I stood in line waiting to walk down the aisle with other new sorority pledges. Each of us was wearing a white dress and carrying a large flower in our hands. To an outsider, this would’ve looked like a cult or a group wedding, but in reality, this event symbolized officially becoming a sorority member. The purity we presented in our white dresses and the feminine touch of our flowers set the framework of what we were expected to be – attractive, but not revealing.
Growing up, I was always taught that a woman’s worth and respect was tied to how she modestly presented herself. I was ingrained with the idea that a “lady” honored her body through preserving it and not wearing revealing clothing.
When I came to UC Berkeley, I joined a sorority in the hopes that I wouldn’t be held to these sexist standards – we were all independent young women searching for individuality and freedom.
After the novelty of my first few months in the sorority wore off, I saw how my modesty was essential in maintaining an acceptable appearance. The social norms and dress codes for events like recruitment, philanthropy events or any event in which the public outside of the Greek community was present, was conservative. There was a pressure to constantly dress appealing enough to make our sorority seem “feminine” and attractive, but conservatively enough to ensure that no one appeared promiscuous.
Recruitment especially exemplified this notion. In preparation for recruiting the next pledge class, we were all prepped on the extensive dress code. The presentation gave us guidelines on attire for each day of recruitment with separate images of what to wear and what not to wear.
The slide for appropriate clothing had images of two women, one in a red flowy dress and one of a woman in a tight, red bodycon dress that ended well above her knees. Over the photo was a huge red X, indicating that kind of outfit was absolutely not allowed.
I was confused because the flowy dress was fairly low cut and the tight red one was not. The tight dress was arguably sexier. I couldn’t help but sense that we were being forced to display a certain type of femininity.
As a woman, I was no stranger to slut-shaming or being ridiculed for the clothes I enjoyed wearing, but in a sorority full of my female peers, I was not expecting a presentation that made the girl in the tight dress seem cheaper and less respectable.
In my mind, recruitment was supposed to be our chance to show our true selves by reflecting our personalities in the clothes we choose. I expected we would be allowed to wear what we were most comfortable in. I did not expect the strict rules to wear high heels and dresses in the same color and cut. It felt as though our individuality was muted. The regulation of our attire was made clear even at philanthropy events. I expected the charity to be the focus of the evening, but I realized this was not the case at my very first philanthropy night.
I had just joined my friends to start my shift at the event when we were stopped by an older sorority member. She eyed our tight tube tops before reprimanding us and telling us we needed to change our shirts immediately.
Suddenly, I felt embarrassed at the idea that maybe I was showing too much skin or that my outfit was inappropriate for a charity event, however, upon asking for the honest opinion of many of my friends I was convinced that I wasn’t the problem. A charity event should be about raising money. While having all members wear the same color so that we looked organized and professional made sense, I failed to understand what the tightness of my shirt had to do with anything.
Last Halloween, when one of my sisters had come out in a very revealing Halloween costume, her enthusiasm for the Halloween celebrations was met with judgmental stares and whispers behind her back. I didn’t want to be treated the same way that she had, and my fear of being shamed for showing too much skin or being labeled “attention seeking” pushed me to go upstairs and change my clothes immediately.
If I decide to show no skin, or if I want to wear the smallest skimpiest dress in the world, that is my decision. A community full of young women shouldn’t treat each other differently depending on their outfit choices. A sorority should be a space in which women are uplifted through sisterhood, and by regulating their dress code and enforcing the concept that a woman’s worth is correlated to her modesty, a sorority is failing to do so.
Felicia Sharpe writes the Thursday blog on being an ex-sorority member. Contact her at [email protected].