I Want to Wrap My Self-Esteem in a Package of Improbable Preservation! Rah Rah Rah!

Shaker Dr. Nick emailed me this weekend to tell me about having inadvertently tuned into and then watched "one of the bizarre shows I've ever seen" in which ten former high school cheerleaders, now ranging in age from 25 to 42 and in weight from 136 to 175, go to "cheerleading camp" to be bullied and berated by the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders trainer (and his wife) back into their former selves. The show, called "I Want to Look Like a High School Cheerleader Again," naturally pits the contestants against one another, as they are "physically and emotionally challenged" by the trainer's "tough Army-style fitness regimen" while competing for "a $50,000 prize and the chance to perform again in front of a live audience."

Oh my.

For perspective on how profoundly grim this concept truly is, consider for a moment that it's quite possibly sadder to imagine a grown woman in search of self-esteem performing as an actual cheerleader in front of an audience of people who expect her to keep her clothes on than it is to imagine a woman in search of rent money "performing as a cheerleader" in front of an audience paying her to take her clothes off. That, friends, is some dire stuff.

There's a video sneak peek of the show (not embeddable) which introduces the show thusly:

Narrator: They were the darlings of their high schools, the most popular girls in class. Every girl wanted to be them. Every guy wanted to date them. And then… [record scratch!] …life happened. These ten former high school cheerleaders have a problem.

Contestant: My jelly belly!

Contestant: This jelly belly!

Contestant: My butt!

Contestant: My thighs!

Contestant: My bedonk-a-donk!

Narrator: So they've headed back to camp to recapture the confidence and bodies they once had.

Contestant [looking at scale registering 161]: That's so not cute.

Narrator: Their journey back to cheerleaders won't be easy, because bad habits [trainer yells: "Let's go! Let's go! You're wasting my time!"]—and bad attitudes—die hard.

Trainer: What are you doing here?

Contestant: I came here to better myself!

Trainer: Then what are you doing talking?! [points to ground] Better yourself!

And on and on it goes, describing how the "girls" will be tested at every meal with piles of junk food and how their endurance will be stretched to its limits, etc. etc. etc., interspersed with clips of former cheerleaders sadly admitting, "I've been on every diet; I've tried to lose weight," and "Nobody other than my husband has called me pretty in a long time."

It's actually painful to watch.

The worst part of it is train that's inexorably barreling down the tracks—the one that means "life" will "happen" again, which makes maintaining a body dependent on extremely time-consuming daily workouts and a very specific, non-family-friendly diet a practical impossibility for these (mostly) working mothers. Attaching self-esteem so inextricably to this physical ephemeron is just all kinds of cringe-inducing from the long view, as one imagines hard-won confidence melting slowly away as rock hard abs give way to the dreaded "jelly belly" once again.

I want to bring these women to a boot camp of my own design, where they are not faced with hard work-outs but hard truths. It's a lie that every girl wanted to be them. It's a lie that every guy wanted to date them. (Some guys wanted to be them and some girls wanted to date them, for a start.) It's okay if no one but your husband calls you pretty. It's okay if you've got junk in your trunk. None of these things have anything to do with being a good or happy person. Looking "like a cheerleader" is not the apex of anyone's full potential.

And then there's the problem with their definition of what "a high school cheerleader" actually looks like. The name of the show, of course, isn't "I Want to Look Like I Did When I Was a High School Cheerleader." It's "I Want to Look Like a High School Cheerleader Again," reinforcing the narrative that cheerleaders share some inherent characteristics, that they're all bearers of some magical phenotype that excludes the imperfect, mere mortals with flaws. But that's not the case, is it? I knew two fat cheerleaders in high school—one in my class, one just behind mine—and not "fat by cheerleader standards" but fat. They were bigger than any of the women on this show, and they could hop around and flip and twirl and yell "Go Team!" at the top of their lungs just as well as any skinny girl. But the women on this show don't want to look like them. And I'm quite sure they don't want to look like the cheerleader at my high school with severe craniofacial deformities, either. Nor my college acquaintance who'd been a high school cheerleader and had only one hand.

They all looked like cheerleaders to me. Because ultimately what makes someone look "like a cheerleader" is pretty much a cheerleading uniform.

What makes someone a woman of confidence is something altogether different. A lasting poise is harder to come by, but I suppose it doesn't make good TV.

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