Guest Column by Emily Cutler and Catalina Mullis | Forgetting feminism




As sorority recruitment approaches, many freshmen will consider joining a Greek organization. We made the decision to pledge a sorority last year. We had some amazing experiences: We made great friends, enjoyed sisterhood events and got a chance to help with our sorority’s philanthropy. However, we found that some aspects of our sorority promoted anti-feminist thinking.

There was a general focus on physical appearance. The first thing we were told about representing our sorority was to “look good in letters.” For example, we were told not to wear a shirt displaying our sorority’s monogram with sweatpants or without make-up. Our custom on Wednesdays was not just to wear letters, but to “look cute” in letters. We also learned not to tag our sorority in Facebook pictures of us wearing sweatpants.

While these small restrictions may seem harmless — especially to the sisters who made them — emphasizing attractiveness so heavily influences women to value their appearance over other qualities, thereby contributing to a culture that objectifies women.

A few weeks ago, as our sorority prepared for recruitment, one of the main focuses of our training was on physical appearance — how we should dress, style our hair and put on our make-up during recruitment events. The recruitment director recommended that everyone have their nails painted at the salon beforehand.

One requirement that significantly bothered us was that all sisters straighten their hair. This not only reinforces ethnocentric beauty standards, but also promotes conformity by mandating that all sisters wear the same hairstyle. In general, we were disappointed that we were told to promote the sorority with our appearances more than with our individuality.

Greekin’ Out

Greek Life can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In our first “Table Talk,” we asked our columnists — and others in the Penn community — to chime in on the pros and cons of Greek culture at Penn.

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The emphasis on physical appearance extended to Philanthropy Week as well, during which one of our activities was delivering shirts to fraternities for brothers to wear in support of our cause. One sister sent an email to the listserv jokingly saying, “If you don’t look hot when you deliver them, I will personally cut off your hair while you sleep. Seriously. Look hot. Do your makeup. Straighten your hair. It’s like recruitment, but for future husbands.”

Another sister seconded her, emailing, “You guys should be taking photos and you want to look good. Enough for the boys to be like: ‘OH DAYUMM, let’s mix and continue to help the sorority’s philanthropy 4eva.’”

While the spirit of the emails may have been in jest, the emphasis on physical appearance sent a more serious message. The emails implied that it is necessary for women to use their appearance to gain support for a cause, instead of employing qualities such as leadership, persuasion and publicity skills. Further and more disturbingly, it trivialized the importance of our cause by completely shifting the focus to something unrelated and superficial.

What these experiences demonstrate is that sorority life is often not about empowering young women, even if that is its aim. Instead, it tends to unknowingly push them to participate in their own oppression by asking them to focus on their appearance.

It frequently seemed that our life in our sorority was more about how we needed to fit into a mold to please others, particularly men, instead of how we can counter harmful notions about our worth as women and how we can build ourselves up for the future.

While one can certainly take pride in her appearance, it is problematic when this is considered to be the most important quality. It is disturbing when one considers that most freshmen find joining a sorority to be the only opportunity they have for a social life. What this means is that one of the only ways to make a lot of friends is by conforming to particularly oppressive standards. This is entirely false.

We encourage freshmen to think carefully about the anti-feminist thinking promoted by sororities before deciding to pledge a Greek organization. While pledging is a great opportunity to make friends, in our opinion, the social life that sororities offer is not worth having to conform to oppressive, objectifying standards.

Emily Cutler and Catalina Mullis are College sophomores from Birmingham, Ala. and Los Angeles, studying romance languages and communications, respectively. They can be reached at cutlere@sas.upenn.edu and mullisc@sas.upenn.edu.

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