I was a high school cheerleader in a suburb of Salt Lake City for a hot second, and my overall experience wasn’t positive. There were satisfying moments: working hard with a team, learning gymnastic skills and dance moves. But mostly, I remember standing on the sidelines of big football games, cheering for players. I also recall a fair amount of girl drama over cheers, stunts, uniforms, dance moves, and just about any other thing you can imagine cheerleaders might argue about.
I quit halfway through the season and never looked back.
My experience isn’t universal, of course, and thousands of young women have reaped fantastic rewards from cheerleading — including becoming top-notch athletes though intense discipline and teamwork, while making friends and developing confidence.
Yet despite the positives, I’d still discourage my daughter from becoming a high school cheerleader — not just because of my experience, but because I was a victim of a larger societal narrative that associates cheerleading with pretty, popular girls who are, like it or not, very often sexualized.
As a young woman not taught to recognize inequality, sexism, and sexual exploitation, I initially wanted to be a cheerleader because it filled a desire for attention and adoration. It didn’t occur to me that cheerleading often isn’t even considered a sport, and that cheerleaders are generally regarded as just pretty girls in a supportive role to males playing the “real” sports.
Let’s get a few things out of the way before we go any further. I am specifically referencing high school cheerleading, which generally involves mostly female cheerleaders cheering for male football and basketball teams, with very few exceptions. That being said, I am utterly blown away by the skill and athleticism involved in competitive cheerleading, also known as All Star cheerleading. And in fact, all cheerleading, whether occurring on the sidelines of a game or at an All Star competition, is arguably as dangerous as football and is a serious sport to be reckoned with.
Yet, the old cheerleaders-as-sex-symbols stigma still reigns in 2018, besmirching the incredible athleticism, blood, sweat, and tears of all cheerleaders. Even today, most high school athletic departments have yet to officially recognize cheerleading as a valid sport.
My friend Rachel Myers nails the crux of the issue.
“There isn’t anything inherently wrong with cheerleaders. What is ‘wrong’ is that it is an ‘all-American’ sport and America has created the norm of objectifying women. Recreate social norms to respect women and the negative disappears.”
Basically, I don’t want to sacrifice the strong feminist narrative I’m working hard to instill in my 9-year-old daughter by allowing her to participate in high school cheerleading. And Kaia James, an 11-year-old from Florida who is a regular contributor for Girls World Magazine, affirms my decision.
“Why would I cheer for boys playing sports? I want to play sports and have boys and girls cheer for me!” says Kaia.
Kaia’s mom, Sabrina James, also says she supports her daughter’s stance.
“I just am not sure I personally would lead a girl to that sport choice unless she was already drawn to it herself,” says Sabrina. “Maybe much of that has to do with perception.”
Which brings us back to the general societal perception of cheerleading. What do people really think about cheerleaders?
To get a handle on the general perspective, I posted a question to several thousand Facebook followers: What immediately comes to mind when asked about cheerleaders and cheerleading?
The responses varied from super positive — most people agree on the skill, dedication and athleticism involved — to extremely negative. Sexism, sexual exploitation, and “mean girl” experiences were common phrases in a majority of nearly 100 responses.
“I believe 100% that it has evolved into an incredibly challenging sport that involves a ton of amazing skill and prowess,” commented Kristen Chase. “However, I also believe that at its core [it] is sexist and exploitative. When we have male cheerleaders for female teams, then let’s talk.”
Cathie Theo countered: “I was a cheerleader and my senior year was captain of the squad. I loved cheerleading. It was a lot of work and you had to be disciplined but it was worth it. And you learned a lot of traits that are needed in the real world such as discipline, hard work and team work. It was also a great support system although some girls were catty and that was a negative aspect of it.”
Said Cherrah Johnson: “It takes tons of persistence and athleticism. Especially when it is gymnastics skill heavy like most of ours here in Florida. Unfortunately, the skimpy skirts, bare midriffs, spandex, glitter, and huge hair bows turn the focus on their bodies as simply decorations instead of fine-tuned athletes. If youth cheerleaders wore outfits more similar to female volleyball players (functional but still sporty and cool), I think it would be a great step towards focusing on them as athletes and not show ponies.”
GJ Shields acknowledges the role geography may play in the cheerleading experience.
“In small town rural America, girls in high school do it all; they cheer, play sports, are members of clubs and organizations, and some find time to work and keep their grades up. I admire these young women for being able to accomplish so much.”
I have mad respect for all of these smart, athletic young women. But until high school cheerleading moves beyond the sidelines and is recognized for the sport that it is, it’s not something I want my daughter involved in.
As Karen Sapia commented, “ The dynamic of girls in short skirts standing on the sidelines to cheer on the boys who are the center of the action is, at its, core a sexist one.”
I don’t want that dynamic infecting the way my daughter frames herself as she grows into womanhood. It is my job to teach her how to recognize the rampant sexism inflicted on women on a daily basis. Encouraging her to participate in a high school activity that perpetuates the sexist narrative so many of us are working so hard to dismantle goes against everything I stand for.
In a post-#metoo society where women continue to be underpaid and underrepresented in just about every industry, we parents need to make informed, thoughtful decisions about traditional activities that are steeped in misogyny. Carelessly submit your children to systemic sexism, and you are complicit in the conditioning of our future generation into accepting gender bias and exploitation as cultural norms.
It’s time more of us recognize this — or else we’ll never move the needle from #metoo to #notme.