• U.S.

The Push To Be Perfect

11 minute read
Cathy Booth Thomas

The 14 cheerleaders from Henderson Middle School in East Texas are sitting on the grass at Southern Methodist University looking glumly at their sneakers as they’re sized up by their “sponsor,” who serves as unpaid coach, chaperone and shoulder to cry on. “Stunts, good. Cheer, good. But your spacing was off,” says Tangela Washington. Her tone isn’t angry, though it might sound harsh to a 13-year-old. The squad is about to face its first evaluation at a three-day summer camp run by the National Cheerleaders Association. “We’ve got to work like a team,” Washington stresses. “You were off in la-la land, and somebody is going to get hurt. I understand it’s your first year, but you’ve got to get more confident in yourselves. Your parents paid $260 for this camp to hear what I tell you every day.”

The girls, clearly dejected, whisper among themselves after Washington steps away, but when other cheerleading teams start a game of Little Sally Walker on the lawn, the Henderson girls rush to join in, giggling. “Hey, girl, do your thing, do your thing,” they chant as they circle two girls doing hip-hop moves in the middle. Another pair takes their place, and the singsong verse continues. With ponytails flopping, the 13- year-olds look as if they haven’t a care in the world.

If only it could last. At 13, however, innocence is quickly losing ground to hard, high-pressure realities. Ask any of the girls in that circle. Thanks to cheerleading, they’ve gained confidence in themselves, but they have all begun to feel the weight of great expectations bearing down on them. An activity that used to be more of a vanity showcase for well-connected kids now reflects the increasingly competitive nature of childhood, not only to excel but to be well rounded as well. Cheerleaders rush from school to practice to private coaching sessions, then home to cram in schoolwork before a late bedtime, only to rise early so they can make more practices in the morning. Good grades are a must, not only to get into college–just five years away–but also to keep their spot on the squad. And peer pressure is rising as old friends suddenly become jealous enemies or embarrassing reminders of a childhood left behind. Then there are the simmering rivalries inside the squad itself, sometimes fueled by parents with their own agendas. Finally, there’s the pressure to perform in front of family and friends (yikes, there’s that cute boy from homeroom!), all the while being pretty, pleasant and smiling. Cheerleading, in fact, may be the ultimate magnifying lens for the manifold pressures of being a modern 13-year-old.

Katie Root of tiny Crandall, Texas, says the trouble starts with how deceptively easy and fun it all looks. “People say, ‘I want to be a cheerleader, woohoo, I’m done,’ but it’s not like that,” explains the petite 13-year-old, a wrinkle creasing her young brow. You need muscle for lifts and precision up in the air, and there’s a constant risk of injury. “What we do takes as much preparation as football. People don’t understand how much pressure it is.”

Katie was just 6 when she informed her dad that she was going to be a cheerleader in middle school, high school and “the rest of my school years.” She started dancing lessons at age 3 and gymnastics at 6, and she’s succeeded so far, winning a spot on the squad at Crandall Middle School two years in a row despite competition from girls with new tumbles and jumps. As a “flyer,” who gets tossed or lifted in the air, Katie must rely on her teammates to catch her. At cheerleading camp, she ends up sporting an ice pack after one of them, inattentive for a split second, accidentally socks her in the face with an elbow. Katie’s push to be perfect has left her with tendinitis in one knee, requiring a brace that she always carries in her backpack. Once, her vision faded to black, smack in the middle of a tricky tumbling run involving a back handspring and back tuck (though she kept going). None of that, however, compares to the sheer terror of getting a D, which could jeopardize her position on the team. Katie struggles at school, making mostly A’s and B’s, but the occasional C leaves her in constant dread. “Every time I get my report card, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,'” she says, hands fanning her face.

Being a cheerleader is no longer an instant ticket to popularity, as Katie and her best friend, Lauren Wyble, 13, discovered this year when old friends started criticizing them. “Cuz I’m a cheerleader, most of my friends call me a prep,” says Lauren with a mournful look. “People make fun of you for being one,” Katie explains. “My mom says they’re just jealous and to ignore them, so that’s what I try to do.” But Lauren is hurt by the attitude of old friends who now resent her devotion to the sport. “I just tell my friends, ‘O.K., like, I can’t just give it up,'” says Lauren.

Yet some girls seem to thrive under the pressure. Kelsie Cale, a cheerleader at St. Pius X Catholic School in Dallas, is forever practicing, even if it means commandeering a grocery aisle as her stage. Her mom Jill Cale, who was a cheerleader herself, believes Kelsie’s experience on the squad has made her daughter “more of a leader.” And it shows. When an inner-city cheer team struggles to finish its routine at the S.M.U. camp, Kelsie gets the St. Pius squad and all the other squads to chant “Good job! Good job!” to encourage the rival team. Later, when asked if she can think of any negative effects of cheering, she’s quick with a “No, ma’am.” Says Kelsie: “Everybody wants to be a cheerleader, and when you are one, all the little girls look up to you. But we don’t think we’re better than the other girls because we’re cheerleaders.”

