A Sociological Analysis
Florida State University wasn’t Harvard, Princeton, or even the University of Pennsylvania. In comparison to these more prestigious universities, I may have lost out academically in my collegiate experience, but what I learned socially from living in a college town like Tallahassee, I doubt very few universities could have matched. If there was ever a place to study human nature, social psychology, and moral behavior, then that place was Tallahassee. Warm sunny weather, tens of thousands of young people, and a fast-paced, competitive social scene heavily influenced by the materialistic culture of South Florida made FSU the ideal laboratory to live the great experiment that is the college experience.
Tallahassee was truly a college town. In a city whose metro population was only 156,000, there were over 64,000 young men and women attending the colleges of FSU, FAMU, and TCC. Most of these students lived, worked, and played within a three mile radius of FSU campus, and during the academic year, they rarely ventured from this socially confined area unless it was to take a ten minute drive down Apalachee Parkway to get to Wal-Mart. Over 84% of FSU’s undergraduate student population lived in off-campus housing which meant wherever you went in this area, you would see nothing but young people. Neighborhoods, apartment complexes, traffic stop lights, grocery stores, tanning salons, restaurants, bars, gyms, and shopping malls were all infested with college students eager to act and interact within this dynamic social community.
FSU was consistently ranked among the top party schools in the nation, but this quantitative measurement could in no way capture the true social forces at work within Tallahassee’s stimulating atmosphere of football games, pool parties, Greek socials, nightclubs, and fitness centers. The sunny Florida weather encouraged students to spend a great deal of time outdoors which made Tallahassee far more social than other college towns. Whether it was pickup basketball games at apartment complexes, Friday afternoon happy hour at POTBELLY’S, or keg parties in the backyards of student homes, students were always eager to participate in social activities that were visibly open to the public and filled with young people who wanted to have a good time. This was particularly true of football games and tailgating which were a huge part of campus life.
The Seminoles were always in serious competition for the BCS national championship and this was a powerful magnet for volatile social forces. Large public universities with nationally competitive football teams are notorious for being wild party schools with overwhelming social pressures. Drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous sex relations run rampant on most college campuses, but the degree of partying at renowned football party schools like FSU is far more extreme precisely because their notoriety attracts incoming students whose primary motivation for going to college is to get high, get wasted, and get laid. The peer pressure at these schools to live dangerously and party hard is so overwhelming that many students who do not want to participate in the party lifestyle are inevitably sucked into the social madness.
One of the primary reasons why Tallahassee was such an ideal laboratory to study human nature, social psychology, and moral behavior is because of the expansive social lives that so many students led in this party college town. Young men and women built huge interconnecting social networks of friends, associates, rivals, classmates, fraternity brothers, coworkers, sex partners, workout partners, and drug dealers. Enormous social lives exposed students to a wide and diverse range of new pressures, radical social norms, and competing moral values. The power and velocity of this socialization was truly unimaginable.
Another reason Tallahassee made such an excellent laboratory to study social behavior was because of how isolated this college town could be for students from the rest of the world. Tallahassee was for many young men and women an enclosed social environment that was completely self-absorbed, that is to say, nothing that transpired outside the immediate social lives of students mattered to them. Current events, High School friends, and even families became distant realities that had no real bearing on their lives other than concerns over parental financial support and the occasional hurricane warning. In this way, a college town like Tallahassee was a social bubble, and if you existed on the outside of that bubble, you ceased to exist.
The isolationist mentality was particularly true of mainstream students who were obsessed with their popularity and social status on campus. Since very little value was placed on the external world, some of these young people stayed in Tallahassee until their late twenties and even their early thirties. The student body treated popular students like local celebrities which made it all too tempting for young men and women working as bartenders and other fun jobs to grow overly comfortable with their big fish in a little pond status and lose all ambition to conquer the world beyond college.
Students who graduated or dropped out of school were also ensnared by Tallahassee’s relatively low cost of living, its highly entertaining nightlife, and its exciting annual influx of thousands of new students every year. Sticking around town for an additional summer semester, one more football season, or the arrival of the next freshman class was the common rationale of young men and women who wanted to postpone their entry into the career world and delay the dreaded departure from the last playground.
