I would like to be the kind of person that an acquaintance would assume is so intrinsically cool that, even as a youth, they’d imagine I was probably reading a lot of Palahniuk and really into arcane Hebrew psych rock. And that I spent my free time dyeing my hair teal, quoting Seinfeld, and studying Japanese—a precursor to Tavi’s Rookie girl, I guess. You see, anyone can be into weird shit as an adult, but having had those interests as a teen is a real victory—the authentic vintage Chanel in the smelly, rotting, thrift-store mess that is high school.
Unfortunately, my adolescence was as unremarkable as my diet at the time—I devoured Subway turkey sandwiches, Starbucks Frappuccinos, artificial UV rays, and anything on Bravo. It’s not that I inherently had terrible taste, I think it was more my unconscious gravitating towards stuff that other people liked and found acceptable. After all, I did have the ‘peculiar loner’ thing going for me—my only three friends, bless them, all attended another high school on the other side of Dallas. I think it was that same yearning to be a part of a ‘group,’ to feel that I belonged, that drove me to rush a sorority at The University of Texas.
I once read an interview with Hiroaki Aoki, the founder of Benihana Japanese Steakhouse, in which he recalls waking up in a hospital bed after a horrific speedboat crash, only to find his wife standing next to his mistress and secret love child. He said he would have ripped all the life-giving tubes from his body if both of his arms weren’t broken. That’s sort of how I felt immediately after accepting an invitation to join Chi Omega, emerging from the dark auditorium where I received my bid card, dazed and squinting from the sunlight, with hundreds of girls screaming and crying and calling me “sister.” I immediately knew I had made a terrible mistake, and that mistake had manifested itself as a group of strange girls I was from this point forward to refer to as my sisters. I never had and, really, never wanted a sister. But it was too late. This was my new family, my arms were broken, and I had to lie back and accept it. After all, the Chi-O motto is “You only choose once.”
I made it through the tough part—rush—by convincing these young women that I was worthy of joining the sisterhood. I was one of them. Which, if my Facebook photos are any indication, consisted of primarily looking the part. I knew the formula, and seeing as though my personal style was influenced by my heavy addiction to Laguna Beach-era TV, it wasn’t much of a jump for me to dress like a sorority girl. I say “formula” because if there’s one thing that sororities get right, it’s consistency. Try to pick me out of that group shot . It’s impossible; sorority girls use their DVF florals and staggered group configurations like how fish stick together in large schools, and for the same purposes:
1) As a defense against predators (bitchy girls in other sororities and drunk frat lords)
2) to enhance foraging success (recruiting new members)
3) to heighten the chances of finding a mate (drunk frat lords).
Not to imply that Greek life is inherently sexist, but every single delightful memory of skipping down the halls of the Chi Omega House—from the immaculate shared bathroom where I kept my toothpaste and shampoo in a neat little cubby, to the floor-to-ceiling wall of Essie nail polish in my friend’s suite—revolved around prepping for some variation of a [Dominant Male Role] and [Corresponding Submissive Female] Hoes party. We were by no means stupid enough to not realize the backwardness, but went along with the joke, laughing all the way to the free alcohol. Hell, it’s even more sexist to assume that college girls aren’t just as horny as college dudes—more than a few were out to get some ass!
Frat boys were easy targets, of course, and required only a very lazy and broad understanding of what men find attractive: boobs, long hair, tanned skin, and white teeth. I, hand to God, have always been repulsed by rich men, and by default, Texas frat boys. And since my bid-day feelings of regret were never really reconciled, I tended to view myself as a cultural anthropologist simply studying the fascinating enigma that is Greek life—a participant observer, if you will. So I dutifully applied Crest Whitestrips before every big event, wore silky low-cut blouses tucked into body-con skirts, and actually I just naturally had great hair (don’t hate me), which I conservatively parted to one side, but not before giving it a good tease at the back and maybe a few Lohan-esque waves.
