Joke All You Want, But My Sorority Days Were Golden

by Melissa L. Fenton
Originally Published: 
Image courtesy Melissa Fenton

It was almost 25 years ago this fall that I pledged a sorority. Yes, I was one of those girls, a real-life sorority girl circa 1991. We were called bowheads, accused of buying our friends, became the butt of many a blonde joke and a bimbo jab, and were incessantly teased about our teased-up hair. Yet despite all the stereotypical stabs at our college identities, I still loved every minute of the time I spent sporting those pastel pink and green greek letters and being surrounded, mentored and befriended by some of the most amazing girls I had ever met.

This fall, across over 650 college campuses nationwide, almost 150,000 young women will line up at the doorsteps of Corinthian-columned stately manors. They will be chewing on breath mints, wiping their sweaty brows and preparing to walk in and present their best first impression to a gaggle of giggling total strangers. Maybe they will be the first in their family to go Greek, or they will be falling into a long line of sorority legacies, pledging to do what their moms, their grandmas, even their great grandmas did. It’s like a job interview on steroids, where personality, composure, poise and sense of humor all converge in one unscripted, 15-minute conversation that may never even get past “What’s your major?”

For one week, these fledgling potential new members, or PNMs, will hobble on their heels from house to house, walking in and out of “ice water, philanthropy and pref” parties, all hoping to close the deal at week’s end with an official bid invitation from one of the sororities. From the outside—and to those who never experienced Greek life—this may all appear archaic, vapid and shallow. It may scream of disingenuousness. And in many cases, and at many campuses, sure, it may very well be. But for me, as awkward and off-putting as recruitment week was back then, I still remember it as a sort of a coming of age moment, a time when—and we didn’t use this phrase in 1991—I was forced to put my big-girl panties on and bravely go out and meet and find my people. Luckily for me, I did.

Image courtesy Melissa Fenton

My years in a sorority in the early ’90s provided plenty of metaphors and lessons about life—about living, sharing and working with a diverse group of personalities and, of course, learning how to start and maintain strong female relationships. I also learned that nobody looks good in white satin unless maybe you’re about to get married, and that there is always somebody else your size, and 35 closets are way better than one. I learned everyone has a secret special talent: You just have to know how to pull it out of them. Some girls reek of confidence and self-esteem so strong you can’t help but sniff some from their stash for your own, and they want you to. The shy girl turns out just fine. Being the queen bee or PTA president both get old after a while. Always delegate, always. People rise to the occasion, especially when offered pie afterward. Some people don’t wear underwear, and it’s usually the ones you least expect. Beauty queens put on their makeup just like you—they just require way more time to do it.

I learned you can’t help but smile when you’re singing, except if you’re crying, which is just as acceptable. Being at your ideal weight doesn’t change your personality. Don’t be in a hurry for life—it will come right to you, even when you don’t want it to. Nothing good happens after 2 a.m. unless it involves pizza, ice cream or heart-to-heart talks that take place on oversized sectional couches. Yes, you can fake it, just not all the time. Sometimes the best advice is not to give any at all. Days of Our Lives and Melrose Place should be watched by no less than 15 people at a time, minimum. I learned that no matter the problem, the dilemma or the issue—just like an app—there was, and always is, a girlfriend for that. And now, 25 years later, I learned that the sentimental promises we made and the vows of forever-sisterhood bonds we took have indeed endured and always will.

Rising from the pile of big hair, high-top Reeboks, semiformal, tea-length dresses and disco roller skating socials rose some pretty amazing women. We’ve grown into circuit court judges, physicians, school principals and entrepreneurs. We’re cancer survivors, marathoners, global missionaries and philanthropists. We’ve started companies, gone back to school, married men, married women, moved across the world and moved back to our hometowns. We’ve traded in our Greek letters for even better ones, like CEO, CFO, CMO, CPA, MBA, JD, VP and even MOM.

Image courtesy Melissa Fenton

But get us back together again, even if it’s only a few of us, and something magical happens. It’s like we become 19 again, tossing back our hair (though much smaller now) in hearty laughter, talking about everything and nothing all at the same time and reliving our crazy youth even as we now sit at middle age. The Thetas, Tri-Delts, Chi-Os and Kappas, Zetas, ADPis and DZs, doesn’t matter—throw us all in a dimly lit room, hand us a burning candle, start playing something sappy on the piano and witness us put our arms around each other and start swaying. See the flood of good times replay behind our misty eyes and the bonds of sisterhood we took way-back-when manifest themselves in a much deeper understanding of what it means to be a sister and a friend, all these years later. Then watch us look into each other’s eyes and say 10 very, very important words: “Thank God there were no cell phone cameras back then.” In the light of the flame, amen.

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