IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Cheerleading Coach Introduced Me to Body Image Issues

Publish date:
October 8, 2015
body image, cheerleading

Growing up, I was petite in every way: short, thin, knobby kneed, basically a walking rag doll.

Because I grew up so tiny, I was unaware of my body. I just thought, “I’m skinny,” and that was that. I never thought about not wearing something because it would make me look fat, just as every little girl shouldn’t, just as every woman shouldn’t.

I practiced ballet until I turned 13, at which point, I shifted my efforts toward cheerleading. I was a flyer, also known as the girl on the top of the stunts. My background in ballet and petite body made it easy for me to excel as a flyer. It was fairly effortless to toss me in the air and for me to put my leg behind my head.

After years of playing outfield during softball games or warming the bench during soccer games, I felt like it was the one sport I was actually good at and for that, I loved cheerleading.

My freshman year of high school, I made the varsity cheerleading team, which was a dream come true. I maintained my grades, but the majority of my time and effort was spent on cheerleading. If I wasn’t at practice, I was at home stretching or going over dance routines.

As sophomore year came and went, I became more skilled and an even more integral part of the team. I may have been a fierce flyer, but I was still a very meek girl. I would watch my other teammates argue with each other or tell the coaches that they should be the center point, but I would just do as told. I was shy and I simply couldn’t get the words out.

My junior year of high school, a new coaching staff took over the cheerleading team. I shouldn’t have had anything to worry about. I had been on varsity since I was a freshman. I was a top-notch flyer who hit her stunts and was very flexible. Hell, there was a picture of me in the school newspaper.

Nicole was the ringleader of the new coaching staff. She had a raspy, drill sergeant voice, bleached blond hair, tanned skin and a tight body despite having given birth to two children. She preferred loud personalities like her own, which was simply not the way I was. Instead of shouting, “Look how good I am,” I preferred just being good but unfortunately, sometimes that doesn’t get you noticed.

Sometime around 16, I started developing breasts, a butt and a body. I may have no longer been built like a 12-year-old boy but I was still skilled and experienced. I made varsity as a flyer, but Nicole had it out for me.

She was very aware of her body and the bodies of the girls on her cheerleading team. Luckily, I was the most flexible girl on my team. She appreciated this, as flexibility doesn’t come easy, but she didn’t like my body.

My stomach was soft, not ripped. Anything that wasn’t muscle was weakness in Nicole’s book. In fact, while having us do crunches, Nicole would instruct us to place a hand on our stomach and if we felt anything soft, it was fat.

“Get rid of it,” she’d tell us.

Tina, one of the girls who held me up, had the type of body Nicole liked. Tina was pure muscle with big, strong thighs and a washboard stomach that literally curved inward, a body similar to Britney Spears' circa I’m Slave 4 U.

One practice, some of the girls were goofing around and put Tina up in a stunt as a flyer.

“She should be the one in the air, not you,” Nicole said to me.

I, of course, didn’t say anything to my defense. I stood there like a puppy who had just peed on the carpet.

While I was having trouble mastering a new stunt, Nicole made her way over to my stunt group. She asked Tina how much she weighed, to which Tina answered 120 pounds. Then, Nicole looked over at me and asked how much I weighed, to which I replied 110 pounds.

“See, that’s the problem: You weight as much as your bases,” Nicole announced to the team once we told her our weights. In front of the entire squad, my coach had fat-shamed me for weighing 110 pounds as a 17-year-old girl.

I was not the only one who fell victim to Nicole’s idea about body types. She had told a fellow cheerleader that she was simply too lanky for the sport. The cheerleader quit soon after.

In order to prove to us that she could, in fact, whip us all into shape, she had her assistant coach stand up and tell us a story about how she was too fat to be a cheerleader until Nicole took her under her wing. We were all subject to Nicole’s notions about a woman’s figure.

At tryouts my senior year, Nicole told me that no one was strong enough to hold me, while I still weighed 110 pounds, and that I’d have to be a base. This was untrue, as many of the bases who had put me up in the past were still on the team, but I just said okay.

When they announced the varsity team that year, I was listed as an alternate. I was an alternate after I had made varsity my freshman year. What was happening?

Cheerleading was such a huge part of my identity. It was the only thing I participated in at school. I thought my biggest worry senior year would be making captain, not making the team.

Before one of the summer practices, I called Nicole and told her I quit. She tried to convince me to stay, which I still chalk up to her being more concerned about team morale than her actually liking me. Perhaps, she did actually like me and was just hard on those she liked.

I could try to understand her thought processes all day, but I never will. I will never understand why she made a group of girls so aware of their bodies at such a delicate age. The teenage years of a woman’s life can truly be the tipping point in her confidence and security.

As time went on, I continued to look more womanly. My sophomore year of college, I developed an eating disorder: bulimia. I would work out hours a day and only eat fruits and vegetables, hoping to lose this new body.

When I did manage to actually eat something more fulfilling, I’d purge. I would spend hours in front of the mirror dissecting my body, standing with my back to the mirror and pulling my thighs as far apart of they would go, or shaking my leg to see how much fat jiggled.

I am no longer bulimic and I would never point my finger at Nicole for giving me an eating disorder. It was a number of factors. I can, however, point my finger at her for making me so very aware of my body in a way I had not been before.

In an ideal wold, girls would never have to be that aware of their bodies. Girls especially shouldn’t be shamed for the natural changes that occur when they become women. We grow breasts, and butts, and hips and thighs, and all of those body parts are wonderful. There is absolutely nothing wrong with no longer looking like you’re 14 years old, and with a little help from NIcole, it took me way too many years to accept that.