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The Effect of Sororities on Prevalence of Eating Disorders and Related Attitudes/Behaviors

Cori Deutsch

December 12, 2010

Introduction

            ItÕs that time of the year at Vanderbilt: time for sorority rush.  All interested freshmen are shuffled from meeting to meeting to become informed about all rush-related topics, from when to arrive back to campus, what to wear each day of rush, whether or not you will be judged for eating the cake they give out, to how to make appropriate small talk with the sisters.  But any girl living in the commons can easily see what is going on behind the scenes, and that there is more that some girls are doing to prepare themselves than simply buying a new outfit or booking an early flight to come back for rush week.  Some girls have gone off the deep end, participating in alarming activities such as buying $800 bracelets or engaging in excessive exercise routines.  Most alarmingly, girls across campus have simply stopped eating.  Simply walking through the dining hall, one can witness the empty plates, plates topped with spinach with no dressing, or plates piled with fruit sitting in front of countless young women.  So, is it coincidence that these behaviors coincide with the timing of rush, or is rush the cause of these behaviors?  More importantly, if rush is the cause of these behaviors, what effect does actual membership in a sorority have on the prevalence of eating disorders and on attitudes related to eating disorders, such as increased self-objectification, body shame, and social pressure?  This paper will take a deeper look into what is currently known and what studies have been done relating to these questions.

            Before looking at some of the studies that have been done to analyze any hypothesized effects of sororities on eating disorders, it is vital to understand what kinds of attitudes are characteristic of a developing eating disorder.  For example, Basow explains that pressure to conform to an unachievable level of thinness may play a large role in the development of eating disorders (2007).  Because this level of thinness is often observed in sororities, this pressure could be heightened in sororities, meaning that sororities could cause eating disorders.  Another idea is that self-objectification could correlate with body shame and therefore be an important indicator of eating disordered behaviors (Calogero et al. 2005).  Crocker and colleagues suggest that the focus on appearance and internalization of thinness ideals present in sororities could cause sorority women to have higher levels of this self-objectification, leading to higher risks for developing eating disorders (2003). 

Besides self-objectification, social pressure (also known as peer pressure) could be a cause of eating disorders.  This is shown in sorority houses as poor eating behaviors of some sisters Òrub offÓ on other sisters (Striegel-Moore et al. 1993).  Because self-objectification and levels of social pressure are among attitudes that could lead to eating disorders and are also common characteristics of sorority houses, these are two variables that are commonly measured when studying the effects of sorority life on prevalence of eating disorders.  Some of these studies are described in detail below. 

Studies

Basow, Foran, & Bookwala

This study used 265 women in four test groups and two sets of tests to analyze the hypothesized correlations between the intensities of feelings of self-objectification and social pressure among sorority women in comparison to women who were not involved with Greek life (Basow et al. 2007).  The four test groups included a group of sorority women, a group of women who werenÕt involved in sororities, freshmen who were planning on rushing in the future, and freshmen with no intentions of rushing (Basow et al. 2007). 

            Measurement.

The two previously-established sets of tests used, the Objectified Body Consciousness Scale (OBCS) and the EDI-2, along with one additional test created by Basow are outlined below (Basow et al. 2007):

            The Objectified Body Consciousness Scale.

            The Objectified Body Consciousness Scale, or OBCS, was used to measure the levels of self-objectification and contains three subcategories: Body Surveillance, Body Shame, and Control Beliefs (McKinley & Hyde, 1996).  Body Surveillance measures the extent to which a woman determines her self-worth based on appearance in comparison to her other characteristics (McKinley & Hyde, 1996).  Body Shame measures how much a woman correlates her moral standing with her appearance (McKinley & Hyde, 1996).  Finally, Control Beliefs is a measure of how much a woman thinks she is in control of her looks (McKinley & Hyde, 1996). 

            Questions regarding each of these categories are asked in the form of a survey and each question is answered using a scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) (McKinley & Hyde, 1996).

            Eating Disorder Inventory-2.

            A test called Eating Disorder Inventory-2 (EDI-2) was used to measure the levels of disordered eating in the women (Basow et al. 2007).  It also has three subcategories: Drive for Thinness, Bulimia, and Body Dissatisfaction (Garner, 1991).  The questions included in this test are answered using a rating scale from 1 (never) to 6 (always) (Garner, 1991).

