Cheerleaders and Weight Standards

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Cheerleaders and Weight Standards

Some universities impose harmful weight standards on female cheerleaders, according to Ron A. Thompson, Ph.D., a Bloomington, IN therapist who also coauthored the book, Helping Athletes with Eating Disorders (1993). At one western university, any cheerleader under 5 feet 7 inches was required to weight less than 120 pounds. The rationale given by the cheerleading coach was that he was worried about injuries to his male cheerleaders who toss, catch, and lift their female counterparts, activities referred to as “stunting” in the world of cheerleading.

Supporters of weight standards may disregard that they are a risk factor for eating disorders. However, research in this area suggests otherwise. Studies have found that 40% of cheerleaders had engaged in weigh-ins, while 70% reported pressure from their coach regarding weight and appearance. More disturbing, however, was that more than 64% of the college cheerleaders believed that their cheer team should have a weight limit.

As unhelpful as weight standards are for most individuals, they may be even more so for female cheerleaders, who are already at significant risk for eating disorders for several reasons. First, these young women have all of the same risk factors as non-cheerleaders. Second, cheerleading relies on appearance. Cheerleaders are performing in front of large crowds and sometimes on television, which is said to “add” 10 pounds. Third, cheerleaders typically wear revealing uniforms that increase body consciousness, and allows for unhealthy body comparisons, competitive thinness, and pressures to look “good” (thin). Fourth, they are not only tossed but also lifted by male cheerleaders so they must be “light.” They may also fear embarrassment because they are “too heavy” to be lifted or because they do not want the males to “touch fat.” Fifth, cheerleading is not usually sanctioned by any traditional sports organization or federation.

If we assume that the coaches’ real concern is the male cheerleaders’ health, a solution to the problem would be to use male cheerleaders who are so strong that they are not apt to sustain injury while “stunting.” To do this, male cheerleaders would be “selected” based on their strength. In essence, the males would be “stronger” rather than the females being “lighter.” Another solution would be to eliminate “stunting,” as has the University of Nebraska, whose athletic director said, “These types of stunts are just not safe.” Cheerleaders, both male and female, would avoid injury. To support this claim, the story cited a study which reported that more direct fatalities and catastrophic injuries occurred to high school and college female cheerleaders during the period 1982 to 1997 than to female athletes in all other sports combined.

Activities like cheerleading emphasize, recommend, or require a thin size and shape because of the belief that performance will be enhanced. But, requirements to diet or lose weight are “unsafe” because they increase the risk of disordered eating. Thompson, and many other eating disorders prevention experts, advocate eliminating weight standards and banning group weigh-ins.

Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Spring 2003 Volume 1, Number 4
©2003 Gürze Books

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