The social isolation of a college town like Tallahassee also made it very difficult for young men and women who did leave town to maintain friendships with students who lingered behind. You could reminisce about the past with these friends for only so long before shared memories lost their significance within the context of the ever-changing social affairs that students were now facing. It was not just that life continued on without you in your absence, this could be said of anywhere, but the social lives of young men and women in Tallahassee were so rapid and so intense that spending a month away was comparable to spending three months away anywhere else.
Students who decided to take a semester off from school would return to a place that was very different from the world they left behind because the machine never stopped and it never slowed down. The social lives of students were always expanding and constantly evolving. New friendships were quickly built and old friendships were often pulled apart by competing loyalties. Romantic relationships could seemingly develop and dissolve over night. Personalities and interests rapidly morphed as individuals were pounded, day in and day out, with new experiences and new pressures. Change was one of the few constants that existed in a college town like Tallahassee.
A large party school like FSU also made an ideal social laboratory to study group behavior. Many students were members of cliques or larger collections of friends. Others belonged to social clubs that varied in diversity from leftwing protest organizations to the Golden Girls dance team. Greek Life was also a powerful force of socialization on campus. There were over forty fraternities and sororities at FSU, many of which boasted more than a hundred and fifty members apiece. All of these groups influenced their members with various forms of internal pressures. Dissent was punishable by harassment or even banishment and conformity often meant participating in harmful activities like discrimination, hazing, and violence.
Social clubs and Greek organizations were an important part of many students’ lives, but groups like these were really just a small part of the much larger mainstream social scene. With its crowded gyms, South Beach styled nightclubs, and its more traditional bars and keg parties, the college town of Tallahassee boasted a fast-paced materialistic culture of social stratification in which who you knew, where you worked, and what you looked like determined your social status. In the Who’s Who World of The Scene, nearly everyone was an actor putting on a show in a calculated effort to move up the ranks of the social hierarchy.
Many sacrifices had to be made by students within the mainstream college crowd because the higher someone ascended in status and the closer they moved to the center of The Scene, the less he or she was able to maintain their unique identity or adhere to their personal set of values. True friendships were often replaced by fake relationships between students built on their commensurate social status valuations of attraction, popularity, and prestige. To increase their social status, normative ethical standards were frequently abandoned by students in order to advance the interest of the self and group associations, often at the expense of friends and outsiders. The Scene had no mercy for good men because it was a cutthroat competitive environment of elitism where manipulation, intimidation, and sexual conquest were the tools of prosperity. For a way of life that revolved so much around beauty, it was all a very ugly way to live.
Once you were sucked into The Scene, there was no escaping its pressures. Everywhere a college student went in Tallahassee was a hypercritical social atmosphere in which you could expect to interact with numerous friends, rivals, acquaintances, and countless members of the opposite sex you wanted to impress. The exclusionary laws of social status operated fiercely within this subculture because, one way or another, students who were a part of The Scene were always measuring each other and ascribing to them a particular social value. Going to Strozier Library during Exam Week was nicknamed Club Strozier because the second and third floor study rooms were always overflowing with Greeks and popular students who spent more time gossiping and people watching than they did hitting the books. Skipping class on a Wednesday afternoon to lay out at the Boardwalk pool always promised a large gathering of oiled up, attractive bodies on display where many students had already started their pre-partying for tonight or were still partying from the night before. Walk across campus and you were likely to hear the clicking noise of stylish young women wearing high heels to class. A trip to the local grocery store Publix was really a trip to Club Publix where you had a better chance of picking up a member of the opposite sex than you did of remembering everything on the grocery list you forgot to bring. It is noteworthy that this particular Publix was once named by Playboy to be the best place in America to pick-up a hot date.
Perhaps the most competitive social atmosphere on campus could be found in the Leach Center. FSU’s enormous state of the art fitness center was truly the recess playground for young adults. A trip to the gym was the ultimate “see and be seen” environment in which many students spent as much time strutting their stuff as they did exercising. Looking good was such a priority that some guys rubbed baby oil on their arms and legs to enhance their muscular definition and some girls put on makeup to sociably meander around the gym floor and pretend to workout by splashing water on their bodies in the bathroom. It was this kind of mentality that ruled the mainstream students of Tallahassee. Anywhere and everywhere you went was a part of The Scene where what you looked liked and who you associated with determined your social status.
