Sororities and Disordered Eating in Young Women

October 10, 2012

As we enter the beginning of October and many of our sons and daughters return to college campuses it made me think about the role peer pressure and being around the sorority culture plays a key role in influencing the way we think about our body image.

“A binge-purge party is a harmless way to enjoy some fattening foods without getting fat”, my patient told me. “At my sorority a few of us girls would buy all of the forbidden and fattening foods we have been denying ourselves. Then we would have a binge-purge party. It’s a way to have your cake and not get fat. Three of us meet in my room. It was like a secret society. We ate donuts, chips, pizza, ice cream, fast foods and fried foods then we purged the food.”

My patient did not know that even occasional episodes of binging and purging could lead to an eating disorder. Once in the cycle of bulimia nervosa it is hard to get out. She had come to see me because she was binging and purging between the parties. She could not get food out of her mind. She had recently she been hospitalized for dehydration.

Most first-year university students are typically away from their families and home for the first time. They have left their friends and primary support systems and are in search of finding a place to belong. One such place is to be part of a sorority. The pressure to fit in is extraordinary.

It is estimated that at least 20% of college aged-women would engage in bulimic behavior (Costin, 1996). But these numbers do not even begin to cover the multitude of individuals who do not meet diagnostic criteria, but are obsessed with poor body image, unhealthy and disordered eating habits.

There are few studies about the prevalence of eating disorders among females living in a sorority. Before we look at the results of these studies I would like to describe the factors of sorority life that would increase the likelihood of developing an eating disorder.

During rush week Jane was hoping to join a sorority. The initiation process left her with decreased self-esteem and an increase in body dissatisfaction. She explained the process. She was asked to strip down to her underwear. The other girls then examined her. They pointed out areas that needed to be improved by taking a felt tip marker and circling the areas on her body. Jane stood in front of the girls whom she did not even know in humiliation. They explained this was a way to help her be perfect.

Carissa  had dieted the whole summer before going to university. She wanted to be as skinny as she could. She was unaware of a study that was done in 1950 that showed the results that semi-starvation (dieting) caused.  In this study……………………

Brittney was the perfect student in high school. Her grades were excellent, she was president of the honor society, homecoming queen and very popular. Her perfectionism had taken her far. She soon found out that in high school she had been a big fish in a small pond. College life was a rude awakening. Here she was unknown and a very small fish in a big pond.

She longed to be popular and thought joining the sorority would make her popular. She was accepted into the sorority, but to her dismay she was not the most popular one or the prettiest.  The grades did not come as easy as they did in high school and everywhere she looked she saw perfect thin women. That would be her ticket; she would become the skinniest one in the sorority.

The research of the prevalence of eating disorders suggests an increased risk of developing an eating disorder in a sorority setting. However there are many uncertain factors.

First, what are the criteria for finding a control sample? Second, eating disorder behavior is hard to evaluate because testing is based on self –reporting; and third, the diagnostic criteria of the DSM does not include the factors of disordered eating, yo-yo dieting, food addictions or other disordered relationships with food. 

This group far out-weights the diagnosed group but causes as much internal conflict, unhappiness and unfulfilled lives as the diagnosable disorders. For this group their relationship with food, weigh, diet and body image has become an obsession and is controlling their lives.

If you a friend or loved one needs treatment for an eating disorder, go to

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