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Sorority Science

Texas Tri Deltas fight eating disorders with psychologist Carolyn Black Becker ’90.

By Elizabeth Redden ’05

Carolyn Becker ’90

Carolyn Becker’s Trinity University students and other sorority members have contributed thousands of hours to help her develop a program to reduce body image dissatisfaction among young women.

In July, Carolyn Becker was initiated. Call her a Delta Delta Delta.

“One thought that went through my head was, ‘Oh-my-gosh. I’ve become a sorority sister.’ But the next thought was, ‘I’ve never seen an organization put this much effort into eating disorders prevention.’”

It turns out that the Tri Deltas are interested in a lot more than the next fraternity party. When they made Becker—an associate professor of psychology at Trinity University in Texas—a member of their sisterhood, they were thinking more about the Sorority Body Image Program that Becker founded. Recently, Tri Delta’s executive organization adopted the Trinity-rooted program with ambitious, 10-year plans for nationwide expansion.

Becker is humbled by the possibilities.

“I don’t think that it ever occurred to me as someone who was never in a sorority—and never cared about being in a sorority—that as highly organized groups of women, they have the power to make things happen and to create change,” she says. “That’s probably my Swarthmore feminist education coming together in a very odd way to match with sororities.”

It may seem an odd match, because sororities have been absent from Swarthmore for 75 years—ever since Molly Yard Garrett ‘33, who went on to become president of the National Organization for Women, helped lead a student campaign to abolish them.

“I actually think,” Becker observes, “that there’s enormous irony in all of this.”

Becker’s unplanned detour into sorority life enables her to bring her evidence-based eating disorders prevention program to “staggering” numbers of college women nationwide. Tri Delta boasts about 13,500 active members and 136 chapters—and has committed to help spread the body image program to other interested sororities.

Amid all of this, the Academy for Eating Disorders, a global professional association, recently endorsed the Sorority Body Image Program after its board of directors reviewed the program’s scientific merit. The endorsement means that “the program was determined to be based on the best available evidence in the field,” explains Judith Banker, the Academy’s

“I never would have thought this big. It was the sororities who thought this big,” Becker says.

After earning a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Rutgers University in 1996, Becker spent three years in Dartmouth Medical School’s psychiatry department—long enough, she says, “to learn that I really didn’t like academic medicine.” Attracted to Trinity because she wanted to teach at a liberal arts institution, she explains, “I needed to come up with research that was amenable to this kind of setting and could include undergraduates.”

Becker had researched eating disorders treatment in graduate school—drawn to the field because it combines her interests in culture, psychopathology, and women’s issues. Yet, the history of eating disorders prevention, she explains, “is actually relatively depressing. For decades, we really couldn’t find anything that worked.”

Becker, who regards herself as “something of an optimist,” figured there had to be a way to improve eating disorders prevention, or at least reduce body image dissatisfaction. In reviewing the literature with a student in 2001, the two came across a promising prevention program developed by Eric Stice, now a scientist at the Oregon Research Institute.

“We thought, ‘Maybe we can replicate this,’” Becker says. Her student research assistant—who happened to be a sorority member—offered up a ready-made sample population. Becker launched a small pilot study, adapting the Stice program for sorority use.

The Sorority Body Image Program takes on the “thin ideal”—that for women, to be beautiful is to be thin. Researchers consider internalization of the ideal to be a possible risk factor for developing eating disorders. And beyond clinically diagnosable diseases like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, body image issues remain big concerns on college campuses.

“Although full-syndrome eating disorders occur in a minority of college women, subclinical eating pathology, which is associated with negative affect and body dissatisfaction, appears to be common,” Becker writes in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, a peer-reviewed journal.

The program is premised on a psychological concept called “dissonance theory,” which, as Becker writes, “suggests that if individuals act in ways that contradict their beliefs, then they typically will change their beliefs to align with their actions.”

In short, the Sorority Body Image Program asks sisters to actively resist the thin ideal in two, two-hour group sessions. Sorority members write out the costs of pursuing the ideal, debunk it in role plays, and even undress (alone in their rooms) for a homework assignment in which they’re asked to stand in front of a mirror, “wearing as little clothing as possible,” and identify positive qualities about themselves.

By asking participants to behave in ways that counteract the thin ideal—even if they believe in it—the hope is that they’ll enter an uncomfortable psychological state (dissonance) and thus will feel compelled to give up, at least to an extent, their investment in it.

Early results proved successful, suggesting that the intervention does in fact reduce the sorority sisters’ internalization of the thin ideal. Becker subsequently went on to run several studies demonstrating that the positive results hold even when trained peer leaders—as opposed to clinicians—conduct the Sorority Body Image Program.

Becker’s recent research zeros in on questions of real-world application and replication. Relying on trained peer leaders from within the sororities makes the program more easily replicable, explains Becker—who ran her sorority-based studies at Trinity without any grant funding and without the help of graduate students. (Undergraduate sorority members, however, earn co-authorship on Becker’s journal articles and co-presenting duties at scientific conferences. Becker estimates, conservatively, that Trinity sorority members have contributed 12,000 unpaid hours to running and studying the Sorority Body Image Program since its beginnings.)

“We’re trying to use the organizational power of sororities to address eating disorders on a more collective level,” says Becker. As a happy consequence, she adds that the program, now embedded in sorority orientation at Trinity, has changed the way sorority members talk and think about eating disorders year-round: “They have gotten more assertive about saying to someone, ‘We’re really worried. You have a problem.’”

But how to deploy a program that has worked so well at Trinity—with just six sororities—on a national scale?

Enter Tri Delta.

The sorority’s national organization first expressed interest in the Sorority Body Image Program in 2005, at which point Becker piloted what was then a Trinity-based initiative at other universities. Finally, in 2007, “We said, ‘Let’s stop piloting; let’s start doing,’” recalls Susan Woda, Tri Delta’s senior director of operations. Tri Delta has since set a goal of bringing the program to every collegiate chapter at least once every four years—reaching every “college generation.”

“We believe in the integrity and the value of this program,” Woda says.

This summer, Tri Delta announced it would underwrite the cost of printing 20,000 copies of a Sorority Body Image Program manual, co-authored by Becker and Stice and published under the Oxford University Press “Treatments That Work” series. “From our initial estimates, 20,000 manuals were going to get us through five years of the program, based on our mapped-out expansion,” Woda says. “The response has been so incredible, we’re now finding out that those manuals are probably going to last us three years, which is exciting—more than we ever could have hoped for or wished for.”

Speaking in July, just after her return from Tri Delta’s national conference in Chicago—a newly initiated honorary member and a recipient of the sorority’s Vision award—Becker seems awed by the scope and serendipity of it all, yet still very much in control. “It’s actually a little bit of a runaway freight train at the moment,” she says, laughing like someone who, moments earlier, had safely jumped aboard.

In August, Elizabeth Redden covered the Democratic National Convention for, where she is a reporter.

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