If you are reading this and you are a parent or caregiver of a child who is involved with sports—especially dance, gymnastics, or cheerleading—this post is really important.
The experience I am going to share today is undoubtedly one of the most difficult for me to talk about because it never should have happened. However, I am fully aware that I was just one of countless young girls who have gone through something similar.
Over the years, I have heard many, many terrible stories of young girls and boys who have been pressured by their coaches to sacrifice their health and wellbeing for the sake of their sport. And in the majority of these cases, these individuals have grown up having to deal with a wide range of serious issues. From developing severe eating disorders and body dysmorphia to adopting low self-esteem, many lives have been permanently scarred due to the unhealthy influence of a trusted authority figure.
If you are a parent or caregiver of a child of any age, I strongly encourage you to be mindful of the impact the adults in your child’s life can have on them. This is particularly true if your child is passionate about a certain hobby or sport and has one or more instructors leading them towards excellence in that area.
Always keep the lines of communication open between you and your child, as well as between you and their coach/teacher/trainer etc. Let your children know that it is okay to come talk to you if anyone ever says or does something that makes them feel uncomfortable or confused. Even when asked, children and teenagers won’t always volunteer information if something is bothering them, so it is important to watch for strange changes in their behavior over time.
I will surely post some tips and warning signs for parents regarding this topic in the future, but as you read my personal story, please keep in mind that similar things still happen today—often far worse. It happens to girls and boys of all ages in a wide range of disciplines, so I really hope sharing my experiences aids someone in protecting their child from going through something similar.
I can still remember the butterflies that bounced off my stomach walls as I sat crosslegged on the hard wooden floor of the auditorium. One of my best friends, Ashley, was fidgeting uncontrollably, which provided me with a small bit of comfort that I wasn’t the only one who was nervous. As much as I wanted to hear my name pierce the thick silence of the room, the privilege would be bittersweet unless I heard Ashley’s name called as well.
The pressure was almost too much for my twelve-year old heart to bear.
After what felt like an eternity, the metallic yawn of the old auditorium doors caused everyone to jump to attention. The heads of forty or fifty equally nervous girls all turned to watch the cheerleading coach, her assistants, and the audition judges return to the room.
With hawk-like focus, at least eighty eyes honed onto the long sheet of paper in the coach’s hand—the official squad list. The “veteran” 7th and 8th grade cheerleaders and my fellow sixth grade cheer hopefuls all knew the importance of that white piece of paper. Having your name read from it would be the difference between instantly becoming middle school royalty and going home in tears.
As silly as it may sound, becoming a cheerleader was one of the things I wanted most in the world. For years, I had dreamed of frilly bows, megaphones, and pompoms. If I had any say in it, I wanted to cheer from middle school though college… and even professionally, if I could; cheerleading meant the world to me.
Let’s not forget that being a cheerleader was the ultimate position of status for the young girls who lived in our country town of 9,000. Considering the fact that high school football or basketball games were the most exciting highlight of any adult’s life who lived in our town, being a high school athlete or cheerleader was akin to being a celebrity. But to climb the ranks of high school cheer, you had to start in middle school. The competition was ridiculously cut throat, but in many young minds such as mine, it was well worth it.
My hands trembled impatiently as the judges began reading off the names of girls who would be cheering for the 8th grade football squad. Most of the girls who had been on the 7th grade football squad that year, once again secured their spots for the upcoming school year. By the time they got to the 8th grade basketball squad my stomach had sufficiently tied itself into a series of knots. However, I mustered just enough energy enthusiastically wave to my “cheer sister”, Michelle, when I heard the judges call her name.
Each sixth grader who had participated in the week-long audition process had initially been assigned a “cheer sister”— an older girl who had already successfully cheered for the school. Their job was to help you learn the cheers and dance choreography, while making sure you mastered all of your “motions”, stunts, and jumps.
Lucky for me, Michelle was extremely sweet, and had spent a lot of time helping me to perfect my signature moves—the herkie and the toe touch. According to Michelle, I performed my jumps better than some of the older squad members and could probably botch my entire audition as long as I did those perfectly, so that was what we had spent the majority of our time practicing.
When the coach finally started reading off the names for the 7th grade football squad, I grew increasingly nervous. Deep down, I knew I wouldn’t be picked for the football squad since everyone knew those spots were usually reserved for the girls who had a gymnastics background and could do fancier stunts like back handsprings, which I could not do yet.
All the same, I wasn’t fully confident that I could make the basketball squad either. I mean, many of the girls I was competing against had been in gymnastics for years or had relatives on the middle school or high school squads. Even at that young age, I was fully aware of the nepotism that ran rampant through my rural town. As I saw it, it would take a miracle to land a spot on any of the squads.
And then a miracle happened—I heard my name called.
Immediately leaping to my feet, I began to cry. No sooner than I had, Ashley’s name was also called. There we stood, blubbering and hopping up and down with excitement that we’d both made the basketball squad. Many of the new and former cheerleaders came over to congratulate us, making it one of the most joyous moments of my young life.
I distinctly remember later having a one on one conversation with my new coach, who said I was quite talented and that she looked forward to having me on the squad. At the time, this sent my confidence soaring through the roof, and I hung on her every word. From that moment forward, I was determined to do whatever it took to prove that the judges had not made a mistake when they selected me.
