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Mutual Selection

“Just make sure you actually sign up,” my friend warned. “I almost missed the registration date and I wouldn’t have even been able to go through recruitment.”

“And your life would have been SO drastically different…” I made sure to saturate each word with sarcasm.

“But it would.” She responded firmly, employing curtness to prove her point whether she made that decision consciously or not. I instinctively rolled my eyes and cracked a condescending grin, but she wasn’t kidding around. Becoming a member of Greek Life was some seriously life-altering shit and it was my naivety and inexperience that prevented me from understanding that.

So I made sure to sign up. I went through the process. I stood in line and I talked to girls and my rush story ended happily ever after. I genuinely believed that would always be the whole story.

***

I decided to give recruitment a chance based off the fact that it seemed like most of the normal girls at orientation were doing it and I had heard some success stories from older friends at other schools. I had no doubt that it would work out in my favor, but if I was wrong I could always just drop out or disaffiliate or whatever. If I didn’t make friends this way, I’d join clubs, meet kids in class, be social in my dorm, maybe even keep up the band thing. I never had trouble making friends so I didn’t think much about a plan B, nor did I ever consider this the only way to make friends.

It seemed I was the minority. There were some girls who wanted to join Greek Life more than they wanted shelter or oxygen. There was a large population of rushees that did their research, for most of whom it didn’t require much more than getting all the right advice from their previously inducted friends. This house is x, this house is y, wear this, say that, don’t do this, make sure to do that. I had friends in similar places but I had no interest in any of the politics. I actually remember a friend telling me that she purposely put on her Star of David necklace for the Jewish houses and then made sure to remove it for the others. Again I rolled my eyes, as if my thinking these actions were stupid and superficial stopped them from happening. Signing up was all the preparation I needed. Enough with the bullshit.

It has since become clear to me that I wasn’t just being carefree or nonchalant; I was very blissfully ignorant. I had no idea what was really separating me from the girls with whom I stood in the rush lines, but it wasn’t about wearing name brand clothes or showing off designer shoes. It had nothing to do with having the right mutual friends or avoiding the right ex-boyfriends. It was about the fact that I was twice the size as everyone around me. What kept me feeling like an outsider wasn’t the connections and advice they had that I didn’t. It was the extra 150 pounds I had that they didn’t.

It was physically evident that 150 more pounds made me bigger than them, fatter than them, and heavier than them, but that’s not what created the distance between us or caused my unintentional self-isolation. In a lot of ways I didn’t know at the time, the way I responded to my obesity also caused me to be more ignorant, more naïve, more unaware, and hence more carefree and nonchalant than them. I had a lot that they didn’t, but they knew a lot that I didn’t. I was in denial of my obesity, and by extension, any effect it had on my life. I didn’t share the understanding that my world was, and would continue to be (especially through the rush process), affected by my size. My dismissal of obesity’s implications disconnected me from the world, but the veil of denial has since been lifted. It was with my sorority that I have since lost those 150 pounds. It was with those girls and in that house that I divided my physical self into two. My weight loss journey was sandwiched between rush of freshman year and rush of senior year, my entire life transforming in the interim. So I went back to rush in order to reexamine what I missed the first time.

***

Directions: sit in room eight until the freshmen arrive and kill the downtime with small talk until the presenters knock on the door. A group of 20 or so freshmen timidly enter the double bedroom in which I sit leisurely on a futon with a couple of my friends. We welcome them warmly, simulating smiles to counter their evident hesitation to approach older girls. They pack themselves in tightly, sitting on the floor with nametags hanging around their necks and eyes wandering around the room. Variations of the most popular perfumes simultaneously compete with and compliment one another. It’s a diverse bunch of girls – a genuine grab bag of tall, short, fat, skinny, blond, brunette, skins of varying shades and styles of all kinds – which is always indicative of the first round. (As the process advances, the returning freshmen in front of each house start to look suspiciously similar to one another). We ask them to introduce themselves and divulge the best story from their first weeks of college life (!)

