What it means to be a cheerleader

As we’re nearing the end of the season we start to fill with a variety of emotions. You might be
feeling pure bliss for what you’ve achieved over the past season, a season we’ll never forget. You
might be excited for what is yet to come. There’s also that bittersweet feeling that you may
experience, and that may be because you’re hanging up your cheer shoes, you’re moving
programmes, you’re not on the team you’d hoped for, or a general reflection over the past season.
For the most part, the cheerleading community is a very positive and welcoming community.
However, nothing is without it’s faults. Whether that be gender, sexual orientation, race, socio-
economic status or something else entirely – it’s never truly plain sailing. In this article I want to
explore what it truly means to be a cheerleader; the good, the bad and the ugly.

One of the main things I love about cheerleading is that it’s a female dominated industry; from the
athletes, to coaches and event providers. Cheerleading is female empowerment on a tin. Girls
supporting girls, women lifting women – it’s fantastic. However, whilst there’s a super supportive
environment inside the gym, it’s not always the case outside. We’re making huge waves in
cheerleading and I have definitely noticed a huge change in the general public’s perceptions of
cheer. That may be down to the incredible achievements of our UK teams at the ICU & IASF
Worlds, our presence out in the communities; even on television, when people think cheerleading,
they are more inclined to think about Netflix’s Cheer, or Cov’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent,
rather than Bring it On (still an iconic film nonetheless). There are more and more people now that
know someone who cheers, and that helps with the understanding of what we do. That’s not to say
there is no longer ignorance. We’ve all got our horror stories about what non-cheerleaders have
asked. Women and people with uteruses have so much against them; misogyny, the patriarchy,
periods and associated pain (including the worry whilst wearing a white uniform), smear tests,
PCOS, endometriosis, fibroids, existential dread but to name a few. All of these have an impact upon our
physical abilities, sometimes without us even realising. Yet still, we show up, we perform and we
achieve our goals. We are incredible.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million times more, I am a feminist, and the very definition of
feminism is gender equality. So it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t mention our male, non-binary and other
marginalised gendered cheerleaders. We appreciate our non-female cheerleaders and we love a
good coed team. Yet, cheerleading still isn’t as accessible for males, non-binary and gender
diverse athletes. By accessible I don’t just mean locations and funds – although they can come into
play. When I talk about accessibility, I mean things like stereotypes preventing males taking up our
fabulous sport. Now I’ve not been to school in about ten years but for a lot of us, our school extra-
curricular cheer was our first taste of cheerleading. Back then at least, when the cheer coach
would come in and hand out some flyers about the cheer sessions, they were only given out to the
girls, all the pictures on the flyers were of girls. So why would a boy want to join?

Even if you get past that first barrier, once you’re in, if you don’t adhere to the male/female binary,
what team do you go on, what uniform do you wear? I have so much time for teams who have time
for their athletes without putting them in a box. It needs to be commonplace to have a choice of
uniform and be catered for. We need to get out of the mindset that the gender binary is the default –
it’s not. Just because someone has a typically sounding female name and long hair, they don’t
necessarily identify as female and the “default” uniform. Even with these obstacles, our male and
gender diverse athletes are incredibly successful.
If we’re talking about accessibility, we need to talk about race. Times are shifting in terms of
opening that dialogue, but we still need to ensure that racial equality is on our mind.

Again, it
comes down to that accessibility. If the promo for the team only has white females on, it may not
seem so inviting for someone who doesn’t fit that narrative. When coaches talk about hairstyles
and tanning for comp, make sure we’re including everyone in those discussions so our athletes of
colour aren’t left second guessing how the comp requirements suit them. Again, move away from
the racial stereotypes. We need more people of colour in flyer positions, or any position they want
to be in. Allow our athletes the same grace no matter their gender, sexuality, disability, body size or

race. It’s not the role of our athletes of colour to be that symbol of change or role model (that’s
tiring work), it’s the role of our coaches to allow them those positions. In doing so, we create a
diverse and welcoming environment for EVERYBODY to THRIVE.
I also want to see more adaptive abilities teams and SEND teams. These are really important but
still pretty scarce.

Once again, there are so many barriers to those with additional needs entering a
sport like cheerleading, so we need to make sure we’re prepared, we have coaches with the
appropriate training and we have the time and place to cater for ALL athletes. We need to adopt an
inclusive environment, not exclusive. Everyone is welcome to cheer, everyone CAN cheer, and
everyone deserves that supportive environment that we all know and love.
As well as these societal prejudices (often placed on us at birth), we have a life outside of cheer.
Add these things together and it can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.
Sometimes it feels like something needs to give. We need to listen to our bodies, listen to our
teammates, listen to our marginalised genders’ and people of colour’s experiences. We need to
share that burden in order to move forwards for change.
As well as the misogyny and discrimination, we have lives to lead too. We have teachers and
bosses that perhaps don’t appreciate our sport for what it is. We’re constantly challenging views
whilst challenging our bodies with new skills. We deal with break-ups and bereavements with the
support of our teammates; we come back from injuries with the support of our coaches; we expend
literal blood, sweat and tears in the gym; and we break the bank for our fees, uniform and travel
costs; we do it for a mere two minutes and thirty seconds on the comp mat.

The booming music, the glaring lights and the shadow of the judges table. We do it because cheerleading is a pretty terrific sport.

What does it truly mean to be a UK cheerleader? It means that, In spite of all that, we as
cheerleaders take on the weight of centuries of discrimination, and we still perform with a smile and
a wink. On the floor when the lights are bright and the music is booming, that weight doesn’t feel so
heavy and we do it for the love of the sport and the support of our teammates and coaches. When
the weight of the world is bringing you down, learn to rest, not to quit. That goes for all things in life.
Listen to your body. Preventative action is much easier than reactive action. We’re nearing the end
of the season now, so if you need to take a couple of weeks to reset, recuperate, and realign with
your goals (after comp) this is the time to do it.

Be open and honest with your coaches. They’re often pretty good at advice and have likely been in
your situation before. They want to see you do well in and outside of the gym. You might think your
time as an athlete is over, but still want to be involved. Could you take on a recreational class,
volunteer at your programme or get into coaching? There are always options and those around you
will be best placed to advise and support you.
Cheerleading may be a part of your life for just one season, your three years at uni, or half of your
life. Whether you’re a newbie or a veteran, I’m sure you’ll always hold a special bow-shaped place
in your heart.
That’s all for this month. If you have any topics you’d like us to cover, get in touch! If you find
yourself creating a vision board, be sure to tag us.
Happy goal setting!
Ta’ra for now,

Written by Rachel

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