We all know that our society’s approach to strength and fitness sucks. It’s all about being thin and pretty, sex appeal, tight butts, cut abs, Instagram show offs, and a profound misunderstanding of the word “inspire.”
Nowhere is that conversation more screwed up than with teen girls. Every move they make is judged for how it affects everyone but them—and cheerleaders have it even harder. The sport is weighed down with gender-role baggage and even more leering hyper-sexualisation than every girl already lives with.
I’ve recently taken on a volunteer gig as a movement coach with a local high school cheerleading program. (Full-disclosure: my niece is on the squad.) Yeah, I want these kids to stay injury-free and have the best athletic experience they can—but I also have an auxiliary agenda.
Of course, I’m there to help them with the nuts and bolts of stretching and strength straining, stunts and falls. But they need more than that. They need someone to watch them and appreciate their work. Not their bodies, not even their strength: their work. They need someone to ask them how a move feels before telling them how it looks.
The first day I attended practice, the coach introduced me as a sports specialist. She told them I was there to observe and, hopefully, improve the way they train. I followed up by saying that if anyone was currently dealing with any recent or chronic injuries, they should let me know.
A girl sitting on the mat near me raised her hand and, before being called on, asked, “Can you do anything about double chins?”
The worst part? No one laughed. It wasn’t a joke. This 16-year-old athlete, who would only moments later throw another human being into the air and catch her 40 times in a single practice, didn’t ask me how she could prevent ankle sprains. She wasn’t concerned about the wrist and elbow pain that plagues nearly the entire team.
No, she was concerned about how the skin under her chin wrinkled when she looked down, because people might think she’s fat.
We, as a culture, have failed that girl.
I wish I could say I had some witty and poignant rejoinder that made her and her teammates pause to reflect on their self-image in a new way.
Yet, I didn’t do that. I stood there just long enough to start getting awkward before trying to salvage the moment by making a half-formed joke about how it’s weird for a kid her age to even be thinking like that and no, by the way, that’s not what I do.
But it’s not weird, is it? Painfully, depressingly not-weird.
So tell me: what would you have said?