As expected, it takes a few long seconds before one of them volunteers to begin. Every mediocre story about getting lost on campus, getting rejected from a bar, or getting a fake ID, is followed by nervous laughter. Every silence lasts too long. Each time one of the girls lets slip something even minimally inappropriate (“I was drunk” or “we made out”), a handful of them would immediately dart their eyes toward the seniors to catch our signs of approval or disapproval. The interactions aren’t necessarily awkward, nor is it completely full of tension, but any witness to the situation would immediately conclude that this was not a room full of best friends, friends, or even mere acquaintances. All of them are only half-present; none are fully at ease. They know better.

They could feel our scrutiny, no matter how harmless it may have actually been, and behaved accordingly. They were concerned about their outfits and their hair, they were scared of saying the wrong thing, namedropping the wrong person, letting slip their true religious identity or forgetting to mention their coolest talent. It meant different things if they said they went to an TKE or Sig party over a DKE or Sig Ep party during welcome week. It mattered if they bought football season tickets or if they had no interest in the tailgating scene. It was telling if they were one of the weirdoes in the Residential College or a transfer student now rushing a year late. It was the possibility of encountering any potential conversation and being judged on the basis of it that drove every one of them into a state of hyper-awareness and hyper-caution that wouldn’t fade until the rush process had been completed. They were all aware of the fact that they were now a part of a process in which others would form judgments that would ultimately craft their college experiences.

I tried to use my time with the freshman to channel the anxieties of my past self, but in vain. When in their position, I was only physically there, looking around and taking it all in, hearing and feeling the process going on around me. My mind, however, was on autopilot. I wasn’t full of thought, doubt, concern, or worry, like they were and like I should have been. I was under the impression that as per my past, I would make the right friends and get sorted into the right house and the rest would be history. I thought that if I showed up, if I performed in this context as I had in every other, things would work out as they always had. I didn’t know it at the time, but moments like these were proof that I had perfected my coping mechanism – you can’t worry about being a victim of discrimination when you refuse to accept you could be discriminated against.

Recruitment is a process of “mutual selection.” You choose them, but they have to choose you back. If they pick you and you don’t want them, you won’t end up there. This is the idea that infiltrated every other girl with fear and anxiety – moving forward with the process literally required people to like you. I liked me, they would want me; there was nothing for me to be concerned about. I never tried to analyze, or so much as even recognize, that there may be reasons why all of it felt painless for me and terrifying for others. The extroverts would find the entire process easier and less anxiety provoking than the introverts. There wasn’t much to uncover. In reality, I was still blissfully ignorant in my believing I still had total control over my life, while every girl was around me was justifiably panicking about the partial surrender of her future to the decision making power of complete strangers.

***

With the exception of my physical appearance, the typical fat girl and I had nothing in common. I always considered myself a skinny girl in a fat suit because I never let my size get in the way of doing what I wanted to do, living the life I wanted to live. Having lost half my body weight, I can now analyze my past self from a new distance and dissect the persona with which I always identified. I’ve come to understand the real truth behind my killer sense of humor, shockingly high self-esteem, and ability to effortlessly bring fun and joy into every room I entered. It was not despite my obesity, but because of my obesity, that I crafted this highly personable demeanor. It is clear to me now that I once had to work at distracting people from channeling their innate rejection and I used to feel the need to strike preemptively at their immediately passing judgments. As a response, I learned how to manipulate my personality to demand treatment no different from anyone else. I made people laugh so they wouldn’t laugh at me; I made people feel good about themselves so they wouldn’t victimize me. I constructed a personality that would work in a society that uses obesity against you, so that I would never have obesity used against me.

I couldn’t let external forces influence my life because my life would only ever be negatively influenced. The truth is that I survived obesity without struggle because I subconsciously employed this strategic method for social interaction. I got through the uphill battle against society by acting like a skinny girl and, lucky for me, the world responded accordingly and let me get away with it. I didn’t get bullied; I wasn’t suffering to fit in with society or struggling to accept myself. I was popular and well liked. If you knew me on paper, you’d be shocked to see me in person. My situation required that I take control of how I was perceived – when you’re so overweight, you must mold the world around you before the world around you has the chance to mold you.