            Measuring levels of social pressure.

            One additional test that had not been already established by any other studies was used to measure the levels of social pressure in the test subjects (Basow et al. 2007).  This included five questions regarding pressure they felt from either friends or sorority sisters to be social or thin (Basow et al. 2007). 

 

            Hypotheses.

These three scales were used to test three separate hypotheses as described below:

            Hypothesis 1: Sororities and body-objectification.

            This hypothesis was that sorority women and women with intent to rush would be more self-objective of their bodies and have higher levels of eating disorders than the other two groups of women: women who werenÕt in sororities and freshmen without intent to rush (Basow et al. 2007). 

            Hypothesis 2: Sororities and social pressure.

            This hypothesis was that sorority women would feel more social pressure and that this social pressure would cause higher levels of body-objectification and eating disorders (Basow et al. 2007).

            Hypothesis 3: Living in a sorority house and body objectification.

            The last hypothesis of Basow and colleagues was that the amount of time a woman spent living in a sorority house would have a direct relationship with the level of body-objectification and the extent of the eating disorders of that woman (Basow et al. 2007).

 

            Results and conclusions.

The first two of these hypotheses were supported strongly (Basow et al. 2007).  Women in sororities and freshmen with intent to rush had significantly higher scores in Body Surveillance and Body Shame (Basow et al. 2007).  Sorority women also had significantly higher scores than women not involved with Greek life on all subcategories of the EDI-2 test (Basow et al.  2007).  Finally, sorority women and women with intent to rush had significantly higher scores on the social pressures test (Basow et al. 2007). 

The third hypothesis was only supported by the Bulimia and Body Dissatisfaction subscores of the EDI-2 (Basow et al. 2007).  There was no significant difference found between sorority women living in a sorority house and other sorority women in regards to any of the subcategories of the OBCS or the social pressures test (Basow et al. 2007). 

 

            Strengths.

This study had several characteristics that made it very strong.  For example, many previous studies done did not consider that fact that perhaps sororities attract girls that are already on the verge of developing an eating disorder.  This studyÕs use of the two additional test groups (freshmen with and without intent to rush) showed this to be the case (Basow et al. 2007). 

Another strength of this study was the use of similar women: white, 18-23 years of age, and upper-middle class (Basow et al. 2007).  This reduces the effects of external differences besides the ones being studied. 

A third strength of this experiment was that it was blind, meaning that the women did not know it had any relationship to their involvement in the Greek system (Basow et al. 2007).  Therefore, their answers were not influenced by what they thought their answers Òshould be.Ó 

           

            Weaknesses.

            This study could have been improved by increasing the sample size.  In addition, because the research was cross-sectional, causal relationships couldnÕt be established (Basow et al. 2007).

 

Allison & Park

            Allison and Park did a prospective study using 102 women at a state university in which they observed a group of women at the beginning of their college careers and two years later (Allison & Park, 2004).  They found that the women showed no significant difference in scores on the EDI-2 test before rush occurred (Allison & Park, 2004).  However, two years later, the women that had rushed showed significantly higher scores on the Drive for Thinness subcategory of the EDI-2 test (Allison & Park, 2004).  This suggests that sororities are the cause of ideals leading to eating disorders.  One limitation of this study was that Allison and Park didnÕt specify whether or not the sorority women lived in sorority houses or not (Allison & Park, 2004).  This information would have contributed much to the study. 

 

Schulken, Pinciaro, & Sawyer

            This study analyzed 627 sorority women from 15 different sororities at a mid-Atlantic coast university (Schulken et al. 1997).  Their tendencies towards eating disorders were compared with characteristics of eating disorders shown by non-Greek women of similar ages from previous studies (Schulken et al. 1997).

            Measurement.

            Schulken, Pinciaro, and Sawyer used three forms of measurement in their study: a demographic questionnaire, the Eating Disorder Inventory, and the Body Mass Index Silhouettes Survey (Schulken et al. 1997).   These tests were administered on a weekly basis at the sororityÕs chapter meeting and are described below (Schulken et al. 1997).   

            Demographic Questionnaire.

