Cheerleading: The not so glamorous reality

Think it's all pom-poms and big smiles? Think again

Glittery outfits, fluffy pom-poms, big smiles and plenty of pep: cheerleaders always look fabulous. Why wouldn’t all girls want to pick up some poms and dance about looking pretty for the gratification of men? Bleurgh. Believe it or not, this isn’t some 1950’s view of the female ideal, but is the gist of a suggestion by our sports and equalities minister, just this week.

Helen Grant said in an interview with the Telegraph that girls should be encouraged to take up cheerleading because it is a “feminine” sport. On the same day that the British women’s curling team won a medal at Sochi, she said she was worried that women were being put off sport because many make girls look unglamorous. Obviously this was met with anger. Of course men and women look unglamorous when playing sports. If you’re focussing on looking glamorous while doing a sport, you’re probably doing it wrong. Laura Bates from the Everyday Sexism project sums it up well: sport should be judged on success at the sport alone, not how you look when you’re doing it.

But, and this is a big but, I totally agree that girls and women should take up cheerleading, and I’m a feminist, FYI. I’m completely against the kind of cheerleading that Grant seems to be advocating, but the competitive sport known as cheerleading is adifferent beast. I’ve written before about cheerleading at the Olympics and argued the merits of cheerleading as a proper sport but now I’m going to go a step further and declare that it is a feminist sport and a wonderful thing for boys and girls to learn in school.

I’m talking about competitive cheerleading, not the silly, fluffy pom-pom shaking, semi-nude dancing you see at the edges of American football games. I mean cheerleading as a sport where men and women form a team, throw each other in the air, do back-flips and handstands and toe-touches and dance to fast music and then get judged against other teams doing the same thing. This sport, unfortunately, shares a name with the dancey-dancey-booty-shaky version enacted for titillation on the sidelines of men’s games, but it bears very little resemblance to competitive cheerleading.

Competitive cheerleading is the sport that I took part in and coached for a decade of my life and I can’t recommend it enough as a fun tool for teaching fairness, teamwork and gender equality at school. Cheerleading is equal to both genders: you can have mixed gender teams that compete against other mixed gender teams at a national and international level. There isn’t another physical sport that allows such gender parity. It’s also all about teamwork. Just as the striker in football needs a good winger to pass to him, a flyer (the one that goes in the air in the pyramid) relies on the bases (the ones doing the lifting) to work together to get him or her up there.

As for the glamorous part, I’m sorry to disappoint, Ms Grant, but it gets pretty messy on the competition floor. You need the stunts to stay up in the air for as long as possible, so if that means you’ve got a hand gripping tightly to your bum cheek or another cheerleader counter-balancing against your armpit, so be it. Like any sport, it involves determination, stamina and strength. Sweaty clothes, messy hair and – if you’re unlucky – some battle scars, are all part of that. Whether your sport of choice is running, boxing, curling or cheerleading, performance matters, not your appearance. In a world where women’s looks are constantly scrutinised, a haven like sport where women don’t have to worry about what they look like is something that should be celebrated, not shied away from.