Cheerleading: Does Appearance Trump Athleticism?

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The University of Washington’s cheerleading team is receiving a great amount of criticism after posting a photo online regarding the “dos and don’ts” for those interested in trying out for their team. The infographic has since been removed, but sparked controversy regarding body shaming and stereotypes within cheerleading. Since when have looks determined skills? And why is having a tanned, athletic figure more important than having genuine talent?

University of Washington
University of Washington

It’s well known that cheerleading is stereotyped as a sport which perpetuates body-image obsessions, and the University of Washington’s cheerleading squad’s post has only further encouraged this idea. The infographic contains a list of the things girls hoping to try out should be aware of in terms of their body, makeup, and hair. The image includes do’s such as having a “physically fit, athletic physique,” a tan, and fake lashes. Some of the don’ts include visible tattoos and too much makeup. All of these try out requirements are based on the idealized Western standard of beauty, completely ignoring girls’ actual talent. So what about those who don’t fit within these standards?

With this sort of try-out advice, it creates a very exclusive and worrisome environment for those who don’t fit into the “typical cheerleader mold.” Whether that’s a bigger figure or just simply being uncomfortable revealing their midriff, photos like these not only discourage people from participating in the sport but also add to the stereotype that cheerleading prioritises appearance above athleticism.  Many complain that the poster is objectifying, determining a woman’s worth based off of factors such as their body, hair, and makeup alone.

How important is it to really have all girls trying out be in clothes exposing their midriff? Is your talent suddenly going to diminish if you train with your hair in a ponytail, or without makeup on?

The poster reduces cheerleading to a superficial hobby completely detached from any true athletic worth, rather than a genuine sport based off of the athletes’ ability and merit. Having been in cheer for well over 10 years, I can confidentally say that it’s a sport which requires extreme athleticism, rather than a slim figure or a tan. Cheerleading is a combination of acrobatic and gymnastic roots, while receiving a fraction of the recognition.

I’ve spent a large amount of my life in cheer working to get people to see it for what it is: a sport, not a beauty pageant. While it doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves, nearly everyone who watches a true competition would agree it is, in fact, a sport – one which requires a great amount of coordination, teamwork, strength, and persistence.

The appearance of any one person does not reflect their interests or talents, so we should stop treating cheer like an exception to this. If we want to detach cheerleading from its self-obsessive stereotypes and gross sexualization of its athletes then we must begin by recognizing that body-shaming women into deciding whether or not they are “worthy” of a team is the wrong way to go. Cheer requires such a diverse range of skills and universities like UW should begin embracing a diverse range of applicants. Teams who focus on finding athletes based on who looks the best in uniform rather than who has the best skills merely limits a team’s ability. Athleticism does, after all, always trump appearance.

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Wessex Scene Online Manager 2015-2016, Head of Design 2016-2017

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