- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

CHICAGO — With a reputation for emphasizing brains over conventional beauty, the women of the Delta Zeta sorority at Indiana’s DePauw University endured the jokes and unkind nicknames: Their chapter was widely known among students as the “doghouse.”“As a sorority, they had a different image on campus,” said Cindy Babington, the university’s dean of students. “Student culture was not kind to them.”Obsessing about looks has long been a rite of passage for young people, and some worry that the fixation on outward appearance has gotten out of control — with young people’s ever-increasing focus on everything from celebrity and skinny jeans to marketing themselves on MySpace, Facebook and YouTube.The women of Delta Zeta know all about the pressure. With chapter membership dwindling, sorority leaders recently took drastic measures. They kicked out 23 members from the stately brick mansion near campus, drawing accusations that the women’s weight, looks and race didn’t fit the image the sorority was going for.Sorority leaders insist that those who left weren’t committed to recruiting. “It was not a beauty contest,” said Casey Jolley, the chapter’s interim president and one of only five members who remain at the house.But Rachel Pappas, a DePauw junior who was among several other members who left in protest, finds that hard to believe — and calls discrimination based on image “the new racism.”“When you look at all these things and see that all of them have been eliminated, you wonder what it could be other than the image issue,” Miss Pappas said.That the evictions happened so publicly, she adds, now provides the chance to address the larger issue — and a newfound brazenness that cultural trend-watchers say is prompting more people to freely voice their biases.These days, “American Idol” dedicates hours of airtime to auditions in which judges openly chortle and make fun of would-be contestants’ looks, style and personality quirks. Taking a cue from the supermarket tabloids, entertainment magazines and TV shows now regularly pick apart celebrities’ appearance and attire.It’s no wonder, one professor says, that students feel free to mock those who don’t fit their image ideal.”It’s out from under the rocks. They’re saying what so many people think and believe,” said Thomas Cottle, an education professor at Boston University who has studied the way appearance affects public affirmation. “It’s tragic.”There have been a few successful attempts to broaden the beauty ideal.TV viewers have embraced the bushy-browed, braces-wearing “Ugly Betty,” while advertiser Dove has successfully launched a “Campaign for Real Beauty” that includes women with tummy rolls and wrinkles.But, Mr. Cottle said, those examples go against the flow.Recent studies have found that a growing number of young adults are more narcissistic and materialistic than their predecessors. And more of them are seeking spa treatments, plastic surgery and anti-aging remedies at younger and younger ages.It’s gotten to the point that image is the “currency” on which youth culture runs, says Jessica Weiner, a Los Angeles-based author and public speaker who specializes in young people and self-esteem.”We have flung so far out of control in this society based on appearances,” Miss Weiner said. “We’re incredibly more focused on image than we were even 10 years ago.”Denise Fedewa, an executive vice president and planning director at ad agency Leo Burnett USA, also has noticed an obsession with image in her work in other countries, such as Japan and India, where more career opportunities are opening up for women.”It’s interesting how much they rely on designer brands and having certain accessories that say certain things about them — to say, ‘I’m a woman on the rise and doing well,’ ” she said.

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