Before you start defending your high school cheer career, let me explain. I don’t have a problem with girls and teens participating in cheerleading. It’s a tough sport that requires dedication and strength. I do have a problem with adult “cheerleaders” at professional sports games — and the messages they send our girls.
I’ve been a rabid hockey fan since I was 13 years old. I’ve had men at hockey games ask me if I like hockey (no, I just got lost and ended up at a game, wearing a home team jersey) or try to explain the basics of the game to me — not because I was asking questions, but because I’m a woman.
Let’s just say I’m familiar with sexism when it comes to pro sports. But I’m also really proud of many franchises that make a point of involving female fans and showing female fans in advertisements as often as male fans.
But then there’s the sports “girls” — the dancers and cheerleaders who perform for the crowd. While I was at a hockey game with my third grader, a half a dozen young women in skintight outfits paraded down our aisle during a stoppage in play. My son watched, brow furrowed, as they began dancing. It wasn’t anything too risqué, but it had nothing to do with hockey. Several older men took turns taking photos with the young women. “Why are they doing that?” my son asked. I’d been able to answer every one of his questions about the hockey game, but I didn’t know what to tell him.
Last Saturday was “girls play hockey” night. At the beginning of the game, a little girl from a local girls’ team circled the ice and fired up the crowd. Between periods, hundreds of little girls lined up to meet Olympic silver medalist Anne Schleper. Many of them were players. I lined up too and thanked her for all the work she does inspiring girls to play sports.
When I got back to my seat, the dancers were there again. Two young girls sat in the row in front of me, and I watched their gazes flicker over to the pushed-up cleavage and bare, flat stomachs. It occurred to me right then that my issue with the cheerleaders has nothing to do with my sons. My issue has to do with every little girl in the audience who loves sports and plays sports. Those little girls have to watch men and boys ogle dancing women while they’re trying to enjoy a game. What does that say? What does it teach them about expectations and body image? I have nothing against these women, and I know they work hard on their performance hobby, but the function they serve is to entertain men.
I wish those little girls in the crowd — girls who love sports — didn’t have to be exposed to objectification of women and to sexism. (As handsome as many of the players are, there are no scantily dressed men at the game shaking their business to keep women entertained for a minute or two.)
We can do better by our young sports fans, but I think many of us are afraid to talk about it. We’re afraid of being labeled as jealous or a prude. For a while I even wondered if that was my problem — that I envied those tan, tight bodies. But no, that’s not it. And as a woman and a mother, I have every right to be irritated that young women are “supporting” professional sports teams by arousing their fans.