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Cheerleading: Limiting or Empowering?

CFCC Toady Award 2009

CCFC Toady Award 2009

The Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood issued its first TOADY (Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children) Award to the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader Barbie.

“When you combine two classic symbols of gendered stereotypes – the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader and Barbie – you get one terrible toy,” said CCFC Steering Committee member Joe Kelly, of www.dadsanddaughters.com. “Do we really want to teach our young daughters that they belong on the sidelines, not in the game, and the way to get noticed is show a lot of skin?”

Last week, Leola Dublin, Program in American Studies at Washington State University, questioned cheerleading in You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby? There were responses from some women who felt their own cheerleading experience was as valid and legitimate a road to empowerment as any other. Today The Girl Revolution will showcase two sides of the cheerleader debate. Feel free to explore your own feelings and experiences about cheerleading in the comments section.

Dublin’s Aha Moment:

All during the first half of a football game, I kept seeing really young looking girls flitting about in (to my old-lady eyes) the daringly short skirts and tight sweaters associated with cheerleading.

The girls seemed filled with the heady sense of their burgeoning sexuality: they danced suggestively to the music, squealed when they saw each other, fixed hair and makeup, and in general performed gender as only young girls can.

The announcer invited the stand to give a big welcome to a delegation of cheerleaders from across the state. As several hundred young girls took over the field and performed their routine, I was overwhelmed by sadness. It seemed clear to me that for many of those cheerleaders, this moment might be the pinnacle of their youth. I looked on the field and saw a bleak future of young women battling disordered eating, struggling to form an identity that wasn’t centered on their sexuality, growing up in an environment that encouraged them to be pleasers – of others – rather than themselves. I couldn’t stop crying.

I wondered why we weren’t celebrating all the girls who had made it to the state science fair, or who had gotten an A in math class, or were on the honor roll.

Stop Stereotyping Cheerleaders

Nicky Phillips lives in Las Cruces, NM.  She’s a wife, mother of two beautiful children (a 12 year old boy and a 10 year old girl), and works full-time for the NM Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association as the Regional Manager for the Southwest Office.

You should be careful about your stereotypes of cheerleaders.  There are wonderful lessons learned from participation on a cheerleading squad that carry over into adult life.

I can stand up in front of a crowd of 2 or 502 with no fear or hesitation.  And I am confident in my public speaking abilities because of my 4 years as a cheerleader.

I learned to work with others and learned to respect others’ opinions.  Trying to get 12 teenage girls to come to an agreement on something isn’t easy, the same can be said for 12 Board members.  My experience as a high school cheerleader has benefited my professional life on numerous occasions.

I learned to put my trust in others and I learned how to put others before me.  As the “base” in all of our stunts, my job was not to let the “flyer” hit the ground before me in the event the stunt went wrong.  I still use this mantra today with my family, friends, and collegues.

I learned the lessons of dedication and commitment.  I had to be there at every game and practice to fulfill my part in the stunts and routines.  My not being in my place to do my job directly affected the 11 other girls on my squad.  I am sure both my superiors and my subordinates appreciate this lesson I learned.

I learned to love my body despite my being a little thicker.  I had to wear that short skirt and sweater more than my jeans and t-shirts and I learned to accept what my body looked like in it.  To this day, almost 20 years after I hung up my cheerleading uniform, I still accept my body despite what two pregnancies and age have done to it.

I also developed a love for physical activity. Cheerleading is not easy.  It takes strength, endurance, agility, and flexibility.  And in most areas, a cheerleader’s season lasts the entire school year, not just a couple of months like other sports.  I also learned to be accepting and inclusive.  We were not allowed to cheer for just the “popular” sports, but we supported all sports, male and female, popular and lesser known.  We also supported the band and theater teams when they went off to state competitions.  This has directly affected the way I interact with all people in my professional life.

Hmm… while I might be new to your site, I have to think that the lessons learned from my 4 years on a cheerleading squad coincide with many of the lessons you are promoting we teach our young girls.

Dublin’s Cheer Stance

I got lots of positive feedback in the comments section, but I also heard from two cheerleaders who felt that I had maligned their sport by relying upon stereotypes. This post is in response to Emily and NickyT primarily, but also to anyone out there who read my post and inferred that I have a problem with cheerleading, that I based my piece on stereotypes, or that I don’t “get” cheerleading.

