Yesterday, my family and I went to the local Santa parade. It was kind of lacklustre. Highlights included a disgruntled middle-aged guy on a small, comical bicycle and a greyhound wearing festive shoes. Enough said.
But what really gave me the willies was a large troupe of little girl cheerleaders, forty or fifty of them, aged from about seven to twelve. They were a slightly sad spectacle. The baking sun meant that very few of them were able to go about their cheerleading with any enthusiasm during the laboriously slow parade, which lasted over an hour. A couple of them looked distressed, as if they might faint in the overwhelming heat. Many will have formidable doses of sunburn. Climatic conditions aside, though, there was something more than a little unsettling about a bunch of little girls dressed as adult women, flouncing past with their knickers and midriffs showing to the crowd.
I can definitely see the appeal of cheerleading for girls, little and big. With its mix of dance and gymnastics, there's no doubt that it involves a lot of skill. It's a chance to hang out with other females and be girly. In fact, it's the sort of thing I would have begged my parents to let me try, had the opportunity been available when I was a kid. (In those days, though, cheerleading was regarded as something mildly ludicrous. Perhaps it's the evolution of professional sport which has brought it to our shores since then.)
What I don't like about cheerleading, however, is that it is such a nakedly (pun intended) sexualised activity. Very few people (or men, at least) watch cheerleaders to admire their skills. Allowing little girls to enter into this sort of activity seems like giving them an apprenticeship in being treated primarily as sexual objects. There are a bunch of activities girls can do to express their athleticism and dance ability - why choose the one that seems to come from a high school social caste system that sets out to divide the popular and pretty from the rest?
It's not the potential sexualisation of kids that worries me here. It's a mistake to attribute adult understandings of sexuality to children - the little cheerleaders may not perceive what they do as being sexual at all, and I've no reason to believe that the adults looking on saw the girls in a sexual light. Rather, I feel concerned by the message it sends girls about what adult female sexuality is. Inducting kids into this sexualised activity suggests to them that female sexuality is about being looked at, putting yourself on display to be appraised by onlookers. The skill you bring to your cheerleading doesn't much matter to bystanders at a sporting match - it's about your body.
And to be attractive, to be worthy, to enjoy sex, your body must be perfect. That, to me, was the saddest thing about watching the little cheerleaders pass. With their bellies and thighs showing, they'll be learning to scrutinise their bodies, fretting about their bums being too big, the boobs they don't yet have being too small.
Amongst the girls in the parade, there were a couple who were quite chubby; whose bellies protuded between their tank tops and the waist bands of their short skirts. I knew that some onlookers in the crowd would be sniggering. It won't be long before these little ones become old enough to understand that cheerleading - and the ideal of female sexuality it promotes - is not for girls like them. 'Imperfect' girls need not apply.