***

When each of the third sets of rush concludes, the freshmen grab their belongings from the porch, slip off the heels this round’s formal attire called for, find their spare pair of shoes (if they were smart enough to bring), and sprint to the next house on their list. As soon as the door to our house closes, the preparation process pandemonium begins anew. While the most dedicated sorority members transport trays of water pitchers and cupcakes from the kitchen to the piano room and back, the executive board members sprint around the house collecting every crumpled napkin and used plastic cup. My friends and I stand around talking and eating, simply wasting time and taking up space. That’s what the seniors are for. These 20-minute blocks always brought back memories of being backstage of a high school musical; girls fix their makeup, grab a snack, adjust their outfits, and gossip by whisper until it’s time to do it all over again.

While slyly sneaking our favorite chocolate-covered cookie dough balls from the mammoth steel refrigerator in the kitchen, my best friend, Alli, marches over to tell me about an interaction she just had with our social chair (the airhead junior whose sole responsibility is planning parties for a community that takes immense pride in wearing tank tops that say, “We Put the Rage in Underage”). Alli overheard her talking about a freshman that just left our house – something about how she “absolutely cannot be in this house” and “we have to cut her from the list” because something something something “and she’s a fat ginger.”

Most of the time, Alli is a lively envelope full of all that is right in the world sealed with good intentions and wrapped in extreme kindness. But in this moment she is fueled by anger, speaking fervently with justified pride as she describes her interjection, throwing around words like ashamed, disappointed, and one of her favorites, “are you kidding me?” When we lock eyes, I notice a trace of tears so slight she’s unlikely aware it even exists. She refers to my story as a reality check. I am one of, if not the most universally well liked person in our chapter, and there used to be two of me. I was twice the size when accepted into this house, have since lost half my body, and took this sorority along the entire incredible journey. She points out that I am “the best person in this entire sorority” and that I was approaching 300 pounds when I first got here. How dare she.

I’m now glaring directly at our social chair, channeling the resentment I feel for every girl of her kind. They’re only cool with you until you’re gone, they’re only interested in you until you leave, they’re nice to your face and freed when your back is turned. To me, they represent something much deeper than superficiality and two-faced perfection. I wasn’t constantly fearful of getting called out for being fat – thankfully society has established a taboo culture around obesity that makes such explicit discrimination unacceptable. It was behind closed doors, long after I’d left, when these girls became the ones I most feared. They were the ones that perpetuated prejudices, but only carefully and quietly behind closed doors. Girls like her say the words that many are thinking, the words that could have kept me out of this house. The words that did keep me out of others. The words that, when targeted at me, proved I was no longer an exception to discrimination.

After the fat ginger left, it was out of her hands. If enough girls in the sorority agreed, she would be flippantly removed from our list of acceptable returnees and unlikely to ever see this house again. Now I’m seeing it in action – the control of the other side. Once a freshman has come, made her impression, and gone, her thoughts, feelings, opinions, and desires, go with her. They step out the door, we finalize the decision. It was only after seeing, experiencing, and actually participating in the process of exercising control over the destinies of strangers, that I could understand what a frightening idea that would have been for my freshman year self to comprehend. I was never a ginger, but…

***

The early September sun was shining and it had been a couple of days since my first round of recruitment. I visited all 15 houses and was now on my way to the art museum, where an older member of Greek Life would hand me the list of houses I was to visit for the second set. I can still imagine myself walking down South University Avenue, almost bouncing with excitement as I floated toward what would I knew would be a promising little piece of paper. I tried to make predictions about what to expect, taking into consideration the order I ranked the houses while mentally reliving the conversations I had at each one. My evaluation of each of those fleeting social interactions left me full of confidence. I knew I had nothing to worry about.

I must not have noticed the concerned look on this girl’s face when she gave me the paper initially, but I did hear her “do you want to talk about it?” while the structure of denial and idealism upon which I built my life immediately collapsed upon me. Instead of 11 houses, there were seven. No I don’t want to fucking talk about it. Not only was I missing some (most) of the houses I imagined myself joining, but I only received a partial list. There wasn’t even a full list. I wasn’t one of the desired girls returning to the maximum amount of houses, nor was I wanted enough to get 10. Or even nine. Or eight. I was grouped with the rest of the questionable rushees left standing, only returning to seven. They said a lot of the process was computerized – was there a glitch in the system? Was it a mistake? Only seven houses? Me? What the fuck?

