Recently, a coach for the University of Washington’s cheer team decided that they were receiving too many questions about tryouts, specifically dress code inquiries. In the interest of efficiency, he or she decided to make an infographic describing the ideal tryout look and post it to the cheer team’s Facebook page. If I had had the good fortune to see this infographic pop up on my news feed during the few hours it remained online, I would have sent a warning to the team: “Brace yourselves… the Internet is coming.”
Let me declare my bias in the beginning: I am no fan of cheerleading past the high school level. High school is the last time I saw cheerleaders with truly entertaining routines. I expected college cheerleaders (and, by extension, professional cheerleaders) to be something akin to Bring It On but, like everything portrayed in Hollywood teenage movies, reality hasn’t matched up. It seems that cheerleaders’ main job past high school is to look cute and prance around. When I go to Seahawks games, the cheerleaders are only slightly entertaining and never drum up much crowd enthusiasm. They come out and dance some tired routine, the audience watches half-interestedly, and then claps politely. And yet when the car race and cup game are played on the big screen, the crowd loses its collective mind. As a woman, this discrepancy is legitimately embarrassing.
What makes it worse is how serious these teams take themselves. The noxious reality show Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders tells you everything you need to know about professional cheerleading. Girls come into tryouts, work extremely hard, and are dismissed for, among other reasons, not looking good enough in their bathing suits (uniforms) or because a sexy picture of them was found online. They justify this treatment by insisting that the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders have a prestigious reputation and their girls must be the best dancers with the sexiest bodies and the classiest backgrounds. Then, during an actual Cowboys game, the cheerleaders come out and half the crowd leaves to go buy an $8 beer.
But, of course, there are always the staunch traditionalists who claim that cheerleading is a harmless extracurricular that encourages health, school pride, and student engagement. I’m just a cynical, overly-sensitive, safe-space-seeking feminist who hates sexy women (and all men) and secretly wishes I was a cheerleader, right?
Well now, at last, I have the verification I need to justify my seething disdain: the “ideal” cheer tryout look. Let’s take a look at what female features the University of Washington cheerleading squad desires, shall we?
Makeup Do’s: Let’s start with the two least odious suggestions: flattering eyeshadow and false lashes. Flattering eyeshadow should be a “do” for anybody wearing eyeshadow, period. No problem there. I myself have false eyelashes because they’re pretty and somewhat low maintenance (yes they require “fills” but you can throw away your mascara!). Next we have “girl about town” lipstick and skin with a bronze, beachy glow. I had no idea what “girl about town” lipstick was but after performing a Google image search, it appears to be a bright pink that appears to pair very nicely with light-colored skin. Hmm. And, tell me, what does a “bronze, beachy glow” look like on dark skin?
The Don’ts for makeup are basically “don’t wear too much, except on your lips.” This seems strange and arbitrary to me but whatever.
Moving on to Hair Do’s: The suggestion that particularly bothers me here is “curled or straight.” Notice that it doesn’t say “curly or straight.” Curled hair is straight hair that has been curled. The only kind of “cute” curly hair, am I right?
Hair Don’ts: For an “athletic” try-out, they don’t want your hair up and out of your face? Bizarre.
This flyer stinks to high heaven already but let’s finish it out.
Body Do’s: Being physically fit makes sense, no “distracting” nail polish also makes sense (I guess), but natural tan/spray tan? Once again, what does a natural tan look like on dark skin?! Why, in 2016, does the shade of your skin possibly have any relevancy to entertainment, school spirit, and athletic ability?!
Body Don’ts: Jewelry makes sense. Once again, distracting nail polish makes some sense (?) but no visible tattoos? This just eliminated any girl who got a tattoo before thinking she might want to try out for cheer, regardless of how athletic and energetic she may be. Why are tattoos a no-go? We all know why. They look “trashy” right? Or perhaps “skanky” is a more fitting word. The powers that be would never admit it but they don’t have to. Whatever excuse they currently give for forbidding tattoos (“unprofessional” is the most likely culprit) we all know how to read between the lines.
Attire Do’s: Underwear basically.
Attire Don’ts: Anything that hides your stomach.
There. That’s it. Just a few harmless suggestions on how one should look when applying to UW’s cheer squad. Well, now that they made the fatal mistake of writing it down, we can finally call out modern cheerleading on what all women know to be true.
To be a cheerleader, yes, you must be able to memorize some basic cheers and some trite little dance numbers. But, above all, first and foremost, of highest priority: you must look attractive. And trust me, there is a very narrow window of what qualifies as attractive. First of all, they would prefer that you be white. If you’re white, you will look good in bright pink lipstick, be able to achieve that ideal bronze glow, and be able to wear your hair both curled and straight. Of course, they will throw some girls of color on the team, for “diversity’s” sake. But never too many. Never a majority. It’s straight out of Knocked Up, when the doorman reveals that he can’t let pregnant women, older women, or too many black people in because the club owner demands that the club maintain a young, hot, white reputation. But this is the way cheerleading has always been, right?
Not. At. All.
First of all, cheerleading was initially an all male affair. That’s right, when the first pep club was started in the 1880s, women wouldn’t be allowed to participate for the next 40 years. After 1923, when women were finally allowed in, it would be 20 more years until they joined in large numbers. This was due to the large proportion of men that had to leave for World War II. It wasn’t until the 1980s that cheerleading became very athletic and competitive. Up until that point, and still today, cheerleading’s primary purpose was to promote school spirit.
That’s it. That’s your only job: to promote school spirit. Which can oh-so-easily be done regardless of race, hair style, body shape, number of tattoos, or nail polish color.
Tell me, do football teams care about the hair color of its players? Would they ever suggest that players have a certain skin shade? Would they require uniforms that show the midriff to ensure that players’ six packs are in order? I mean, we can’t have unattractive football players, right?
Except that’s not a thing because a football player’s job is to play football. As long as he can do that, and do it well, the dress code is almost purely functional. So, if a cheerleader’s job is to cheer, why are all of these non-cheer-related aesthetics so important? Unless a cheerleader has a more important, unwritten role to play.
Let me be clear here. I am not mad at cheerleaders themselves. I am sure they are lovely girls that I would get along with quite splendidly. I am mad at the institution of cheerleading. I am mad at an administration that tells these girls what a cheerleader should look like, sound like, and act like. I am angry with those who would reject phenomenally talented women because they have a tattoo or aren’t perfectly toned.
So… what ended up happening? Well, it turns out that the flyer was created by a part-time staffer and coach and it was actually removed by the school marketing team because it was so heinous. Because the issue went global (appearing in Time magazine, People magazine, and on ABC News) it was clear that a majority of people found this flyer completely offensive. A UW cheerleader from the ‘60s reminisced about the days when her team had no coach and designed its own choreography. UW’s own student government leaders decried the flyer as going “against everything that many students have been working so hard for. An advertisement such as this completely objectifies women and creates barriers that only perpetuates the inaccessibility of opportunities that should be open for every student on this campus.” Kudos University of Washington staff, alumni, and students. You made it clear that these ideals have no place in a campus as progressive as UW.
However, this flyer was not the aberrant opinion of one individual. Whether UW would like to admit it or not, these ideals do represent the current state of cheerleading. It’s a beauty pageant masquerading as an athletic group. But someone got lazy and forgot to keep up appearances. For one night, cheerleading revealed its true nature: pretty white girls parading around for the enjoyment of boys. But because it finally admitted to its own falsehood, albeit indirectly, the conversation can finally be had as to why cheerleading has not kept up with the times. So, thank you, whoever posted this flyer, your message was sincere, and sincerity is always respected in my book.