A little over 24 hours ago, after enduring a full month of grueling mixers, awkward small talk, forced rankings and fake smiles, I did not receive a bid from a sorority. I don’t mean I didn’t receive a bid from my top choice sorority, or even from my second. I didn’t receive any bid at all. And at the large, prestigious university I attend, Greek life—though compromising only 21 percent of the student population—damn near runs the social scene. I can’t pretend I’m not wounded.
When I announced I was rushing, most of my friends and family said they “couldn’t see me in a sorority.” I understood their reaction. I am a politically involved, outspoken feminist. I also have a nose ring, two tattoos and am a visual arts major with a passion for body positivity, which means my breasts and butt have made an appearance in more than a few of my projects.
But I am also a social being, and after suffering through freshman year living in a single, in arguably the most unsocial dorm on campus, on a floor populated almost exclusively boys, I longed for the camaraderie and instant community sororities seemed to offer. While I struggled to find a social life beyond my isolated living situation, friends who had joined Greek life the third week of school posted album after album of their weekly mixers, dinners with sisters, formals in Chicago and fireworks at Navy Pier. I was wrought with jealousy and sold on the idea of becoming a sorority girl.
Though I had heard horror stories about how difficult the process was and understood it would be even worse as a sophomore, I was all in. I was sure that any sorority I would want to join would ignore my class year and artsier look and pay attention only to my character. I wish I’d had enough faith in this conviction to proudly promote my individuality and values during rush and the hype leading up to it, but that’s not really what happened.
I questioned myself at every turn, from the nose ring that has been a staple of my look since my sixteenth birthday, to my literary tattoos, to my body image and weight that have taken me years to accept and love. How much should I keep, or lose? What should I reveal? How much should I hide?
The summer before rush, I began making subtle changes I believed would be best received by my peers in Greek life. It started off superficially: I deleted questionable posts—my art project boobs and butts, of course, but also anything political—from my Instagram and Facebook. For the most part, these discussions were about reproductive rights, body positivity, and sexism in the media. Though I’d always taken pride in how outspoken I am, how unquenchable my desire to learn and to help enact change is, I deleted these statuses one by one. It wasn’t even the loss of the interesting debates that stung so much as it was the idea that I was silencing such a large part of who I am. Still, I forged on.
I bought expensive new clothes that fit the aesthetic I had seen on all those FOMO-inducing social media feeds. I’ve never been one to care about labels, rocking off-brand Uggs like Bear Paws or Emus without a second thought because let’s face it, they’re pretty much the same thing, and happily wearing Walgreens 2-for-10 dollar leggings until Santa brought me a pair of Lululemons last year. But now I found myself tossing my $30 Urban Outfitters bag I knew would be deemed janky and replaced it with a Marc Jacobs one. It’s the first upscale and brand-name bag (or really item) I’ve ever owned.
At least I kept the nose ring.
And so I went into rush with a new wardrobe and scrubbed social media feed, still essentially me if a quieter, better dressed, less outspoken version. But even as I tried to stay true to myself by judging the merits of each sorority based on their philanthropic mission, I was laughed at for admitting this was the criteria I was using to determine what house I might best fit into. Though Greek life is certainly a great way to get involved in charities and raise money for organizations, it is first and foremost a social institution. What mattered most to me in choosing the right one was secondary to majority of girls who shared my rush line.
At each house I repeated the same mantra: I’m in the art school. I’m a sophomore and never thought that Greek life would be for me because neither of my parents were Greek, but I knew the second rush started my freshman year I’d made a mistake. I want to find somewhere I can be unapologetically myself.
It was the truth: I did want to find somewhere I could be unapologetically myself. But I knew in my gut I was looking in the wrong place, especially since my elevator pitch was complete bullshit. My parents not participating in Greek life wasn’t why I hadn’t rushed as a freshman; I didn’t rush then because I believe there are serious problems with sexism, stereotypical gender roles and rape culture perpetuated within it. Because I am appalled by SAE’s racism in 2014, at what happened at Alpha Tau Omega at Indiana in 2015, and by the statistic that my peers in Greek life are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault.
But pervasive loneliness is a real killer. I was willing to overlook these very real, very serious issues if it meant I’d gain the social stability, the ease of not having to look for housing for the upcoming year, and the million Instagram opportunities of the sisterhood. Just the idea of being as lonely and desperate as I had been the year before was enough to make me twist myself into knots and practically beg for a bid. I told myself it would all be worth it in the end. That anything I’d played down about myself wasn’t forever, it was only until rush was over. But inside I think I knew better. To censor myself to get in inevitably meant to censoring myself to stay in.
Before Preference Parties—the last night of formal rush before bids are awarded, or not as the case may be—my dad gently suggested I cover up a small tattoo on my arm. It reads Bird By Bird, a reminder to myself to take things one step at a time and to not get overwhelmed to the point of stagnancy. To obscure it would have meant covering up something close to my heart. I wondered: If the girls couldn’t accept me with a tattoo and the full knowledge it doesn’t affect who I am as a person, would I really still want to join their sisterhood?
I gathered my courage, decided against the tattoo-hiding sweater, and headed out into Pref night. It was full of emotional speeches, heartfelt ballads, lit candles and tears. The girl rushing me at my favorite sorority made all sorts of references to how perfect a fit I was for the house and how everyone there loved me. She even told me she’d want to be my “grand-big” if I pledged. I left feeling optimistic and appreciated for who I really am. I felt wanted.
Until the next day when my Rho Omega, or rush mentor, called and told me solemnly I hadn’t received a bid after all. Though I knew by now the selection process isn’t exactly based on the feminist ideals of equality, equal opportunity and inclusion, I was still stunned. Beyond humiliated.
Throughout rush, potential new members are often reminded it is a hard process that ultimately works out. Girls end up where they are supposed to be. So I can only assume I’m meant to be here, critiquing my experience from the outside. Maybe being in a sorority would’ve hindered my growth, or stopped me from participating in activities that will ultimately mean more to me than any assigned charity would. There is a never-ending list of maybes I could investigate, but I know they aren’t worth my energy or time. The outcome remains the same.
I can’t say I’m not embarrassed I failed to fit the ideals of the girls and houses that rushed me, or that I have any clue what to tell my Greek friends about why I didn’t end up “following the candle that was calling me home,” as one of the houses put it on Pref night. The only thing I can say without a doubt is that I’ll never again compromise myself or my outspoken, individual nature just to avoid loneliness.
While Greek life is an amazing opportunity for some girls to find like-minded individuals, make a large campus smaller, find a home and get involved in a worthy philanthropy, I wholeheartedly know now it isn’t for right for me. And not just because I didn’t get the bid I thought I so wanted. On my ribcage is a tattoo (that I wouldn’t have dared reveal existed to any sorority sister rushing me), a condensed phrase from a line in a Mary Oliver poem that’s especially meaningful to me: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? And while I may not have all the answers yet, I do know I will not spend another second forcing myself into a mold like a human Tetris piece wearing expensive brand name clothing and silencing my thoughts and beliefs.
And who knows? Maybe I’ll start a feminist sorority on campus, a place where girls like me can experience all the positive parts of Greek life without having to compromise their ideals.