When I was a kid, my dream was to be a rock star. I also wanted to be a princess, an actress, an Olympic figure skater, and a dancer. Did I become any of those things? No. And yet I find myself living the happiest, most fulfilled kind of life.
My 7-year-old daughter’s dream is to be a cheerleader…or at least it was until I killed it last Thursday.
One day, if I am raising her right, she will thank me. Today, she’ll just have to trust me; at this particular moment in time, that dream leads to nowhere but swimsuit calendars. I know many people champion competitive cheer as a sport that requires discipline, athleticism, resilience, and teamwork; I tried to be one of them. I wanted to support her interest, and I was willing to squash my hesitation in favor of her desire to participate.
The problem, however, was the competition we were involved with a few weeks ago. I saw the uniforms, and I tried to see what I could of those beautiful girls’ faces, hidden as they were beneath blue eye shadow stickers, red lipstick, and all the wrong shades of foundation. I cringed when the announcer called her team, the Mini-Beauty Queens, onto the stage. I listened to the Cheer Moms critique the performance of others’ daughters, and stood, agape, when her coach complained that she had been “so much better during rehearsal.”
My husband and I paid a $110 fee so she could compete, and an additional $50 admission fee so we could watch her do it. We paid $200 for a competition uniform that reveals more of her body than it covers, and $40.75 on makeup and brushes at Target. We’ve paid $85 for a bejeweled bikini that she is supposed to wear as a practice uniform, and $25 on a sea-foam green sports bra that she insisted she needed to have because every other girl on her team wears one.
We knew we were pulling the plug on the whole thing before we even left the convention center garage.
It was a lurid scene, my daughter in a state of panic, her face awash with tears, while I spoke to the business manager about our decision to withdraw her from the program. My daughter felt culpable, begging me to give her one more chance, and I drowned in the unrelenting undertow of insidious social norms, unable to provide her with a comprehensible, accurate explanation, choking on my guilt as much as I did my words. I chose instead to focus on the unsustainable compromises our family was making to support her involvement with the team, which was at least a partial truth.
I found I couldn’t even engage her coaches in candid, unrepentant dialogue for fear of misdirecting my objections. I could have expressed my opinion about the uniforms, the team name, and their overtly suggestive choreography. I could have voiced my concern about what I perceived was nascent body image distortion, having witnessed my 7-year-old daughter shun dessert for fear she’d become “too fat” to be a flyer, but I don’t care to be a rabble-rouser. I’m not there yet. I value the coaches and the way they nurtured my daughter’s talent, and even her dreams. It’s hard for me to judge them. After all, this isn’t personal; they are agents of an institution that continues to undermine women. The girls may be tremendously skilled athletes, but they still embody unrealistic, cunning standards of heterosexual femininity with their lipstick smiles and booty shorts.
But my point here is not to indict cheerleading so much as it is to share this: When we are faced with an experience that tests our faith, we must try to come home to what is right, using our hearts as our compass and our gut as our systems-check. Back in September, when she asked me if she could become part of the cheer team, my instinct was to say no. I didn’t want any part of that culture, for a legion of different reasons, but it was too hard for me to set the hard limit. My wish to please her—to encourage her to make her own choices based on her own interests—led me astray, and in the months that followed my acquiescence, I experienced wretched conflict.
On the one hand, it’s made me happy to see her so happy. She’s made new friends, she’s developed a sense of ambition, she’s demonstrated commitment, and she’s reveled in opportunities to practice and show off many new skills. On the other hand, I have been mercilessly torn up by feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, hypocrisy, confusion, shame, and mounting panic. It is my job, as her mother, to protect her, to help her cultivate a healthy mindset, and to instill within her a set of values that are in direct conflict with the cheerleading culture. The time has not yet come when there is sufficient evidence that its rules and organizational structures are consistent enough to warrant recognition as a sport whose standards are in compliance with notions of equality.
I’ve been struggling to do right by her, and I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that doing right by her can feel like doing wrong by her, especially as it’s experienced by her. But I took her from cheer, and I brought her home, and I wish I had done it sooner.
I want to share something else.
As she came to grips with my decision to take her out of cheerleading, as she cried with such sadness that it made my own heart break a thousand times, she only told me she hated me once. Mostly she just wanted me to hold her. She didn’t need to rage; she needed to mourn. She didn’t need to withdraw; she needed to stay close. She didn’t see me as a Dementor; she saw me as her mother. She trusts my love now; I pray she trusts it always.