            This questionnaire simply asked for the age, race, year, height, and weight of the subject (Schulken et al. 1997).

            Eating Disorder Inventory.

            The Eating Disorder Inventory (EDI) is an older version of the EDI-2 used in BasowÕs study and in AllisonÕs study (Schulken et al. 1997).  It contains eight subscales: three of which are behavioral and five of which are psychological (Schulken et al. 1997). 

            BMI Silhouettes Survey.

            Seven silhouettes labeled A through G are shown to the women, who are asked to pick the one that represents her body size, the size a woman should be, and the size she would like to be (Schulken et al. 1997).

 

            Results and conclusions.

            The scores of the EDI were significantly higher for sorority women than non-sorority women (Schulken et al. 1997).  This suggests that sororities have some causal relationship with eating disorder tendencies. 

            The results of the BMI Silhouettes Survey showed that as a womanÕs actual BMI increased, she picks a smaller silhouette for the silhouette that is supposed to represent her actual size (Schulken et al. 1997).  This suggests a strong desire to be thin, perhaps to the point of delusion.  In the part of this test where the women were asked to pick the size a woman should be, 62.1% of women picked underweight figures, suggesting that sorority women see thin as not only desirable, but also socially correct (Schulken et al. 1997). 

 

            Strengths.

            Among some of the strengths of this study was the fact that it was anonymous (Schulken et al. 1997).  This allows women to answer questions more realistically and honestly.  Another strength was a larger sample size than some of the other studies.  Finally, other characteristics, such as race and age of the girls were held constant (Schulken et al. 1997).

 

            Weaknesses.

            The main weakness of this study was that it either compared the results of the sorority womenÕs answers to womenÕs answers in previous studies, or didnÕt compare the answers to anything at all, simply stating statistics (Schulken et al. 1997).  This takes a lot of the strength from this study, leading to conclusions that may not be supportable. 

 

Rolnik, Engeln-Maddox, & Miller

            In addition to studying the effects of sorority life on eating disorders, this study emphasized the study of the effect of rush alone on self-objectification and body image.  It also measured the correlations between BMI and the individuals who chose to drop out of the rush process (Rolnik et al. 2010).   This was achieved by surveying 68 women participating in rush and 59 women not participating in rush at a Midwestern university (Rolnik et al. 2010).

            Measurement.

            Online surveys were conducted using Surveymonkey.com to analyze the relationship between participation in rush, self-objectification, and prevalence of eating disorders (Rolnik et al. 2010).  Components of the online surveys are described below.

            Objectified Body Consciousness Scale (OBCS).

            This scale was described as a component of BasowÕs experiment.  To review, it measures body shame, body surveillance, and control beliefs using a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) (Rolnik et al. 2010).

            Eating Attitudes Test (EAT-26).

            This is a test with 26 questions that ask participants how often they agree with statements concerning eating habits, weight, and appearance (Rolnik et al. 2010).

            Demographics and rush-specific questions.

These questions inquired age, height, weight, race, and whether or not the participant was participating in rush (Rolnik et al. 2010).

 

Hypotheses, results, and conclusions.

This study involved several hypotheses, each of which is described below:

Hypothesis 1.

Hypothesis 1 stated that Òcompared to control participants, women participating in rush will show increased self-objectification, body shame, and eating disordered behaviorÓ (Rolnik et al. 2010).  Women participating in rush were found to have significantly higher scores for self-objectification than women who were not participating in rush (Rolnik et al. 2010).  This suggests that rush does cause a woman to be more conscious of her body.

Hypothesis 2.

This hypothesis stated that new sorority members would show increased self-objectification, body shame, and eating disorders one month after joining (Rolnik et al. 2010).  It was found that sorority members had significantly higher levels of self-objectification, body shame, and eating disorders than women who werenÕt involved in sororities (Rolnik et al. 2010).  This adds to RolnikÕs conclusion the idea that not only does rush cause increased levels of self-objectification, but membership in a sorority also contributes to higher chances of developing an eating disorder. 

Hypothesis 3 and 4.

Hypotheses 3 and 4 indicated that women with higher body mass indices would be more likely to drop out of rush (Rolnik et al. 2010).  The average BMI of women who dropped out of rush was calculated to be 23.50 and the average BMI of women who accepted bids into sororities was calculated to be 21.07 (Rolnik et al. 2010).  This supports hypotheses three and four by showing that rush is more successful for thinner women.

