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How Diet Culture Shapes Cheerleader Culture

Tracking how underpaid and over-scrutinized cheerleaders have been subjected to public shaming and extreme diets—all in the name of “the perfect look.”

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Texas Monthly

Don’t gain weight. It was one of the most staunchly enforced rules on the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, a place of rules aplenty. Back in the seventies, the cheerleaders were told to lose ten pounds, thanks to constant cameras. But by the nineties, the “perfect look” also included a new vogue for ultra-thinness, big breasts, and straight hair, a particular challenge for the black women on the squad. “Body shaming” and racial consciousness weren’t buzzwords back then. The lawsuits that would eventually shift the culture of pro cheer hadn’t made headlines.

In the sixth episode of America’s Girls, we meet two cheerleaders from the nineties, a decade that brought Super Bowl wins and hedonistic scandal for the Dallas Cowboys, but those two women were mostly trying to stay on the squad. They describe “the weight list” posted on the locker room door and the mighty struggles so many endured to avoid getting benched for a game: Dietary supplements, ephedrine, plastic jogging suits. You don’t have to be a cheerleader to remember these quick fixes. The nineties took the eighties’ home-exercise craze to a new level.

The story of getting “the perfect look” as a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader isn’t just about genetics or any makeup protocol, but also about race and class. The Truth Behind the Poms podcast host Mhkeeba Pate explains the challenges women of color face in pro cheer, where conventional beauty standards and expensive dance classes can be a roadblock in a career that doesn’t pay much while simultaneously being quite elite.

But the advent of the cheerleaders’ CMT reality show Making the Team, beginning in 2006, made these often private struggles quite public. One training camp candidate remembers the traumatic appearances on the show that changed how she saw cheerleading, and her own body.

Here are some of the stories that helped us understand the culture, and the women navigating it. —Sarah Hepola

What It’s Really Like to Be an NFL Cheerleader


Sarah Hepola: “This 2015 confessional piece gives a good overview of the pressures facing pro cheerleaders to look perfect. The writer was pulled from a game after weighing in at 127 pounds. ‘I alternated between starving myself and purging, operating solely on caffeine, herbal energy supplements, and a fear of being yelled at in front of the entire team. I got colonics, had body wraps, took diet pills, fasted, and got enemas.’”

The Party’s Over: The Drug Case of Michael Irvin Took a Dark Turn When a Dallas Cop Allegedly Tried to Have Him Killed

Richard Hoffer
Sports Illustrated Vault

SH: “As the Nineties cheerleaders dieted and sweat off the pounds, the Nineties Cowboys were steeped in excess. When a cop went to arrest Irvin, in a Dallas hotel room where he was holed up with a lot of coke and a lot of women, he famously asked: ‘Can I tell you who I am?’ A media carnival ensued when an alleged plot to kill Irvin hit the press.”

The Jiggle Test: NFL Fails Its Cheerleaders

Jane McManus

SH: “A 2014 lawsuit filed by five members of the Buffalo Jills cheerleading squad alleged that, among other indignities, they were subjected to ‘jiggle tests’ to manage their weight gain. In wake of the lawsuits, the team eventually folded its squad. McManus tangles with the legal and moral implications of asking women to submit to such treatment. Of a job she held at 16, she said, ‘I knew in my heart I’d have done that job for free. But no one expected me to.’”

Black Cheerleaders Are Calling for Change. Will the NFL Listen?

Paige Skinner

SH: “No other writer has chronicled the recent travails of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders like Paige Skinner, a Dallas journalist who also counts herself a fan. (She appears in the next episode of our podcast.) This piece looks at the fraught conversation around Black women’s hair and includes an interview with former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader Jacie Scott.”

Former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader Hopeful Reflects on Body Shaming on Reality TV Show

Paige Skinner
Dallas Observer

SH: “One of the interviews that couldn’t make it into our podcast was with Meagan Pravden, a contestant on season 9 of Making the Team. Director Kelli Finglass coined the term ‘thutt’ to describe her thighs and butt running together, a moment that is perhaps made for reality TV, but also personal nightmares. Paige Skinner talks to Meagan, and looks at the troubled history of body shaming on the show.”

Former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader Hopeful Reflects on Body Shaming on Reality TV Show

Mhkeeba Pate
Pro Cheerleading Podcast

SH: “Former Seattle Seahawks cheerleader Mhkeeba Pate’s podcast is a gold mine for anyone wanting to learn about the real experience of pro cheer. (She’s interviewed in this episode.) A former lawyer, Pate has an analytical mind but a dancer’s empathy as she speaks with women about their various experiences. This terrific episode covers the tricky topic of Black hair in cheer, with panelists like the owner of Rose Salon, who started a partnership with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.”

Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the bestselling memoir Blackout. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Bloomberg Businessweek, Salon, Elle, Glamour, and Texas Monthly, where she is a writer-at-large. She lives in Dallas, Texas.