Going tanning—either laying out by the Chi-O House pool (a deciding factor when I pref’ed them over Kappa), or simply driving their mid-sized SUVs/Audis down the block to the tanning salon—was the perfect bonding activity for the forced friendships of sisterhood. Zero eye contact, minimal talking, completely acceptable to just give up and pop some earphones in, and in the second case, you didn’t even have to be in the same room. Many sorority girls were actually naturally tan, if you consider the fact that they spent so much time at their family lake houses, or playing tennis at the country club. For me, though, the tanning thing was more complicated. Tell a young girl with a poor body image that something as simple as napping naked in a heated pod will help her look skinnier and clear acne, and she’ll do it every day. I knew the risks, and that the “BUT VITAMIN D!” marketing efforts were bogus. And there was obviously a disconnect between what I thought fake-baking made me look like (exotic) and what I actually looked like (Melissa Gorga). But thinking back, it’s all very clear: I went tanning because at that point in my life—surrounded by people I didn’t like, pleasing girls I didn’t care about, no sense of what the future might hold—I truly wanted to die. Maybe it’s the most passive method of suicide I could have chosen, but I never finish anything in a timely manner.
In sorority life, brow maintenance happened before every third or fourth manicure. Many girls had them waxed, but I distrusted nail salons, and as a bonding exercise they required more talking than I was comfortable with, so learned to just enjoy personal grooming as a hobby. I plucked and trimmed my bushy brows into submission—this was before Cara Delevignge. Sorority brows weren’t so bad—maybe sometimes a smidge too far apart, probably too thin, and always with an unnaturally clean lower edge.
Makeup-wise, there was no subtlety or nuance to the ‘sorority girl’ look, save for each girl’s particular shade preferences. Most went with your standard-issue Clinique neutral kits, but makeup had been a passion of mine since 1998, when Geri Halliwell showed me all that a woman could be, so I was the girl at the House with the most extensive and interesting stash of products—and the others lined up (even a few Pi Phis and Thetas) for me to give them my signature smoky cat eye. I started with a dab of Laura Mercier’s Metallic Creme Eye Colour in Gold, followed by a blended cut crease—either with Bobbi Brown’s Taupe shadow, or, for a more festive event, Nars Ondine—which I also dusted beneath the lower lashes. I wet a mix of Bobbi Brown Rich Brown, Nars Night Clubbing and Nars Santorini (RIP), with some eye drops and applied them with a brush right onto the lash line, tracing out an angular flick at the edge of the eye. Then came the frosty highlighter dusted in the inner-eye corners, brow bones, bridge of the nose, tops of the cheeks—enough to show up in low-res point-and-shoot pics. Then, mascara, a dusting of shimmery Nars Laguna Bronzer layered over whatever blush was on hand, and always a nude lip—ideally one from the YSL Rouge Pur line. Maybe a red, if attending an annual Santa and His Ho Ho Hoes event .
I’m not ashamed to say that what knocked me out of my sorority-house mentality and into my simpler, but more adventurous reality was a guy. I met him during a summer internship in New York at a dive bar—he was the complete opposite of everything that was Frat Life: covered in tattoos, not particularly wealthy, and not particularly white. His childhood interests included ’80sPlayboy centerfolds, death metal, and motorcycles—the first of which got me to start trying for tan lines rather than an overall toasted effect, and eventually weaning me off tanning altogether. And the teeth whitening, no more of that—he liked fucked-up teeth, especially my slight snaggle situation, which also had me quitting my nightly Invisalign regimen. Dropping those habits created a landslide. I narrowed my daily beauty regime to showering and moisturizing.
All the other stuff I’d been doing, all that time I’d spent huffing nail polish and hairspray, had really just the cumulative effect of making me look not particularly interesting, or, for that matter, memorable. But now instead of being one of those girls, I’m gunning to be that girl.
My sorority had a name for girls that were ‘OK, but nothing special’: plain vanilla, or PV for short. (On that note, we also had our own industrial-grade soft-serve ice cream machine, which fucking ruled.) I like to think of my current self—unkempt unibrow, pale, my coffee-tinted teeth shifting like plate tectonics… oh, also bleach-blond—as more of an acquired taste.