After Three Years As a Pro Cheerleader, I'm Ready To Turn My Pom Poms In For Some Self-Esteem

One by one, members of the dance team were asked to come into a small office area in our sports bras and shorts as our coaches told us if we should work on any “problem areas."
Publish date:
April 15, 2013
eating disorders, body image, dance, cheerleading

The first time I auditioned to be on the Philadelphia Wings Angels Dance Team I didn’t make it. I was devastated. I ran to my Mom crying, analyzing whether it was my weak dance ability or the fact that I just wasn’t dance team material that led to my rejection.

Having taken dance classes since age three, I grew up idolizing the girls I saw performing on the field, dying to one day have the opportunity to dance at a stadium, to get my own set of sparkly silver pom-poms.

I tried out again the next year, this time with a push-up bra and a façade of confidence in an attempt to imitate the looks of the girls who seemed to be successful at auditions. I was skinnier, tanner and blonder. Two weeks later I got a call that I made the team.

On the first day of practice, my two coaches (one a former cheerleader, one the owner of the dance studio we practiced at) handed out contracts for us to sign. Some sections were pretty basic –- no smoking or drinking at the games, no dating the players, etc. But then there were the parts that made it feel like I was signing away the rights to my appearance.

We could be kicked off for gaining too much or losing too much weight (I realized quickly too skinny wasn’t a thing), we weren’t allowed to change our hair without approval, visible tattoos were forbidden, and no one was to eat or drink at the games because the idea of a cheerleader having a goddamn fry is clearly repulsive to the general public.

At the next practice, we faced individual body evaluations. One by one, members of the dance team were asked to come into a small office area in our sports bras and shorts as our coaches told us if we should work on any “problem areas,” if we should start a diet or if we were fine (a.k.a. skinny enough).

As my name got called, my stomach tightened, realizing how far I’d come from a past eating disorder, fearing that I’d fall back into the habits of calorie counting and excessive exercising. I was told to “tighten up,” “get toned” and work on my stomach. However, I was reassured that the high-wasted shorts we wore would cover my little “pooch.”

Others were told to lose 10 pounds, go on some sort of Atkins diet or hit the gym more often. I immediately went home and threw out all food in my cabinet I deemed not healthy enough.

After two months of committing six days a week to the gym and cutting out all “bad food,” our coaches announced we would be having a photo shoot for a team calendar, reminding us that we needed to look our best and instructing us to avoid anything other than turkey and string beans on Thanksgiving that week (because even corn is a starch).

To prepare, I cut out all carbs, one girl went on a week-long juicing diet, and some just barely ate. On the day of the shoot, we all commented on who the skinniest was, how great she looked, how we hoped to god that someone would be editing the (non-existent) fat off of our bodies.

By my second year on the team, I realized it wasn’t just my weight that mattered to my coaches. My hair wasn’t long or thick enough, so I had to wear extensions to every game and every appearance. My boobs weren’t big enough, so I was told to wear two (yes, two) pairs of cutlets to give off the illusion of cleavage. We were even told to get spray tans so we wouldn’t look “pasty.”

I complied with the rules, envying the girls on the team with the tiniest waists or the thickest hair or the best abs, creating completely unreasonable expectations for myself. But the more I transformed into this Barbie-like version of myself, the less I enjoyed being on the dance team. Practices were miserable when I was forced to my bare my skin to ensure my coaches I was still in shape, and games became more about making sure my hair and makeup were perfectly in place than actually performing on the field.

After one of my coaches addressed how fans had been complaining that the dance team looked anorexic by saying, “Well, that’s kind of a compliment,” I realized that I was already completely sucked into a world where looks trumped all, and my talent was considered less of an asset than the size of my boobs (or in my case, the padding of my bra).

After three years of being on the team, my friends no longer ask me if I want pizza when they order out. I turn down fun opportunities to squeeze in an extra hour at the gym. Boyfriends resent me for being completely incapable of accepting, let alone believing, any of their compliments. My Mom worries about my low self-esteem. And I can’t look at a single picture of myself without finding something to hate, something I know could be better if only I could be a little bit prettier.

I’m not saying this is all due to being on a dance team. As someone who never had a lot of confidence, I probably should have avoided putting myself in situations where my appearance is scrutinized. But isn’t the whole life-sized Barbie thing kind of outdated?

The other night I went out with two girls on the dance team to celebrate our very last game. Before we even made it to the club, all three of us were complaining about how fat we looked in our outfits.

I don’t want to be that person anymore. I want to order something off of the menu that isn’t non-fat. I want to shake my itty-bitty titties without worrying if a piece of gel is going to pop out of my bra. I want to run my fingers through my own goddamn hair. And with graduation around the corner, I want to find a job that doesn’t rely on my looks because, I swear, I have other skills too.

I really do value the experiences I’ve had as a Wings Angel. I love the girls I’ve met. I’ll cherish the moments spent signing little girl’s T-shirts and taking pictures with fans. But the gig is up, and I’m ready to be more than a little blonde in a skimpy little costume. So will someone please pass me the pizza?