A sea change is coming. For as long as I can remember, my friends and I have talked about body image--it’s hardly news that women are both aware of and angry about unrealistic body standards. But this has been a beat I’ve been personally following since I was, oh, twelve, and I haven’t seen action like what has been happening in the past few years.
*Dove’s Real Beauty campaign: Flawed because it exists to sell products to women, but the shock of seeing “real” women with “real” bodies being used as models to sell those products was a righteous thrill.
*Glamour’s Woman on Page 194: I was skeptical of the magazine’s promises regarding the overwhelming response to the size-12 model who graced their pages, but it was not a publicity stunt (disclosure: I have worked at the magazine), and from what I’ve read of the editor-in-chief’s vows, they are specific, smart, and correct.
*Germany’s most popular women’s magazine, Brigitte, has banned professional models from its pages, citing promotion of unrealistic body standards as the reason.
And now Delta Delta Delta, the sorority of Saturday Night Live “can I help ya help ya help ya” fame, has launched Fat-Talk-Free Week as one arm of its Reflections: Body Image Program.
What’s finally beginning to happen is that body image is no longer being seen as some sort of angry feminist issue. It’s being seen as a community issue. The quickening pulse of body image talk had me wondering if women had finally just Had It, but it wasn’t until I heard about the Tri-Delt program that I began to see the sea change as something that was being tackled by a larger force with a strategic plan.
Community service has long been an essential component of the greek system, but it was service of the most neutral sort: Big Brother/Big Sister programs, serving at the soup kitchen, breast cancer walks. I remember my dorm roommate, a Tri-Delt, coming home tired after picking up trash in the park for her sorority’s “community service day,” which was indeed a day and happened once a semester. It was community service that nobody could make an argument against. What could an opponent say--hungry people shouldn’t have soup? (Breast cancer aid may have once been controversial because it forced people to see how grossly underfunded women’s health issues were, but it’s morphed into a way for people to feel like they’re doing something good when they buy a pink spatula at Bed Bath & Beyond.) More than the essential neutrality of these moves (Democrats and Republicans alike join sororities, after all), it was the utter removal of these actions that bothered me. Big Sister programs maybe, but my roommate could have cared less about the park; I doubt her sisters felt much differently than she did. It was a way to fulfill a requirement and provide some rationale to the university for the existence of the greek system, not much more.
The fact that Tri-Delt has mounted a strong campaign about body image says that the topic has become both politicized and de-politicized: politicized because it calls for specific action and is framed as something that’s a community problem, not simply that of an individual woman who needs to “get over it”; de-politicized because it’s loudly proclaiming that body issues are our issues. They are not a fat woman’s problem or an ugly woman’s problem; these are issues that plague virtually every woman in this country to some extent. And by bringing an explicit agenda to the table, Tri-Delt is saying that because this is something all women deal with, it is therefore a community issue. It’s not something that only self-help books or Post-It notes reading “you’re beautiful!” pasted on your mirror can help. It requires more.
I’ve always half-heartedly defended sororities, because I liked what they ostensibly offered: a community of women devoted to each other and the community at large. The image of ditzy, superficial, drunk girls who pledged greek for the frat parties alone wasn’t exactly what I saw on my campus, but it’s not an entirely erroneous image either. (I watched my roommate morph from fresh-faced ponytail girl in jeans to eyeshadow-wearing lady in pearls and pumps over the years -- her sisters made her over.) Even with more and more greek systems going dry in order to return to their service roots (and avoid lawsuits), it’s probably too late to entirely overhaul the system’s ways -- there are plenty of informal ways to serve the community and make friends, so if that were the only draw to pledging, numbers would dwindle beyond the point of return. But this program forms a community service project that is near and dear to the hearts of the volunteers -- which is an integral part of a formula that works. And it is indeed near and dear to the sisters’ hearts: The flipside of the pretty-perky sorority image is the intense body focus that comes with being in a circle that places heavy pressure on its members to look a certain way. The horror stories of senior members taking Sharpies to pledges’ underwear-clad bodies during initiation rites, marking where pledges needed to lose weight, may be urban legend -- but in an appearance-focused subculture in an already appearance-focused culture at large, it’s safe to say that the de facto effect is the same.
I applaud the strides the magazines I mentioned above have taken, but at the end of the day women’s magazines have an investment in keeping their readers shackled to a certain body ideal. (Refusing cigarette ads is one thing; refusing diet products and makeup would sink the business entirely.) But sororities aren’t selling anything here -- it costs money to join, but the prestige the greek system has in many circles is enough to assure that membership won’t plummet anytime soon. (And certainly our culture has enough ways to be elitist that even if all sorority sisters suddenly gained a permanent 20 pounds, there would be new bars to entry.) I’d love to see this be the beginning of the one case where the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house. We’ll see.