Cheerleading has changed a lot, at least in Texas. Once upon a time, the girls didn’t have to do much besides jump and look cute. These days they do standing backflips and other moves that require a high degree of athleticism–and endless practice. “Cheerleading is one of the hardest things you can do,” says Breanna Oviedo of Euless Junior High near Dallas. She should know, since she also plays basketball, soccer and softball and runs track. Her squad mate Monica Brigham, also a soccer player, shows off wrist injuries from lifting the lighter girls for stunts. “They sell a T shirt that says ATHLETES LIFT WEIGHTS, BUT CHEERLEADERS LIFT ATHLETES,” she says proudly. The Euless squad practices four times a week, an hour and a half a night, with only Wednesday off for church. Every practice involves at least 100 crunches and “running lines” on a basketball court. “Sometimes they make you so mad,” says Monica. If someone rolls her eyes, that adds a couple of laps of running. Drop a flyer while doing a stunt, and that’s 25 push-ups.

The athletic demands have made cheerleading less of a haven for the In crowd and more of a meritocracy. “I don’t care if it’s the wallflower girl in the corner. If she can cheer, I want her on my squad,” says Lisa O’Bryant, who supervises cheerleaders at St. Pius. O’Bryant has brought in independent judges so that tryouts don’t devolve into popularity contests. “The majority of my girls are probably popular, but I also have a handful who don’t say boo at school.”

Some requirements for cheerleaders haven’t changed. They are still expected to be well-turned-out fashion plates, hair pulled into a tight ponytail, uniform just so. Tans–from a bottle or a tanning salon–are a must. “The girls have to be picture perfect,” says Euless cheer sponsor Kelli McDaniel. Monica’s mom Daphne Brigham keeps a sharp eye on her daughter at the S.M.U. camp, monitoring her for slips.–and, naturally, finds one. “Didn’t we talk about this?” she asks Monica, pulling her aside for a wayward bra strap. “If your top is pink, your bra can’t be black or blue!” Monica is dismissive, laughing about fastidious friends who spend 20 minutes doing their hair, 30 minutes on makeup. Kelsie, however, says she watches not only her hair and makeup but also her junk-food intake. Sponsors say that gaining weight, especially during pizza pig-outs at overnight competitions, is a more common problem for 13-year-olds than eating disorders like bulimia, which can become a serious issue for cheerleaders in high school.

The price of perfection runs high in dollars too. Cheerleading clothes and camps typically cost about $1,000 a year. That’s a problem in poorer schools like Euless. This year only 10 girls auditioned for 16 slots on the team. To ease the financial burden, the school decided to buy uniforms and lend them out. Many junior-high and middle schools, conscious of Texas’ conservative values, impose a dress code for uniforms, requiring skirts that fall three inches below the fingertips and tops that cover the stomach and shoulders.

Rivalries within the squads are inevitable–between those with boyfriends and those without, between those with money and those with little, between the flyers and the earthbound, between those who can do a standing backflip and those who can’t. Beth Hammack, a Euless cheer sponsor, swears that most of the fights revolve around boys: “Junior-high kids are just hormones running around in tennis shoes, “she says with a knowing look. Then there’s the perennial friction from freshman “fishes” lording it over the lowly eighth-graders. “My flyer and me got into it again today,” says Breanna, whose job is to provide the base for the acrobatics of a freshman cheerleader. Monica, a team captain, tries to bring everyone together, but she complains that it never works because of the evil ninth-graders. “If we’re on the team next year as freshmen, we don’t want to be mean to eighth-graders,” she vows.

Meddling moms, or moms who are just being protective, create problems too. Everyone remembers the Texas cheerleading mom who killed off the competition, thereby providing the story line for two TV movies in the early ’90s. “Parents really do get crazy,” says Henderson cheer sponsor Washington, who sees some parents pushing girls to perform stunts they’re not ready for. “I think the parents like to get involved more than the coaches,” observes Breanna. “It’s like they want to be a teenager again.”

Krystin Sessions and her mom Rene think they have found a balance. Grades come first–Krystin makes straight A’s–but she takes her cheerleading seriously too, which is apparent from her buff 5-ft. 2-in. frame and sculpted biceps. “I started tumbling when I was, like, 4 or 5,” she says. “You have to train and be committed to the team.” Besides school practices, she takes lessons with a private coach, who also happens to be her cheer sponsor, Washington–a point not missed by some of the other girls’ moms who have complained about favoritism.

At cheer camp, jealousy and the stress of competition start to hurt the Henderson team’s scores from the National Cheerleaders Association instructors. So late one night, the 14 girls hold a “Come to Jesus” meeting in their S.M.U. dorm room to air grievances and try to put their problems behind them. Krystin, caught in the cross fire of parental sniping, is sage enough at 13 to know that teamwork matters above all–more than the moves and certainly more than the makeup. “It’s not just about one person,” she says on the last day of camp. “You want to encourage other people to do good so your team will all come together.” Try as she might to be upbeat, however, Krystin can’t quite hide her physical and mental exhaustion. Being 13, perky and perfect is tough, even for a cheerleader.

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