greek organization when recovering from an eating disorder. Having an understanding of these risks are of importance because, the Greek life environment may place an individual in a setting that is infused with unhealthy eating practices, compensatory methods, and individuals who are likely to place an emphasis on physical appearance. Therefore, when deciding to join or remain affiliated with a Greek organization a thoughtful consideration of the disadvantages and advantages should be considered. Further, when reflecting on these disadvantages and advantages, it is important to not only consider the risks but, to weigh carefully the influence they may pose on one’s recovery. For example, joining or remaining in a Greek organization may provide an individual with social supports. However, if these supports are triggering and linked to attitudes and behaviors that could negatively influence one’s recovery, the risk outweighs the advantage. Finally, it is of greatest importance that individuals with eating disorders seek services immediately if their environment causes a return or escalation of symptoms.
About The Authors:
Adriana Pennacchi is a second-year doctoral student in clinical psychology at Immaculata University. Dr. Ashley Higgins is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Counseling at Immaculata University.
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Written – 2018