Written by Isabella Pallotto ’19
College cheerleaders are an understudied population in regards to eating disorder research. They are a particularly at-risk group for eating disorders because they are not NCAA athletes and are governed instead by private bodies like Varsity Brands, Inc. and the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches & Administrators. This means that cheerleaders are not subject to NCAA rules regarding physical health and (weight-loss) drug monitoring. Spirit squads are only bound by their institution’s rules and are often not required to submit a physical examination, participate in routine drug testing to screen for NCAA-banned weight-loss drugs, or meet with medical personnel, such as athletic trainers.
Cheerleading is an aesthetic, physically demanding sport often featured on national television representing their school. Collegiate cheerleaders need to be physically fit to execute the tumbling and stunting required for competition, but also feel an additional weight pressure from being visible on national television. Weight pressures and requirements may vary depending on stunt position in the squad. Stunts are the human pyramid formation created when cheerleaders lift other cheerleaders into the air. Bases and back spots need to be taller, stronger, and sturdier to toss and catch flyers. Bases are responsible for holding up the stunts. Back spots are the leaders of the stunts. They dictate when a stunt goes up and when it must come down, give an extra hand to the bases in lifting the flyers up in the stunts, and are responsible for catching flyers if the stunt falls down. Flyers are the cheerleaders that are lifted in different stunts. They must be smaller and lighter so as not to injure their teammates and be easier to put up in stunt exercises. Though each squad position’s body composition plays important role in executing stunts for games and competitions, heavier bases and back spots’ weights are compared to the smaller flyers by audiences when the team is shown together on television. Since cheerleading is an aesthetic sport that involves representing an institution, how the team looks is very important. Cheer squads have many different uniforms for different appearances. In modern cheerleading, midriff-baring uniforms are becoming the norm for many cheerleading squads. This type of uniform can give cheerleading teams a competitive edge in national cheerleading competitions and more screen time on national television due to sex appeal.
Cheerleading’s physical demands, uniforms for media and competition, and high visibility in the community leads researchers to hypothesize that cheerleaders are particularly at risk for developing eating disorders. In 2012, researchers in the Department of Physical Education and Athletic Training at the University of South Carolina published a study in the Journal of Athletic Training that examined collegiate cheerleaders’ risk for eating disorders, weight-loss behaviors, compared eating disorder risk between bases, and body dissatisfaction in different uniforms.
One-hundred and thirty-six cheerleaders from 30 NCAA Division I and II schools participated in this study. Participants self-reported height, current weight, highest weight, lowest weight, and ideal weight and eating disorder risk and weight loss behaviors were assessed by a survey. A third of the cheerleaders were at risk for developing an eating disorder. Flyers had the highest risk of developing an eating disorder, bases the next highest, and back spots the lowest. Body dissatisfaction was common among the cheerleaders studied. For each clothing type, cheerleaders wanted to be smaller than they actually are, but they wanted to be the smallest in their midriff-baring uniform compared to their full uniform or everyday clothes. Additionally, use of extreme weight-loss methods (particularly diet pills, laxatives, or diuretics) was very common. The extreme weight-loss methods were significantly higher among these cheerleaders than in other NCAA varsity athletes.
These findings suggest that college cheerleaders are highly at-risk for eating disorders and that their more revealing uniforms contribute to weight pressures. The researchers suggest that the NCAA recognize cheerleading as a varsity sport to initiate more screening and monitoring of disordered eating and extreme weight loss behaviors as well as the implementation of programs to prevent body image dissatisfaction. Personally, I suggest a return to full uniforms rather than the midriff-baring norm as seen today. As mixed-sex spirit squads become the norm in competitive college cheerleading, future research should study gender differences in prevalence rates of eating disorders among male and female cheerleaders.
- D’Abrosca, B. [Brya D’Abrosca]. (2017, April 6). Louisville all girl NCA 2017 day 1. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9lVY1V_Epg
- Torres-McGehee, T. M., Monsma, E. V., Dompier, T. P., & Washburn, S. A. (2012). Eating disorder risk and the role of clothing in collegiate cheerleaders’ body images. Journal of Athletic Training, 47(5), 541-548.