The status mentality of mainstream students was exemplified by the great effort they made to enhance their appearance. Young men and women always dressed for the occasion in fashionable nightclub attire, trendy gym outfits, expensive name brand handbags, and Greek t-shirts that reflected a caste-ridden culture. Tanning salons were frequented year round and local gyms were filled with young people who exercised nearly every day, sometimes even multiple times a day. Physical vanity was the greatest sin of mainstream students and it was a vice of both the sexes.
Many college towns exert social pressure on young women to be thin, especially within Greek Life, but the level of stress endured by FSU girls to be skinny was far greater than most universities. Denied the luxury of bulky winter clothing to conceal their bodies, the college girls of Tallahassee were never able to escape the social status judgments of their peers within The Scene who measured the value of women almost entirely by their level of physical attraction. They thus faced overwhelming pressure to be thin, and since so many young women were in prime physical condition, there was an intense degree of social stigma felt by girls who were even slightly overweight. Eating disorders of bulimia and anorexia were very common, even among the girls who spent many hours in the gym every week. Puking to stay thin was so prevalent at FSU that the septic tanks of sorority houses were cleaned regularly and some young women learned to vomit in the showers because this reduced the likelihood that their retching would be overheard by gossiping sisters. Diet pills and illegal products like clenbuterol were also abused by young women to burn off the fat and being skinny was such a priority that some girls snorted substances like cocaine and Adderall to lose weight.
If anorexia and bulimia were common among female students, no less common was bigorexia among males who were psychologically conditioned to believe that bigger was always better. The gyms were all packed with meatheads who in their never ending quest to build more muscle would workout for excessive hours at a time and take hundreds of dollars worth of bodybuilding supplements and steroids. It might be popular for young men attending other colleges to bulk up for Spring Break with steroids, but Tallahassee’s warm and sunny climate perpetuated a relentless desire among students to always look good for the beach. Steroid cycles were conducted throughout the entire calendar year and some young men never got off the juice for more than a few weeks at a time. The side-effects of mixing steroids with a party lifestyle were experienced by those unfortunate students who suffered liver damage or saw blood in their urine. A few young men even developed testicular cancer. Risks like these were worth taking because being big and getting ripped were all that mattered.
Students of The Scene were obsessed by their desire to have the perfect body, but it was a demanding goal achieved by many young men and women. FSU produced some of the most impressive student bodies in the United States. Weekly pool parties occurring at Tallahassee apartment complexes were spectacular events with hundreds of oiled up, toned up, ripped physiques that would have put any MTV Spring Break special to shame. The success of students who built perfect bodies raised the bar of attraction and motivated other students to strive for physical excellence. Looking your best was not always synonymous with healthy living which meant students had to be willing to pursue whatever means possible to match the difficult goal achieved by their peers.
The competition for beauty was no less demanding. Tallahassee was oversaturated with gorgeous women and this significantly reduced the unique social value of many of the female students who attended FSU. In their hometowns, pretty girls might have stuck out like a flower among the weeds, but within the FSU Greek community and the mainstream college crowd, many of these hometown beauties were just another attractive girl in a garden full of young women who were prettier, thinner, and more popular than she was. This could be a traumatic experience for a girl whose ego had been constantly bolstered in her former life by the praise and adulation of guys impressed by her good looks. No longer the center of fawning attention, these average beauties were forced to endure the stigma of being ordinary which often generated doubt of their self-worth. To make matters worse, the competition for beauty was drastically intensified by the impact of South Florida’s materialistic culture.
There was plenty of natural beauty to be found among the women of Tallahassee, but there was also plenty of plastic. This was particularly true of South Florida girls from affluent backgrounds who did everything financially possible to maximize their looks. They wore color contacts, highlighted their hair and had it chemically straightened, dressed in designer clothing, adorned themselves with expensive jewelry from Tiffany & Co., went to tanning salons, had weekly pedicures and manicures, groomed their body hair with professional wax jobs, and they even had plastic surgery for liposuction. The plastic surgery fad was so popular at FSU that it was not unordinary for an eighteen-year-old girl to return to school from Winter Break with a brand new boob job. Young women who could not convince their daddies to buy them breast implants often took out additional student loans to pay for these surgical operations themselves. Nose jobs too were popular among FSU girls who were more than willing to go under the knife to achieve the flawless beauty they so desperately craved.