***

Until this point, I dodged any circumstance in which my obesity would play a role, cause an effect, or determine an outcome. I always knew, on some deeper level that I could never consciously acknowledge, that I was restricted in some sense. The mere thought of a running track was enough to make me nauseous; lacrosse and soccer fields were just too long; I couldn’t wear the midriff-exposing cheerleading outfit or the skintight spandex shorts required for volleyball. So, I never once let myself even minimally entertain the thought of trying out for track, lacrosse, soccer, cheerleading, or volleyball. I knew better. These were all activities that I kept out of my life and consequently from my stream of consciousness. I couldn’t do them so I didn’t do them. Since I didn’t do them, I could deny ever being incapable of doing them. Understand?

There were plenty of things that my weight kept me from ever attempting, but I’d never let it stop me from something I had the determination to do. If being overweight didn’t make me ineligible for a competition, I considered myself as capable as anyone to compete. Obesity couldn’t stop me from getting good grades, so I had a straight A average all my life. It’s possible that I used my instruments to become a star of the music department because I couldn’t use my body to do flips on the side of a football field. Regardless, none of it ever made me unhappy because I could pretend my life was molded like the rest of my peers’. Some kids like sports, some kids like music; I found my niche just like everyone else. Maybe my weight made me different, but it was never going to make me worse. Maybe it was shaping my life, but it wouldn’t limit my life. I felt I could be challenged with anything that didn’t absolutely require thinness, and because society is so accepting and encouraging in regards to obesity, thinness isn’t an absolute requirement for much.

It wasn’t a requirement for rush. So not only was rush something I could do, it was something I could embrace my personality to do well. Social situations were my calling, connecting with people was my strength; making people like me came naturally. Obesity could only ever temporarily or minimally affect me because I just wouldn’t accept the alternative. Before this moment, I attributed nothing to my size. Why wasn’t I making out with boys like my friends? I put them in the friend zone. Why didn’t I shop at Abercrombie and Fitch? Even if I could fit into it, wouldn’t really want to. Why are they laughing? Something funny must have happened. I didn’t face rejection because I did what I had to do to avoid getting rejected. If you try hard enough not to see it, the unwelcomed truth becomes invisible.

I can’t deny that there were times a confrontation with my body was explicit and unavoidable. My parents and doctors saw a reality built upon skewed selectivity and tried carefully to counter that. I asked why my hands were always so damn sweaty and how my shoes got so smelly. I noticed a pattern of feeling physically unstable when walking down the stairs and back pain when walking for too long at all. I got stress fractures in my foot, twice (too much weight causes too much stress). I was told repeatedly that obesity was the reason, but nothing could convince me that my body was getting in the way of my life. Denial can be so powerful. I truly believed in alternate theories, there had to be other answers.

When I saw seven houses, there were no other answers. I wasn’t thinking of it this way at the time, but I really thought I had total control of the situation and that I was still the sole determinant of my destiny. That’s all I’d ever known. Considering sorority recruitment was a test of personality and likability, it was the kind of test I always passed. I didn’t realize rush was simultaneously an assessment of physical appearance, the kind of test I never passed. To anyone not blinded by denial, rush was very obviously one and the same. It’ll always be a possibility that I just gave my personality too much credit, but in that moment there was nothing I could blame but my body. In an immediate way and for the first time in my life, my fate wasn’t up to me; I was restricted from getting what I wanted because external forces forbid it. And not only could I see the power in somebody else’s hands, but I had no choice but to identify the unfortunate reason why it was no longer only in my own.

I couldn’t let my roommate hear my breakdown; I could barely admit the situation to myself. I remember desperately needing the hallway to stay empty – if anyone saw a girl crying on the phone that night, it was because she didn’t get a good list and she was agonizing to her mom or best friend about starting transfer applications. I stared out the window into East Quad’s courtyard and sobbed on the phone with a friend as I choked on the revelation; they don’t want me because of what I look like, this was where my luck ran out, my mom was right about mean girls and name calling. The sting and sadness of being a victim was uncomfortable in its unfamiliarity. Getting those words out felt like getting poison down.