First, I want to thank Emily and NickyT for their responses. I teach women’s studies courses, proudly call myself a feminist, and believe that every person is entitled to their opinion.

What I do not want is to start a “flame war” on Tracee’s site.  What I do want to do is clarify the point of my post and address some valid points raised by Emily and Nicky T.

Both posters suggested that my views on cheerleading and cheerleaders were based on stereotypes. They were not. A stereotype is “a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced, attitude, or uncritical judgment.”

As a woman of color in a Ph.D. program at a predominantly white institution, in a predominantly white town, I am always aware of the power of prejudice, bias, and stereotypes. I know the damage they can do – emotionally and physically – and don’t base my work on them.

One of the things I mention in the beginning of the piece was that “girls’ understanding of what is possible is completely context-dependent.” I then provided the specific context that was the source of my idea for WINGS. Cheerleading is a sport. It is a demanding, rigorous activity that often gets too little credit for what its participants endure to entertain audiences. I am fortunate to have a dissertation adviser who is widely published on cheerleading culture. I am very aware of the history of the sport in the United States.

Cheerleading was originally an exclusively male sport. It was not until the 1940’s that girls began to appear in significant numbers on high school and college squads. World War II afforded much of the increase in girls’ presence. As young men left the country to fight, spaces previously forbidden to women and girls began to open up. One of these spaces was cheerleading. Cheerleading’s image again underwent a change as a result of the second wave of feminism.

It was then that the stunts we take for granted became popular. Athleticism became an integral part of cheering, camps were offered throughout the country, and competitions at the national, state and local levels were introduced. I am not unaware of the role of cheerleading in the iconic history of the United States.1

In response to Emily, I was not “so deeply upset by the fact that girls want to be cheerleaders.” I know that it is a “fun activity,” can be the source of scholarship funds, and look good on a college application. I also did not say or imply that cheerleaders are incapable of being intelligent.

My biggest issue was the role my university played in celebrating this particular group of girls. We are a Research 1 institution. In short, that means we are supposed to be a leader among colleges and universities in terms of the quality of research we conduct and education we provide and the extent to which we focus on that research and education. It seems…inappropriate that these were the girls that we chose to celebrate.

This isn’t the same as a town festival or parade. Having cheerleaders perform at that type of event would have been fine. I still would have been shocked by the routines, but the presence wouldn’t seem out of place.

My school is not Ivy League, but it is very highly ranked in many of its programs. If we are going to be reaching out to the communities we serve, as an academic institution, we need to be reaching out to the populations that are typically underrepresented in universities: girls who are high achievers (and this can include cheerleaders), girls who could benefit from encouragement. While there are all kinds of cheerleading squads, the fact remains that there is very little flexibility in terms of gender roles within the sport. A quick look at the way in which uniforms have changed over time – particularly since the sport opened to women – speaks to that.

Within the context of American society, the word “cheerleader” has very specific language and images associated with it. Cheerleaders are meant to be pleasers. They perform for an audience, generating and maintaining support for their respective teams. This isn’t slamming cheerleaders, merely fact. Cheerleading conforms to very rigid gender roles and is in essence about pleasing others with your body. The routine I watched was not a celebration of athleticism. It was a demonstration of highly sexualized dance routines done by very young girls during the half-time show at a PAC-10 football game.

With respect to the eating disorders and the identity development fears that I expressed, I will again turn to facts.

  • According to research published on the National Eating Disorders Association website, 40% of newly identified cases of anorexia are in girls 15-19 years old2.
  • On a national level, 12.3% of high school students self-reported that they had gone without eating for 24 hours or more to lose weight or keep from gaining weight in the last 30 days3.
  • Female athletes are more susceptible to eating disorders than the general population. At least one-third of female athletes have some type of disordered eating4.

So when I tell you that I looked on that field and saw lots of young girls who simply because they are girls growing up in America are probably going to battle disordered eating, please don’t incorrectly assume that I was saying that cheerleaders always have eating disorders.

