If you follow women in the media— and, honestly, even if you don’t — you’ve probably seen the recruitment video members of Alpha Phi at the University of Alabama released in August 2015. The video, which quickly went viral and was taken down due to backlash, featured dozens of Barbie-esque women gallivanting through their campus, promising the viewers they, too, can have a glitter- and bleach blonde-colored life should they be lucky enough to join Alpha Phi.
Needless to say, the Internet grabbed onto this, with some bloggers decrying its anti-feminism, and others defending the girls’ right to make their own choices and produce whatever kind of video they wanted.
I was in a sorority, and I am very proud of my particular chapter. While the experience was not without flaws (but what experience is?), I would never make a different choice if given the chance. I was surrounded by women who were smart, driven, accomplished, and, most important, loving and sisterly.
Since graduation, I have remained very close with my “family” (my little, big, and twin sisters, and our immediate extensions), leaned on other girls in our move to a new city, and met up with sisters while traveling solo on the other side of the world. I want to stress that Greek life is not the problem behind the Alpha Phi video.
The problem I have with it is the exaggerated culture of hyper-defined femininity this video represents.
The popular website Total Sorority Move has had a monopoly on publicly defining this culture in recent years. Part satire, part disturbingly serious, it chronicles through wall posts, photos, and articles the typical and ideal life of the stereotypical Southern sorority girl: usually thin, tanned, toned, and drinking wine while wearing Lilly Pulitzer (another disclaimer: I like wine, and I own a lot of Lilly Pulitzer. Those things are not inherently bad!).
When I joined a sorority as a college freshman and was exposed to this culture — mostly through this website, not through my physical campus or chapter — I completely bought into the idea that being thin, pretty, and popular would validate my existence. I worked obsessively to attain this image of perfection, and while I was complimented for how skinny and pretty I was becoming, people didn’t realize how desperately unhappy and unconfident I was inside.
I once read a comment on TSM claiming if the website’s satire and emphasis on looks actually caused someone to have major body image issues, there was probably something wrong with them to begin with. That was true in my case. In high school, I was close friends with girls with eating disorders. I was a dancer, and therefore primed to engage in the culture of needing to look a certain way to fit in.
This leads me into what I think is the problem with the Alpha Phi video: the girls have bought into a larger, preordained culture of what perfect femininity is, and any girl who might enter that sorority — or even just encounter it and begin to idolize its members — will not be able to escape the homogeneity of the members’ appearances. There is no alternative definition of “beautiful” than blonde, tanned, and thin, and I feel worried for any viewer with a background similar to mine. Frankly, the video should come with a trigger warning.
And what about girls who aren’t white? Where is even a remote cognizance of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, of the fact that you don’t need to be blonde and Caucasian to have fun and be a sister? There isn’t even a remote effort on Alpha Phi’s part to look diverse. The implied “physical requirements” for membership are abundantly clear.
The women in the Alpha Phi video clearly take much pride in the way they look, and no one should shame them for making the choices they make regarding their physical appearances. The obvious collective priority of superficial things over more substantive things, though, is more troubling. The women never speak, just prance; they never explain what makes them sisters verbally, just show they are all physically in sync (should we assume they are emotionally, mentally, spiritually as well?). It is entirely possible that the women in that video are intelligent, successful, kind, or any host of positive internal character traits, but that video would never let us know that.
I would encourage these women to start flaunting their internal beauty as much as their external beauty. We can then appreciate and respect the women as complete humans, instead of just their exterior shells that can so easily fade away.
Caitlin Lansing graduated from Princeton University in 2014, where she studied American women’s history with a focus on entertainment and beauty culture. A former college cheerleader and dancer, she is no stranger to body image issues, but hopes to use this to encourage women in their pursuits of self-confidence.
The problem I have always had with sororities is that they tend to not only reinforce but actually require (explicitly or implicitly) that girls conform in order to be accepted. It is not some accident of individuality that all of the women in this sorority look similar. OMG, like, we all somehow randomly picked the same exact hairstyle!!
Sororities may be full of “sisterly love” but the message has always been that only the conforming need apply. We will love you, as long as you’re just like us. Otherwise, too bad.
Caitlin, this is so well written! I agree with you wholeheartedly!