In my mind, fanny packs have always fallen into the realm of the unthinkable. Grouped with the likes of socks with sandals, crocs, and parachute pants, they were one of those social taboos that needed no explanation. And yet, one recent Saturday night, much to my own surprise (disgust?) I found myself standing at a pregame, in semi-formal attire, drink in hand, with a flaming orange sack strapped around my waist.
By my senior year, my underperforming school had imparted me with a healthy pessimism and acceptably low expectations for humanity, but, for some reason, I thought Princeton would rid me of such a disposition. It would be a land of well-dressed people, saying clever things, eager to begin lifelong, meaningful friendships. I was wrong. By second semester, I found myself cold, bored, sad, and guilty. I was at the place of teenage Hilary Duff’s dreams, and yet I wanted nothing more than to leave. Wallowing was tempting, but seemed gratuitous. My inherently type-A personality told me that doing something was the only way out of what I was rapidly realizing was turning into full-blown depression. And then people started to talk about rush.
And so, a month ago, I arrived at Robertson Hall, squeezed into an outfit that had been deemed, by my roommates and a few select consultants, as “pretty, but not too pretty.” Channeling opening-scene Mulan, I sprinted past hordes of similarly “un-intimidatingly pretty” girls, willing my “clean” makeup to not melt off. Having checked in, I wrote my name on a nametag, resisting every urge to dot the i’s with hearts, and was ushered to my pre-designated spot.
We were alphabetized with impressive speed, and I began to get the sneaking suspicion that a goosestep was impending. Though, of course, I remained mum, fearing seeming “really fucking weird.” Ten minutes later, I knew the class schedules, extra-curriculars, and, in one instance, pets’ names of the girls in my region of the alphabet. As I was about to mention favorite colors, for lack of other conversational fodder, the line lurched forward, and we began the trek to Cloister Inn.
At first, I ignored the smell. As girls in Lilly Pulitzer clapped and screamed Greek letters at me, I closed my nostrils to the odor of mold and broken dreams, and succumbed to a small girl with the iron grip who pulled me into a corner. Having obligatorily declined the offered “tropical” snacks , I was immediately bombarded with forced small talk. Within a few minutes, five girls in the room knew where I lived, what I study, and what I love to do on campus. In an impressive mingling dance, they passed me from sister to sister, and I resisted every urge to invent a taxidermy hobby. Also, my lips were chapped.
There was a rap that would have made Tupac roll over, and a dance, and some schpiel about social life, then we were released, any and all sorority swag snatched from our hands on our way out. The palm tree straw would have added flair to my daily iced coffee, but I got over it as we resumed formation and marched onward to the next event in uncomfortable silence occasionally broken with whatever reserves of small talk remained.
The rest of that night and the next went in much the same way. We were shuttled like well-dressed heifers from house to house, passing in and out of uncomfortable small talk. Smiles and eagerness abounded but they only thinly guised the judgment in the “cleanly” lined eyes. We were socially prodded and poked, vetted and gaged, and I found myself leaving each event exhausted, wishing I could just chug a pitcher of beer, or streak through an econ lecture, and get the whole thing over with.
But then something changed. On the last night, Preference Night, each girl who’d been asked back for the first two nights of the “recruitment” (not “rush”, never “rush”) process had ordered their preferences of sororities, and had been matched with those who also wanted them. Once again, I arrived sweating and late to Robertson and joined the heeled platoon, but the pessimistic irony that had internally narrated my past two days was slightly quieted. Each girl carried herself with a bit more confidence, branching beyond the realm of the mundane in conversations with those around them. An occasional genuine smile could actually be spotted, and I found myself filled with a certain sense of unexpected happiness.
The marching resumed, but this time with a far more self-motivated air. No longer did we feel like animals under the charge of our lettered, manicured shepherds. We were, for the first time in three days, people, worthy of legitimate conversation. The social choreography had come to an end, and, for the first time, I got a sense of the “belonging” and “bonds of sisterhood” I’d internally mocked for weeks. Initially embarrassed, I dug deep for a scathing comment I’d cleverly make to myself as sister after sister explained what their sorority was all about, but I found myself coming up inexplicably dry. I couldn’t help but admire the love and belonging they felt, and was even jealous. Chapped lips and unbearable thirst aside, they were happy to be there, happy to be a part of it. And, as stood there with my flat ginger ale, I couldn’t help but feel the same way.
I went through the rush process convincing myself that it was all a running, internal joke. Almost until the moment I went and picked up my pledge card from the depths of the junior slums, I had a running contrarian commentary on the very system I was buying into. The irony of it does not escape me. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism, perhaps simple ignorance to what value such a system could have. I can’t really be sure. But one thing is certain: something changed in that hectic, sleepless, surreal week. I became a part of something, something that, though farcical and surreal in so many ways, has a genuine undercurrent of care and solidarity. And as, on Saturday, people yelled “Sorority?!”, then proceeded to grab at my fanny pack, fiending for a cigarette or a piece of gum, my sarcastic voice remained mum. Lighter in hand, and a smile (smirk?) on my face, I simply replied, “Yeah.”