The back of one of my favorite team t-shirts says, “Cheerleading…not just a sport, a lifestyle”. It’s probably the most accurate sentence about cheerleading I’ve ever come across. Cheerleading originates in collective spirit and passion demonstrated by an ever-changing, heterogeneous group of people who gathered around sporting events.
I’d like to think that the essence of cheer hasn’t changed with its transition from organized chanting to the competitive level we see today. Cheerleaders at all levels are practically the epitome of passion and spirit. But the rest? It’s gone.
Somewhere along the line, cheerleading was coopted as a space for society’s continued control over women. You know what I’m talking about: the blonde hair teased to the perfect height and curl, ‘perfect’ skin, ‘perfectly’ toned abs/legs/arms/butt, model build/no larger than a size 2-4. Essentially, the picture of Western femininity and attraction today, and a manipulated complement to the heteronormative male athlete. For you guys, it’s about being big and built in order to compensate for the femininity society imposes on you for participating in a “girls’ thing” (fun fact though: cheerleading used to be a boys-only activity).
I find this particularly frustrating because cheerleaders are powered by amazing bodies. We train, eat and live to build these bodies and minds that are unstoppable and unparalleled, and yet our work gets lost in a fantasy female/male stereotype narrative. Because this narrative is so pervasive, I think we are easily sucked into it – I know I have been! Getting sucked in is scary because then because your focus in training is on bringing your body into alignment with what society tells you you should look like if you’re going to wear a cheerleading uniform, and not on building a strong body and mind to get you through life.
Let me be very clear: bodies that do what cheerleaders do may look like the stereotype because there are real people who naturally look like that, and that is completely acceptable! However, most people, and therefore likely most cheerleaders, do not. My unstoppable cheer body is different from your unstoppable cheer body because we are different people.
Naturally, appearance is intricately tied to confidence. I want all of you to feel confident and feel as though you look like the amazing people you are when you put on your uniform. I know that all of us see things we aren’t happy with (those uniforms are not forgiving!), and I know that there are girls and boys out there who want to cheer but don’t ever come forward because they don’t see themselves as fitting the stereotype. Your worth as a cheerleader and as a world citizen is not in the distance between your thighs, or in the lack of fatty tissue covering your abs. It is in your commitment to showing up for you (your present and your future) and your team.
We should all feel fantastic in our uniforms because they show off all of that muscle that we have worked so hard for! So if you’re putting in those extra hours of training each week to build stronger muscles or to train yourself out of a mental block, then please do! Your focus is in the right place! But if you want to go to the gym because you think you’re on the ‘big’ side for a cheerleader, or if you want to dye your hair to look like all the poster cheerleaders do, please stop and think about why it is you feel the need to do so. The only thing you should want is to feel healthy and strong, and physically and mentally capable of handling whatever life throws at you. That should be your goal, and it is much bigger than just cheerleading. Cheerleading can provide you with the opportunity to engage in fitness training that supports your development as a strong and confident person, both physically and mentally.
In spite of the cheer body stereotypes, I’m positive that your coach doesn’t care about the circumference of your thigh or waist. Your coach wants to know that you have the core and peripheral strength to make that jump sequence, to support the other members of your stunt group, and to move your body through day to day activities. Your coach wants to know that you have the mental strength to recover and move on if something goes wrong during a competition. The same thing goes for your team mates.
What does this mean? The only people who matter (your team, your coach/parents and, most importantly, YOU) want you to be happy and healthy. Society doesn’t matter. Ignore it.
So what does this have to do with my t-shirt? Well, to me the difference between sport and lifestyle is all the optional stuff most people, and society in general, can’t see. The work, the dedication, the lost body fluids (thank goodness tears and blood regenerate, right?!)…the list is endless. Anyone can show up to practice, do a passable job, and eventually meet their goal of looking great in that uniform. To adopt a sport as a lifestyle, however, requires so much more. Trying to look good in a uniform isn’t motivation enough – you do it because you want to make that pass you struggled with the previous season. You do it because you want to be able to pull off that cool, really advanced partner stunt you thought up during your ‘I-will-make-it-through-conditioning-if-it’s-the-last-thing-I-do’ revenge fantasies.
Those internally located sources of motivation lead you to building your character and strength (both mental and physical), and they make you a stronger contender in life. Opportunities that seek strong, confident people like yourself don’t care what size/kind of a package you come in – it’s about what’s on the inside that counts.
TL;DR: You wear your uniform for a few years, but you carry your strength and wear your confidence for the rest of your life. What would you rather work towards?
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Brieanne is a graduate student and community developer from the Great White North (i.e. Canada). Our first Canuck Ambassador, Brieanne is best known for her happy, supportive and high-energy personality, and her ardent belief in the power of ‘(positive) energy hugs’. A fitness enthusiast, she also dances (everywhere, anytime), runs, practices yoga, and spends as much time outdoors as possible. If she’s not sweating it up with CheerFIT, you can find her addressing social inequities and structural violence with(in) various communities or baking away for parties and pleasure alike while blasting Taylor Swift.