A Defence of a “Controversial” Sport from an Insider Perspective
By Nadia Trudel
My history with cheerleading began when I was a little blonde 7-year-old, inspired by the student, crime-fighter, and cheerleader, Kim Possible, from the Disney television show. What proceeded was nearly a decade of sweat, yelling, glitter eyeshadow, pain, hairspray, and bedazzled crop tops. Since then, I’ve dealt with so many ignorant comments, and I’ve had to explain that cheerleading is in fact a sport countless times. I haven’t cheered in over a year, but after rewatching Bring it On, a movie that perpetuates many of these misconceptions, I realized the value in writing a myth-busting piece defending a sport to which I was dedicated to for so long.
Here is a list of the most common criticisms I’ve heard over the years accompanied by my take on these issues:
1- “Cheerleaders just wave pom-poms to cheer on men which perpetuates the idea that women are supposed to fawn over and support men.”
Personally, I’ve never waved pom-poms to cheer on a male sports team. That being said, I still recognize the fact that this still happens in the sport, and I agree that it is problematic, especially when the team consists largely of women.
"In my experience, there was no patriarchal figure who was dressing me, telling me I needed to be skinny, and choreographing a dance where I shake my ass."
2- “Cheerleading is sexual and thus harmful to women and gender equality.”
Throughout my childhood and adolescence as a cheerleader, I never felt sexualised. I wore crop tops and short skirts, but it wasn’t a big deal for my parents and I - or for anyone else involved, for that matter. The uniform was simply a cute and practical outfit. Like in most sports, the clothing in cheerleading tends to have less coverage because it’s easier to move around in. Rather than make me feel objectified, the costumes helped me become more comfortable in my skin. The dance moves performed also receive scrutiny for being “promiscuous”, however, there is nothing inherently sexual about them. It is simply our culture that has given them this connotation.
3- “Cheerleading perpetuates female beauty standards.”
In my experience, I was never told that my body needed to look a certain way, but I definitely benefited from “thin privilege”. I’ve seen and worked with cheerleaders of all heights, shapes and sizes, all of whom were incredibly valued. I think it would be unfair to say that there is a body-shaming issue specific to cheerleading, when really it’s deeply-rooted in our culture. The hair and makeup standards are also cited as reinforcing traditional female beauty standards, however, it is standard for performers to wear makeup. Cheerleading makeup tends to be theatrical and dramatic so it looks good for an audience. This applies to hair as well, which is always tied up for convenience, but is often curled, braided or teased as part of the costume. Besides that, the high ponytail with a bow and the dramatic makeup is what has helped make cheerleading iconic and allowed it to thrive as an industry.
To conclude, my rebuttals aren’t to say that these criticisms don’t have any value, but I do think they are out of touch with what modern cheerleading is. In my experience, there was no patriarchal figure who was dressing me, telling me I needed to be skinny, and choreographing a dance where I shake my ass. I was coached by young talented female athletes who motivated me and empowered me. I’ve never considered myself athletic, but cheerleading pushed me and showed me that I was powerful. For the most part, my teams were sisterhoods working together to make a good show. Being competitive, working in a team, overcoming physical limits, and being dedicated to something had a part in forming my character. Cheerleading helped me get out of my head, and provided endorphins and adrenaline which were beneficial to my anxiety and depression. I think it’s about time cheer gets the respect it deserves, as it has drastically evolved from pom-poms on the sidelines to center stage in international competitions.