Cheerleading is an extremely physical activity that by virtue of the moves and outfits puts a great deal of focus on the bodies of those involved. This increased scrutiny of the body significantly increases the likelihood that girls will engage in unhealthy eating practices to remain within the acceptable weight range. The unfortunate reality is that in this country, girls are terrified of being considered fat. Testifying before Congress in 1997, Dr. Lisa Berzins said, “Young girls have indicated in surveys that they are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of cancer, nuclear war, or losing their parents. 5” My assessment of what the future probably will hold for many of those girls was not based on assumptions or stereotypes. It was based on the research and documentation that are part of my daily life.

In response to NickyT, the girls that performed were not performing the type of cheering that you mentioned. There were no stunts, just dancing. The moves were moves that I would be embarrassed to do in public – as an adult woman. Embarrassed because they were very sexually explicit, and -as I stated before- in my opinion, not appropriate for young girls or for the audience.

The lessons you took from cheerleading were indeed wonderful, and as a woman who has dedicated her career to empowering women and girls, believe me when I say that I am delighted that you gained those valuable lessons from cheerleading. However, I was referring to a specific incident within a very specific context. I am familiar with many of the smaller towns that were represented by cheerleading squads. They aren’t the squads that you see at Nationals on ESPN. In these schools, and the communities they belong too being a cheerleader is seen as the pinnacle of school life for many girls. It is a way for adolescent and teenaged girls to gain a level of status that we simply do not afford to girls whose achievements are not tied to performing gender. It is a major factor in how girls perceive themselves and are perceived by others. This is a huge part of identity development. This is not simply an assumption I made as I sat in the stands. I live in one of these communities, and my research has led me to study many of the others that were represented. Believe me when I tell you, that my piece was not based on stereotypes.

I hope that I have addressed your concerns. The original post wasn’t an article complaining about cheering. This was an article complaining about why a) a research one institution that prides itself on an academic reputation would choose these girls to celebrate, rather than girls who had achievements that were not connected to their sexuality, and b) why it is that a woman with a PhD who claims to be against patriarchy wouldn’t want girls exposed to the option of graduate school.

I certainly feel that your responses are valid, and again, I thank you for them. I ask that you give my original post and this follow-up the same consideration.

Give Me an “A”
Pro-Ana Cheerleader Barbie

17 replies
  1. Tracie Simons says:

    I do not think that the skimpy outfits are just in cheerleading. I was shocked while watching the olympics. The beach volleyball outfits were in my opinion, to revealing. I was a cheerleader and do not think that the sport itself is the problem but the parents and school districts that allow the schools to put these kids in skimpy outfits. We were not allowed to have uniforms like that. Also, the professional squads are more dance then cheerleading. I don’t think you can compare them with college and high school.

  2. Tracee says:

    I’ve got a questions for both sides:

    Leola – it was a FOOTBALL game. Is there a more appropriate context for cheerleaders to appear and do their thing.

    Cheerleaders’/Coaches/Parents: Why ARE the skirts so short? I’m so confused by this. I live in the Bible Belt – abstinence only, ultra-conservative, super-religious right wingers. It doesn’t jive with the hyper-competitive cheerleading and the very, tiny skirts and provocative dancing. How can you have both?

  3. PhDiva says:


    You are correct. It was a football game. A Pac-10 game. Against USC. Not only does our school have cheerleaders (co-ed), a dance team, and a marching band, but USC also has a HUGELY famous marching band. They are actually the reason I bought tickets for the game. Customarily, the half-time show is reserved for the bands to strut their stuff. Had this been a HIGH SCHOOL football game, or a MIDDLE SCHOOL football game, the performance we saw might have been (somewhat more) appropriate. It wasn’t and it wasn’t.

  4. Tracee says:

    But, that’s where cheerleaders cheer – at football games. All levels of and degrees of football from church leagues to college and university to professional football have cheerleading squads. Wasn’t cheerleading invented at Harvard or some other Ivy League Academic Institution? I don’t see how it being a PAC-10 game makes it inappropriate. Football = Cheerleading. If you go to a game, expect to see cheerleaders.

    If the argument is that the university is an academic institution and shouldn’t be participating in nonacademic silliness – wouldn’t it be the football team/game itself that’s out of place? Why are the boys being “celebrated” for how they use their bodies – the appearance of, the ability to perform, their sports prowess. The stands were packed full of people who came to celebrate this team of boys so they could show off what their bodies can do, the marching band came to celebrate them and the cheerleaders did too. Why is that not offensive?