Plastic beauty was everywhere in Tallahassee, but the young men of this vain and self-absorbed college town did not seem to mind. Indoctrinated by the materialistic culture of South Florida and subjected to the dual influences of Hollywood and porno, most young men were enamored with plastic beauty, and in some cases, even preferred it to the real thing. Many male students, for instance, thought that silicone enhancement looked better than natural breasts. But it was not just the plastic beauty that guys liked—it was the dedication to beauty demonstrated by the young women of Tallahassee’s mainstream college crowd.
Beauty sensitive females took incredibly good care of themselves. Walk into her bathroom and you would see countless bottles of expensive lotions and various feminine products used by women to pamper themselves. Open her closet and you would see more pairs of shoes than you could possibly count. Look at her naked body and it was always completely shaven of body hair. Sit next to her in your 8 AM class and she would likely have woken forty-five minutes earlier than you did that morning so that she could put on makeup and style her hair. It is undeniable that women who take care of themselves will always look better than those who do not.
The young women of Tallahassee were not alone in this meticulous grooming behavior. Whether it was going to tanning salons, highlighting their hair, or shaving their body hair, guys too were very much practitioners of plastic beauty. Some of these young men cared so much about how they looked that they shaved the hair off their fingers every day, had their eyebrows professionally waxed, and even wore tanning makeup. It was also not unorthodox for a male student to have a nose job or some other form of elective surgery to improve the way he looked. In addition to the multitude of young men who were highly self-conscious about their physical appearance, there were also many metrosexuals who knew more about fashion than their female peers. Tallahassee was swarming with trendy young men who wore designer jeans, designer shirts, and chic sunglasses that cost hundreds of dollars.
One of the primary reasons social status and physical appearance were so important to these students is because they were seeking validation of the self through respect from others. This psychological motivation was compounded by the biological reality that most college students have reached sexual maturity and are interested in exploring sexuality with desirable partners which requires that they themselves become desirable. Consequently, students who enhanced their physical appearance and aggrandized social status were more likely to maximize their sexual desires through the attraction of higher quantity and greater quality mates. College may also be perceived by students as the final time in their lives to be young and beautiful before losing their luster to the wrinkles of age, the stress of careers, and the time consuming responsibilities of family life. For all these reasons, college students within the mainstream college crowd were highly sensitive to the judgmental perception of others and went to great lengths to enhance their physical appearances and build their social reputations.
It would be a mistake to ignore the utility of social reputation and assume that the pursuit of status was purely about self-validation and sexual gratification. Whether it is through attraction, intimidation, or popularity, any form of status achieved is a form of power attained. Students who built prominent social reputations in Tallahassee were the recipients of a multitude of perks and rewards denied to their peers. A young man of status was likely to receive VIP treatment at nightclubs and bars where he was permitted to skip entry lines, drink for free, and given access into private areas of the establishment. Young women with esteemed reputations were invited to more parties and more social functions than their peers. Popular students were able to attract better-looking members of the opposite sex and they were also shown a higher degree of deference from members of their own sex. In other words, status was a social tool that played a strong hand in determining what you were able to achieve within The Scene. Young men and women strived to build their social reputations so that they could wield this potent means of power.
Tallahassee was truly was an ideal laboratory to live the great social experiment that is the college experience. It was a competitive college town where students isolated themselves from the external world and focused their attention completely on their status within The Scene. Enormous social lives exposed young men and women to a wide and diverse range of new pressures, radical social norms, and opposing moral values. Some students were able to withstand these pressures, but many were sucked into The Scene where they learned that manipulation, intimidation, and sexual conquest were the tools of prosperity. For a way of life that revolved so much around beauty, it was an ugly place indeed. But what better place to learn about man the social creature that he is? What better place to learn about what it took to rise to the top? And what better place to learn how strong you were at your lowest? Florida State University may not have been an Ivy League school, but what I learned socially from living in a college town like Tallahassee, I doubt very few universities could have matched.