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When Joelle Shabat (A.B. ’06) reflects on sorority life at the U of C, she sees more than charity events and frat cocktails. She recalls the pressure girls felt to be thin and the dangerous ways they tried to control their weight.
“Being in a sorority especially, you encounter a large group of women where everyone has experience with [eating disorders],” said Shabat, an Alpha Omicron Pi member. “I have met people here with anorexia, bulimia, compulsive eating—you name it, it’s here at the U of C.”
Shabat said she has seen people throughout the College go to desperate lengths to achieve unhealthily low bodyweights. “There are many people who…use cocaine and diet pills to be thin,” she said. “It becomes an obsession.”
Another sorority member, a third-year who requested her name and sorority be withheld, echoed Shabat’s comments, discussing the expectations her sorority sisters have for one another concerning physical appearance. She said they are harshly critical of other girls’ appearances.
“Girls…are remarked upon regularly amongst my circle of friends as being overweight. Even a friend who had lost a good bit of weight commented that she wants to throw a lot of girls in my sorority onto a stair stepper,” she said.
The student said her sorority sisters idealize an unhealthy image of beauty: “It’s once again the trend…to be heroin chic—to be thin in order to be attractive.” For her sorority sisters, she said, “being thin matters more in regards to being attractive than clothing, having a pretty face, or being a sweet person. If you are not thin, you are not hip.”
She pointed to the student-run coffee shops on campus—known for their trendy music and employees—as places projecting an unhealthy image of what’s fashionable. “I have yet to see a single overweight female working at any [of these places],” she said. “Probably 75 percent of them are underweight.”
The third-year said she and some of her sorority sisters are so consumed by weight-related anxiety that, at times, they force themselves to stop eating for several days.
“At the U of C, the tendency is for girls to just stop eating for a period of time, since academic demands often make it too difficult to go to the gym regularly,” she said. When she restricts her food intake, it’s for fear of “gaining weight during autumn and winter quarters.”
However, other students outside of sorority culture feel that the U of C does not impose such a devastating pressure to be thin.
Third-year Amber Meriwether said the lack of emphasis on appearance at the University helped her recover from bulimia nervosa, a disorder characterized by cycles of binging and purging that she suffered from in high school.
“I found it [the University] to be a lot less superficial than the environment outside the school,” she said. “There’s not as much media influence. I work at UIC, and the girls are all blond, tan, and wear lots of makeup. There’s a wider variety of people and images that are accepted [here.] I have the debate with my friends: Do I actually have to get dressed up to go to a frat party? Or can I wear sweatpants? I did once, and guys still hit on me.”
“Since I’ve been here, my weight has shifted 20 pounds, and I’m okay with that because I feel like this environment is safe enough,” she added.
Nevertheless, Meriwether said she does think eating disorders are prevalent at the U of C. In fact, when she attended group counseling, she said she was surprised to see several girls from her dorm and extracurricular groups.
Meriwether attributed the prevalence of eating disorders to factors like stress, rather than pressure to look a certain way.
Third-year Laura Jean Mcfarland agreed that the U of C is a healthy environment as far as image-related pressures are concerned.
“People are more likely, in my experience, to pressure you to eat well here,” she said. “Or at least, I hear people say ‘no matter what, eat three meals a day and sleep at least five hours a night and shower or you’ll feel like shit.’ This school’s really good when it comes to lack of pressure to be thin. Maybe it’s the whole ‘squirrels are cuter than the girls’ thing, but it feels like if you’re semi-attractive, you’re ahead of the game.”
Some students—even those not in sororities—said the U of C’s academic pressure often helps propagate an unhealthy body image.
“One thing I notice is how comments about eating look similar to comments about grades,” said a grad student at the Theological Seminary, who also requested to remain anonymous. “For instance, after getting papers back, I have classmates who will ‘fish’ for what other people got for grades. It’s similar with food with the girls. I was eating something and one of my classmates said something like, ‘Oh, that looks so good, but I could never get away with eating that.’”
Fourth-year Smriti Mishra reiterated the link between academics and eating trends, but saw grades as the stronger force.
“It often seems cool to be too busy with work to have time to eat,” she said. “However, I think this relates to our obsession with work more than with a concern about not eating.”