Girls on the Verge explores women’s rites of passage

Hallelujah! Someone has finally investigated the initiations in which many young women feel compelled to participate.

For years, Americans heard about the rites of passage designed to turn boy into man – little league, fraternities, gangs, strip clubs, etc. But now Vendela Vida explores the trials some women face to become part of a group in her titillating book, Girls on the Verge: Debutante Dips, Gang Drive-bys, and Other Initiations (St. Martin’s Press).

Vida interviewed hundreds of young women, ranging in age from 15 to 25, to provide readers with a firsthand look into various subcultures including sororities, debutante balls, witches and gangs.

The highlight of Vida’s study comes in the first chapter about sorority life. The 27-year-old Vida disguised herself as a UCLA freshman and rushed Delta Delta Delta sorority. Though she found many of the stereotypes about ditzy sorority girls who care only about fashion and boys to be true, Vida says she found some pleasure in being among the chosen.

Vida also intelligently compares sorority life to American ideals, forcing even those readers who sneer at Greek-letter life to notice the human need to classify people.

While the variation among sororities may seem trivial to you, dear reader, perhaps you have more invested in some of these divides: Democrat/Republican, Bulls’ fan/Knicks’ fan, city dwellers/suburbanite, Harvard/Yale, East coast/West coast, Gap shopper/non-Gap shopper, John Updike reader/John Grisham reader, cats/dogs, Vida writes.

Vida ends the book similarly to the way she starts it – with the same sort of exciting investigation about the Burning Man festival that takes place once a year in Nevada. Visitors at the festival come to join in an anarchic weekend filled with new-age staples like body paint, meditation, meaningless sex and drugs.

All of the participants of the wild weekend come to celebrate the torching of a 40-foot statue of the man. Vida must have chosen this group to end her book because the festival is not exclusive to women; many men participate too. Here, she demonstrates the need to belong, to find one’s place in the world, is human and not exclusive to women.

Earlier in the book, Vida compares female gang members to sorority members to further emphasize the similarities between people.

Once initiated, members of both groups flaunt their devotion to their respective organizations through dress – sporting a sweatshirt embossed with the Greek letters of their sorority or wearing their gang’s colors – and action – sticking up for their house or gang, and doing whatever is expected of them by their sisters or homegirls, Vida writes.

Whether Vida was interviewing witches in Salem, debutantes in Houston or young wives in Las Vegas drive-through chapels, she found the one goal all people have in common – a desire for companionship and individuality all in the same breath.

In 192 pages, Vida successfully proves that, ultimately, everyone is seeking identity.

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