    Our high school marching band is flanked by baton and flag twirlers with skirts just as short – what’s the difference?

  5. Staci says:

    I think it just depends. I went to a cheerleading camp in jr high and it was fun, physical activity. Our outfits were a sweater and short skirt, but I don’t think it was over the top or too sexy. Definitely not worse than any outfit I wore in other dance classes.

    But to be a cheerleader in my high school, girls had to try out in front of everyone at an assembly and the student body VOTED. Hmm, I don’t remember voting for the basketball or wrestling team. Of course, it wasn’t based on athletic prowess, but popularity. Even now, the whole spectacle makes me kind of sick to think about. (Oh, and no boys were allowed to try out. Boys can’t lead cheers? Or dance?)

    But I also know it has a more athletic component in other schools. I had a friend who was a cheerleader in college and it was definitely because of her amazing gymnastic abilities. There were both men and women on her team.

    So I think it depends.

  6. Tracee says:

    Voting by the Student Body? Wow. Yeah, that’s diff. than other athletic teams. In my high school they were chosen by the varsity cheer team based on gymnastics and dance ability and popularity.

    They got disqualified if they weighed more than 105 or 110 pounds. Of course, this was 20 years ago. I see all sizes of cheerleaders these days. (I’ve seen them weigh in on the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders Television try out still). There were 2 boys on the cheer team. They were considered hot.

    The skirts on cheerleaders at this years’ Christmas Parade in East Texas – all ages, from 3 years old to high school – were so short you could see their bum cheeks when they walked. Lots of parents had their girls wearing jeans under the skirts.

    But, you’re right – ballet leotards are pretty tight and there’s no hiding curves in them. I don’t think that’s inappropriate.

    I’m friends with several former cheerleaders and they don’t seem damaged by the experience. They don’t have any more body image issues or eating disorders than other women I know.

  7. Staci says:

    Part of the problem is cheerleaders have been sexually fetishized and ballet dancers haven’t. Bum cheeks? That’s gender based in my opinion. What does that add to the sport? Male ballet dancers also wear leotards. Boys that wrestle, for instance, also have tight leotardish outfits, but no one expects them to show their ass.

    There ARE differences between cheerleading and other sports. It has certain unique pitfalls, and I think you are very wise to understand that and take it into consideration when deciding whether to let Ainsley participate in a particular program. I hope my high school does things differently now!

  8. Ellen G says:

    This is a tough one. Our HS cheerleading squad puts on a clinic for the younger girls every year as a fundraiser. My daughter has done this and really enjoyed it. Part of the clinic is getting to cheer at a HS game. One year it was boys football match. The next it was a girls basketball game. Watching my daughter cheer while these strong athetic girls were shooting baskets was an interesting juxtapositon. I leaned over to another mom and asked if it was bad that I was silently praying that my girl would grow up to be one of the basketball players and NOT a cheerleader. She laughed, and said, no, it was fine.

    But our cheerleading squad is pretty darn athletic. Most of the girls have done years of dance and gymnastics. Cheerleading has turned into a sport of it’s own, not just what girls do because they cannot do anything else sporty. Watching them, and talking to the girls about how they made the team, I realized my kid probably wouldn’t have what it takes to be a cheerleader. Which made me laugh. A lot.

    These girls seem to really enjoy it. Many are hoping to continue the activity into college. A few said they got into cheerleading to avoid the pressures that come with gymnastics, in terms of body image. They feel more comfortable as cheerleaders than they would on a balance beam routine.

    So, shame on me for judging. In the end, I’d be proud of my kid no matter what she did. It’s just that she’s made more for scoring 3 pointers than being in a human pyramid. And that’s just fine with me.

    Ellen G’s last blog post..Oscar Night

  9. Tracee says:

    That fetishized point is a good one and maybe that’s why some people get a bad feeling in their stomachs.

    My husband went to a college bowl reception in which the high school cheerleaders were provided as “the entertainment.” They did their provocative dance in their tush showing skirts and then posed with all the college players like they were Hugh Hefner and his Harem. He came home he said, “Ainsley is never, ever being a cheerleader.”

  10. Jessica says:

    I don’t agree with the outfits but when you see college cheerleaders, it really is a very athletic pursuit. These girls are gymnasts and real athletes. The same cannot be said for the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. In my opinion

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