LIFE
05/03/2020 7:32 AM AEDT | Updated 05/03/2020 7:39 AM AEDT

I Didn't Look Like Other Cheerleaders. Here's Why 'Cheer' Is So Hard To Watch.

"Much of the show’s commentary centered on beauty. I realised that little has changed since I stopped cheering in 2006."

Courtesy of Ariel Henley
The author when she was 11.

When I was 11, I decided I wanted to be a cheerleader. A friend of mine was on a local youth cheerleading team and performed a dance routine with another classmate at our school’s talent show. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the auditorium, I was mesmerised by the way their movements ― their jumps and twirls ― coordinated with the music. That looks so fun, I thought. That afternoon, when I saw flyers inviting kids to try out for next season’s squad, I decided to give it a shot. It wasn’t until I arrived for day one of the weeklong tryout clinic that I realised people like me were not supposed to be cheerleaders. 

I was born with Crouzon syndrome, a condition where the bones in the head fuse prematurely. I had regular surgeries to expand my skull and correct my appearance. Though my mind and body were the same as everyone else’s, my face was different. My eyes were crooked and far apart. As one of the kids who was also auditioning put it, I was “weird-looking.” 

So any lack of cheerleading potential I had boiled down to one thing: I didn’t look the part. All week, other kids stared at and mocked me. They commented on the shapes of my eyes and ridiculed every move I made. My face had always been different so I was used to strangers remarking on it. I found it humiliating but if I didn’t respond to the things people said about me, I could usually pretend it wasn’t happening.

Besides, if being a girl with a facial difference had taught me anything, it was that being “unattractive” was the ultimate offense. And so I’d grown accustomed to the expectation that if I wanted to be treated better, I had to either find a way to conform better or live with the consequences.

Any lack of cheerleading potential I had boiled down to one thing: I didn’t look the part.

When the coaches saw how I was being treated by the other girls, they said nothing. I took their silence to be an endorsement of that behavior, and though I was disappointed, I was not surprised when I didn’t make the squad. 

The following week I found another team ― a team that was desperate for participants and didn’t require auditions ― and I was accepted onto the squad. It was further from my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I was excited to participate and my parents were supportive. I loved to dance and I thought cheer would be a good way to get a foot in the door. Once I was part of a team, I expected things would be different. I thought things would get better. But as it turned out, I still had to fight every step of the way just to do what I loved.

Being a cheerleader meant cheering for a youth football team every Saturday and attending competitions with other cheer squads in our region. We were expected to smile constantly. Some girls even put Vaseline on their teeth to keep their smile shining. Our hair had to be pulled back into high ponytails, plus we all wore fake curly hairpieces. Though I hated pulling my hair back because it made my asymmetrical eyes more noticeable, I felt the pressure to fit in however I could.

Despite my best efforts, these small attempts to conform did not help. At games, people in the stands pointed and laughed as I cheered on the sidelines. At competitions, as I prepped to perform, children stared and whispered, encouraging everyone around them to also stare and whisper. Every time someone made a derogatory comment about my appearance I felt the same sense of shame I’d experienced the first time I tried out for a squad but didn’t make it. But I learned to suppress my shame and discomfort. I focused instead on my love of the sport and the pride I felt as my team executed stunts and routines we’d worked so hard to learn.

Despite my best efforts, these small attempts to conform did not help. At games, people in the stands pointed and laughed as I cheered on the sidelines. At competitions, as I prepped to perform, children stared and whispered.

It was only after games and competitions, when I returned home and placed my cheerleading uniform back on the closet shelf for the week, that I would allow myself to sit with my true feelings about how I was treated. I was sad, embarrassed and angry ― and I was determined.

I was only 11, but the emphasis that cheerleading placed on beauty was pushing me to channel my shame into anger and my anger into motivation. The mockery taught me the importance of redefining what beauty meant to me. I would never exist within society’s beauty standards, but I decided I would not hide away or apologize for being who I was.

Being a cheerleader was a way to stand up for myself ― to show people that I could do anything they could. That my face was different but I, as a human being, was not. That just because I was different didn’t mean I wasn’t beautiful in my own way. I wanted to prove to the people around me that I could be a cheerleader regardless of my facial difference. More so, I wanted to prove to myself that I would never be limited by the way other people viewed me. And so I stuck with cheerleading for the next four years. 

I wanted to prove to myself that I would never be limited by the way other people viewed me. And so I stuck with cheerleading for the next four years.