***

Most girls who looked like I did would have gone nowhere near rush, realizing the reality that letting other girls decide their future was a horrifying concept. Maybe they would have gone through the first round, but they would have at least expected a list like mine to follow. Even if they didn’t want to let themselves expect the worst, they were justified in their skepticism. At the very least, they wouldn’t have been shocked. How could anyone have actually been shocked? But I, so unaware and out of touch, felt paralyzed by hopelessness when it became clear I was no longer calling the shots. The painful truth: I wasn’t an exception to the mutual selection rule. I chose them, but they weren’t all choosing me back. Until this moment, I could pretend I didn’t have it harder by sticking out of the crowd. Maybe somewhere out there skinny girls were being mean and fat girls had problems, but it all existed in a world independent from my own. Now, I could no longer deny the social chairs of the world existed. I was working with them – working against them – to craft my list of houses. To determine the rest of my life.

***

I came out victorious. I wasn’t lying when I said my rush story ended happily ever after. Despite feeling like I held onto the rush process by a thread, I eventually pledged to the house I longed to be a part of, the house I felt I belonged to most. Three years have gone by, 150 pounds are gone, and I can say with full confidence and without exaggeration that my rush success changed the trajectory of my life more than I could have ever imagined. When you lose as much weight as I did, everybody’s burning question is some version of why. Why then? Why there? You were overweight your entire life, why at that point? I never have and still do not have a satisfying concrete answer, but I believe in the accuracy of my primary theory: I was finally so happy with my life that there was nothing else to work on but myself. Why was I so happy? Because my life fell into place in all the right ways. I attribute that mostly, if not entirely, to the friends I made and the times I had with my sorority. Recruitment could have been a nightmare, the process could have ended badly or not have been completed at all, but having my life influenced by others ended up being the best thing that could have possibly happened to me. I can accept the loss of control only now that my control has been lost.

***

I always thought the kitchen of my sorority house looked like a massive dance classroom filled with tables and chairs; it’s essentially a dining room for 70 people, so when the necessities for eating are cleaned out (as they are for rush), it becomes a large empty rectangular space that can be used for pretty much anything. Tonight, it’s being used for the last round of recruitment. It’s dark but not completely black; the only illumination comes from a long string of dangling white Christmas lights hanging draped high around the perimeter of the ceiling. Nothing is left but a solitary row of chairs at one short end of the room, intended for the seniors. Huddling together for what will inevitably be one of the last times, we take our position and watch for the sliding wooden door to be slowly drawn back, indicating the freshmen were about to arrive.

Unlike the first three house visits – in which the visiting freshmen are greeted by chants, screams, songs, and dances that justify Greek Life’s cultish reputation – they are slowly and quietly led by older members into the kitchen for a short ceremony. The sophomores form a semi-circle, standing lined up against three walls of the room with the freshman they were assigned to rush sitting in front of them. I look at their young and confused faces; to them, this place is so new, so distant, so unfamiliar, so far from personally significant. We’re only a few years apart but this makes them feel worlds away. The room fills and a hush falls over the crowd. Everyone faces the seniors.

I’m standing in the room where it all happened, where my college years unfolded in front of me. I’m in the kitchen of Sigma Delta Tau at the University of Michigan and I’m visualizing the past three years as they occurred, right here in this room. I see my freshman self with a pink boa draped over my shoulders, starring in a ridiculous dance competition and bringing tears of laughter to the cheeks of my audience members; I see my sophomore self standing on a chair telling a full kitchen of eager listeners the epic story of how I just successfully secured the best boy for our upcoming date party; I see my junior self, sobbing in the arms of my big before leaving to go abroad, knowing she will have graduated by the time I return. Now I am my senior self, unsure how it’s possible for me to no longer be the one sitting on the floor or standing against the wall. I’m about to participate in presenting the senior speech – a short, collectively delivered presentation referencing our most hilariously embarrassing moments separated by strokes of spoken sentimentality. We sing the songs and read the script, occasional sniffles unable to hide in the darkness. As it comes to a close, I say in unison with my 11 best friends, “Thank you SDT for changing our lives.”

Tears streaming down my face, standing tightly next to the girls without whom I can no longer feel complete, squeezing Alli’s hand for support to get through the final sentence before allowing a complete emotional release, I end our speech alone.

“Thank you for saving mine.”

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