That was a month or two before the end of sixth grade.
Upon briefly returning to our elementary school, Ashley and I greatly enjoyed the sudden increase in attention we received from our fellow schoolmates. My long-held dream of becoming a cheerleader had finally come true, which seemingly catapulted me into a whole different realm of popularity.
As soon as summer vacation started, the house phone rang off the hook with invitations for me to go here or go there. I rarely turned down an opportunity to spend time with old and new friends. With so much to do and see, I slowly started to forget about my perceived “weight problems” and began focusing on simply being a kid and enjoying my life.
From day trips to week-long sleepovers, I spent next to no time at home that summer, which meant that my parents usually had to give me ten to twenty bucks to buy food or odd and ends while away. Unfortunately, my friends’ families were not nearly as health conscious as my family. For the first time in my life, I began eating McDonald’s and Taco Bell on a near daily basis.
Still being relatively young, but experiencing my first taste of adolescent freedom, it was fun having money to spend as I saw fit. At friends’ softball games we would buy nachos and candy from the concession stands. Then, if the team won, the parents would take us to celebrate with a pizza at Pizza Hut and some ice cream at Dairy Queen. While at the fair, we’d stock up on funnel cake and super sweet strawberry lemonade. By the time cheerleading camp rolled around that July, I was already having the summer of my life.
But cheerleading camp is the event that changed everything.
Shortly before we left for camp, all of the middle school cheerleaders had to meet up at the school to discuss our plans for camp. After agreeing upon the arrangements, we discussed a few other matters before adjourning the meeting.
Since Ashley and I were basically best friends by this point and we usually carpooled to all of our cheer related events, we ended up wandering around the school campus together waiting for her mom to pick us up. We were really looking forward to entering middle school, so we were just having a good time trying to imagine what the teachers would be like and if we’d have a lot of classes together.
At some point during our walk around the school, we crossed paths with our coach in the front hall. Much to my surprise, she didn’t smile when we approached her. Instead, she looked quite agitated by our presence. I actually don’t remember what Ashley and I said to her when we saw her, but I do remember what she said to me.
Looking me dead in the eye, my coach frowned and said something to the effect of, “I’ve been meaning to tell you, you might want to think about losing some serious weight before the season starts. You might not fit in the uniforms we ordered and we will be taking yearbook pictures soon. We want them to come out well and you don’t want to look bigger than the other girls, do you?”
Stunned to my core and struggling to breathe, I simply shook my head “no”. I couldn’t even find the words to say anything back. It was all I could do to remain standing, but I felt like crumpling to my knees like a balled up piece of paper.
Desperately embarrassed by what had taken place, I barely spoke to Ashley or her mother on the car ride back to their house. What my coach had said sent me reeling. Without explicitly saying so, she had called me “fat”. In fact, she had insinuated that I was bigger than everyone else… that our yearbook photos would look bad because of me.
Sick to my stomach, I began mentally comparing my body to those of the other girls on my squad. Even though I wasn’t as thin as some of the girls, I certainly wasn’t the biggest… yet my coach had seemingly singled me out. Had she approached the other girls too? I never had the courage to ask them, but it didn’t matter. She had approached me about my weight.
It was the first time anyone had ever spoken about my weight in a negative way. I was completely devastated.
Looking back, I was not fat. Even after enjoying a month or two of junk food with my friends, I was still a healthy size for my age. By this time, puberty was in full swing, so my body composition had started to change. I was still very active, so I was starting to build a lot of muscle and I was becoming quite curvy in places that many of the other girls hadn’t developed yet. I can remember expressing concerns to my mom about not looking good in my uniform and even she said that I was simply “filling out”. All the same, I remember my self-esteem completely imploding from that single encounter.
Before I knew it, I became hypersensitive about food and weight all over again. This time, I felt 100% justified in calling myself a “fat cow” as often as possible because as far as I was concerned, my coach already had. At cheer camp, I barely ate the entire week for fear that my coach or squad members would see me eating and say something to me about it. I constantly lived in fear that my coach had spoken to school staff or the other girls about me, which made my interactions with them very uncomfortable from that point forward.
At home, I practiced my routines and jumps religiously. I couldn’t stand the thought of being viewed as a detriment to the squad, so I dieted and exercised harder than I ever had before. It eventually became so emotionally draining to show up to practice or go to cheer meetings that I would often pretend to not feel well enough to go. What started off as a beautifully joyous victory in my life, swiftly turned into a reminder of how awful it was to be viewed as “fat”.
By the time the new school year was set to start, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be a cheerleader anymore.
Until this very day, I can still hear the words of my cheerleading coach when we ran into each other at school orientation that fall. It had almost been two full months since she had seen me last, but it was the first time she had smiled at me or spoken in a kind tone of voice since our “little talk” right before cheer camp.
“You’ve been dieting, I see. Wow, you look great. Keep up the good work.”
Just typing these words makes me feel as worthless as I did when she said them to me.
That was seventh grade.
Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. If you enjoyed this little blurb, I’d greatly appreciate you giving it a like or sharing it with someone you think might also enjoy it.
Is there specific content you’d like to see more of on here? Please let me know! I’m always open to suggestions/requests.
Let’s start a podcast! What would you like to hear? Chime in with your ideas here.
Last, but not least, don’t forget to follow this blog for more stories and ramblings! Ciao for now! ❤