I am not alone who has been negatively impacted by the white, Western, able-bodied beauty standards that cheerleaders are supposed to embody. In 2016, the University of Washington faced (well-deserved) criticism after a list of demands was posted on its cheerleading Facebook page. Under “Body Do’s,” it said participants wanting to join the cheer squad should have an “athletic physique” and a “natural tan/spray tan.” There were to be no “dark, smokey eyes” and no “slicked back” hair. This was simply to be considered for a spot on the team.

I’m 29 now, and while my competitive cheerleading days are behind me, I was reminded of them when I watched “Cheer,” the recent Netflix docuseries following the award-winning cheerleading squad from Navarro College as they prepared for a competition in Daytona, Florida. The show was fun to watch and packed with drama and lovable characters, but it both highlighted and reinforced our society’s toxic, ableist beauty standards. 

Not only did “Cheer” openly discuss the sport’s emphasis on appearance, but it also showed several scenes of team members dieting, weighing themselves and spending hours doing hair and makeup. In one episode, coach Monica Aldama even said that Morgan, a talented tumbler and flier (the one being tossed into the air during stunts) and a fan favorite on the show, was not the best cheerleader when she auditioned, but she had the “look.”

Much of the show’s commentary about cheerleading’s past, present and future centered on appearance and the importance of participants’ beauty.

Watching this and hearing that Morgan’s appearance was ultimately the determining factor in giving her a shot on Navarro’s squad took me back to my middle and high school days. Much of the show’s commentary about cheerleading’s past, present and future centered on appearance and the importance of participants’ beauty ― mainly how beauty meant status. I realized that little has changed since I stopped cheering in 2006. 

This isn’t to say that Morgan and the rest of the Navarro athletes weren’t talented and didn’t deserve to be on the team; it is to say that women everywhere deserve better. People deserve to be viewed as more than their appearance ― more than their bodies and beauty, or lack thereof. Cheerleading is a huge industry. In 2017, there were nearly four million cheerleaders aged 6 and up in the United States alone. All those kids should not be getting the message that their appearance determines the value they bring to a group. 

It isn’t just toxic beauty standards that impact who gets to join cheerleading squads ― it’s also ableism. In March 2017, 13-year-old Madison Thompson, a student with Down syndrome, had to fight for a fair shot at making her middle school’s cheerleading squad. Madison had been a cheerleader for years, but at tryouts, the school district said Madison would not receive the accommodations she needed to learn. Not only did this send a message that she was unwelcome; it was also illegal. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires public schools to provide ”equal opportunity for participation.”

Madison’s mother advocated for her daughter’s right to receive accommodations at tryouts and garnered over 4,000 signatures in support. Eventually, the school district released a statement agreeing to reasonable modifications. It wasn’t that Madison and her mother wanted a guarantee that Madison would make the team. They just wanted her to have a fair chance, like all the other athletes.

But shows like Netflix’s “Cheer” demonstrate that it still isn’t all about talent or skill. Physical appearance sets the bar. And that’s not fair because skills can be taught. Physical beauty cannot. 

It isn’t just toxic beauty standards that impact who gets to join cheerleading squads ― it’s also ableism.

The harmful beauty culture perpetuated by “Cheer” isn’t just something that impacts people who are different like myself or like Madison. It also reinforces for people in competitive cheerleading, who are constantly pushing themselves to perform extreme stunts and tumbling routines, that it is normal to be judged more harshly on their physical beauty than on their athleticism. 

I do find comfort in the fact that some schools are taking steps to include individuals who are different in cheerleading. In 2019, Menlo-Atherton High School had a student with a chromosomal abnormality and a student who was deaf on their cheerleading squad. Some high schools go an inclusive step further and offer Unified Sports, a Special Olympics program that has people with and without intellectual disabilities competing on the same teams. This leads to more confidence, better communication skills and social inclusion for all participants. In addition, 79% of nondisabled participants report a better understanding of their teammates with intellectual disabilities. 

Sometimes people ask me why I stuck with cheer if others bullied me over my appearance. The answer is: Because I thought it was a small price to pay to participate in a sport I loved. Part of me also thought I deserved the cruelty.

That’s why, even though I loved watching “Cheer,” it made me sad to think about the message it sent to the next generation of cheerleaders who might not fit within society’s narrow definition of beauty. But with advocacy and more inclusive programs, I have hope that the future will be better. 

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