 

Strengths.

The survey included questions about random activities, so the participants wouldnÕt know that it was a study involving rush (Rolnik et al. 2010).  In other words, it was a blind study, making the results more reliable.

 

Weaknesses.

One problem in this study was that there were no validity checks in the surveys, so it was impossible to determine whether participants were taking them seriously or simply ÒChristmas-treeingÓ them (Rolnik et al. 2010).  This makes interpretation of results less accurate.

Another problem with this study was that itÕs possible that the time period of rush is too short to accurately measure variables such as self-objectification and shame (Rolnik et al. 2010).

Finally, baseline measurements were taken only a few days before rush started (Rolnik et al. 2010).  This could throw off measurements because even though rush hadnÕt officially started yet, the women that were going to be participating would have already started stressing about the process.

           

Crandall

Crandall observed the levels of binging and purging, social pressure, and self-confidence in two different sororities in two different years (1998).  He found that in both trials, a womanÕs eating behaviors became more like the eating behaviors of their friends over time. (Crandall, 1998).  This suggests that sorority women that live together have a higher risk of developing eating disorders.

 

Conclusion

From the studies that have been done so far in attempts to determine a relationship between sorority membership and eating disorders, it has been found that although rush and membership in sororities lead to higher scores on tests indicating prevalence of eating disorders, levels of self-objectification, social pressures, drive for thinness, and countless others, the women participating in rush often come into the process with higher scores on these tests simply because these are the types of women that sorority life appeals to.  In addition to these conclusions, these studies have found that living in a sorority may increase eating disorder-related attitudes and behaviors. 

Although these studies are promising, there are a limited amount of studies on this topic.  To fully determine a causal relationship between membership in a sorority and prevalence of eating disorders, many more studies need to be done, and these studies need to be more detailed and in depth.  One thing that could be done would be more experiments like that of Basow, in which the attitudes of women simply planning to rush are compared with other women.  These studies are important in deciding whether or not it is the actual sorority that causes eating disorders or simply that the women that sororities attract are more predisposed to eating disorders in the first place.

Another suggestion for future studies would be to develop and use tests more specific for this area of research.  The tests currently being used are not sufficient to determine changes in these types of attitudes in such short periods of time. 

            Overall, the results of these studies indicate that there very well could be a relationship between sorority involvement and disordered eating behaviors.  However, before we blame Greek life entirely for the high levels of disordered eating on college campuses, more research needs to be done.


References

Allision, K.C., Park, C.L. (2004). A prospective study of disordered eating among sorority and nonsorority women.  International Journal of Eating Disorders, 35, 354-358.

Basow, S.A., Foran, K.A., Bookwala, J. (2007). Body objectification, social pressure, and disordered eating behavior in college women: The role of sorority membership. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31, 394-400.

Calogero, R.M., Davis, W.N., Thompson, J.K. (2005). The role of self-objectification in the experience of women with eating disorders.  Sex Roles, 52, 43-50.

Crandall, C. (1988). Social contagion of binge eating.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55,  588-598.

Crocker, J., Luhtanen, R.K., Cooper, M.L., Bouvrette, A. (2003). Contingencies of self-worth in college students: Theory and measurement.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 894-908.

Garner, D.M. (1991). Eating Disorder Inventory- 2 professional manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

McKinley, N.M., Hyde, J.S. (1996). The objectified body consciousness scale: Development and validation.  Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20, 181-215.

Rolnik, A.M., Engeln-Maddox, R., Miller, S.A. (2010). HereÕs Looking at  You: Self-Objectification, Body Image Disturbance, and Sorority Rush. Sex Roles, 63, 6-17.

Schulken, E.D., Pinciaro, P.J., Sawyer, R.G. (1997). Sorority womenÕs body size perceptions and their weight-related attitudes and behaviors.  Journal of American College Health, 46, 69-74.

Striegel-Moore, R., Silberstein, L., Rodin, J. (1993). The social self in bulimia nervosa: Public self-consciousness, social anxiety, and perceived fraudulence. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102, 297-303.

 

 

 

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