Today is Rally for Girls’ Sports Day! Across the web, bloggers, tweeters and Facebook users are raising their voices in celebration of the far-reaching benefits of athletics participation for girls.
Crossposted from the Women’s Media Center
By Emma Woods
Despite years spent playing soccer, basketball and softball, I never quite felt like a natural athlete. Having the ball passed to me induced a minor wave of panic. The prospect of running laps had me contemplating imaginary illnesses to invent. Though I may have been an all-star in the eyes of my adoring parents, I always had the feeling I was faking it a bit, trying in vain to capture that effortless grace of the truly athletic. As I got older, the girls who excelled at one sport or another made their way to the more competitive levels, while I lingered in the limbo that is the recreational league. When, in eighth grade, I was rejected from the travel basketball team, it was the final nail in the coffin of my sports career.
That is, until I stumbled upon cheerleading. A friend convinced me to try out for the team and, much to my surprise, I turned out to be a natural. Here, finally, was something that came easily to me. I could link arms with my teammates to toss girls high into the air and vault them into the perfect one-legged stunts. I could produce a yell and a megawatt smile that would command attention and inspire the crowd into displays of school spirit. I came alive under the Friday night lights of the football field, relishing in the adrenaline rush of the half time performance. Cheerleading made me feel confident (despite the fact that we were hardly the “cool girls” pop culture would have you believe we were). It made me feel strong (I developed a rock hard six pack and triceps of steel). It made me feel that elusive magic of the athlete, at long last.
Cheerleading is a controversial sport – in fact, many deny it is a “sport” at all. While for me cheerleading conjures memories of hours spent perfecting complicated, dangerous feats of strength and acrobatics, many picture exposed midriffs, barely-there booty shorts, and sexually suggestive sideline dances. Media representations of cheerleaders favor the latter, and the hypersexualized cheerleaders that abound in television and movies (think Glee or Bring it On) contribute to the idea that cheerleading is nothing but showing a little skin to spice up a sporting event. Blink and you might miss images in the media of, say, the blood, sweat and tears of a cheerleading team gearing up for competition, but you don’t have to look hard to see that same old cheerleader stereotype – promiscuous, stupid, catty, etcetera etcetera. Just do a Google image search of “cheerleader” if you had any doubts. It’s the cumulative effect of these images that I come up against when I tell people that I used to be a cheerleader (“Really?? Cheerleading??”).
Cheerleading encompasses such a wide range of experiences that it’s hard to make generalizations about what it is or isn’t. Is it empowering or exploiting women and girls? Is it a sport in its own right, or does it sideline girls by having them cheer for “real” (read: male) athletes? It’s easy to argue both sides, depending on where you look for examples. What I can attest to is that cheerleading can and does bring the same benefits that sports bring to all girls – self-esteem, fitness, a positive body image, and leadership skills (to name a few). It’s these stories that are missing from the media, and it’s girls like me – girls searching for a sport to call their own – who are damaged by a narrow, hypersexualized idea of what cheerleading means.
We can all join the fight to call out sexist images in the media and ensure that the stories of women and girls are told. Visit the Women’s Media Center to see how we’re amplifying women’s voices and changing the conversation – pick up your megaphone and make your voice heard!