• Thu, 30, Jan, 2020 - 5:00:AM

‘Strong is the new skinny’ is still toxic

Cheer / Official Trailer / Netflix / YouTube

The following article contains details that may be considered spoilers for the Netflix docuseries Cheer

The first time an athlete seriously injures herself in the hit docuseries Cheer, Coach Aldama’s indifference is galling to behold. Then you get used to it.

As athlete after athlete is concussed, practises on fractured ribs, or audibly wails in pain, Aldama remains steely. Dressed in boots, jeans, and a chunky knit, she lets everybody else do the panicking for her. You get the sense that, despite some over-the-top proclamations of love, Aldama doesn’t care much about the people she trains. Once we become acquainted with the athlete’s backstories, the coach’s cruelty-disguised-as-determination becomes even harder to bear.

Troubled, vaping Lexi, who can “tumble better than the boys” (“she’s a boy” says Aldama) doesn’t know what to do with her life. Her legacy of jail, fights, and “illegal stuff” ends up being on the relative tame end of the spectrum. Morgan, the athlete who practises on fractured ribs, was abandoned by parents who left her in a trailer. Jerry, a ray of light in human form, has been adopted by his “cheer parents” after his mother died of cancer. La’Darius, the show’s true star, was sexually abused as a child. Even Gabi, one of the most privileged and famous (in the insular cheerleading world), is besieged by manic stage-parents. That Coach Aldama’s disregard for these people’s mental and physical health hasn’t garnered much outrage speaks to the violent nature of competitive sport.

Instead, she’s been hailed as a feminist hero.

And I understand why. Despite all of the above, I too would politely request that Aldama step on my neck. But Cheer, like all good documentary filmmaking, becomes more and more complicated the longer you consider it. Sprinkled through its incredible tale of resilience, athleticism, and chosen family, is some rather disquieting body dysmorphia.

Early in the pilot episode, Morgan, who I’ll reiterate, PRACTISES ON FRACTURED RIBS, weighs herself.

“Why are you so light” whines another, equally waifish girl.

“No…” Morgan replies, casting her eyes downward, “I weigh 96.6 [pounds].”

That’s less than 45 kilos – some of which is ponytail. Aldama later confirms that while Morgan isn’t the most technically skilled on the team, she recruited her in part because “had the look.” She later instructs the girls (and only the girls) to “get their abs ready for those tiny uniforms.”

In one early sequence, we watch a young girl with some baby fat doing backflips, while a Cheerleading expert explains how it isn’t really about physical appearance anymore. But we only see stick-like female cheerleaders for the remainder of the series. In Cheer, as in life, much more freedom is afforded boys and men.

The boys spend their time moulding their bodies into a Tumbler’s physique (strong, lean) or a Stunter’s physique (strong, big), with the notable exception of Jerry. Jerry, a Stunter, avoids lifting weights and spends his gym sessions doing cardio so he can “live longer” – never mind the fact lifting weights would be equally (if not more) effective in this goal. But with Jerry, as with the girls, the goal is always to be smaller.

Where we do hear mention of food, the advice being dispensed is farcical – particularly when Gabi’s parents implore her not to eat eggs “because that’s dairy” (untrue) and recommend eating a jackfruit - because it can hold the stomach for 10 hours (dangerously untrue). 

The bodies on display in this show exemplify that mantra oft-touted by fitness-focussed Instagrams, that strong is the new skinny. And it’s true that these bodies are a lot more taut and sinewy than the anorexia-chic I looked up to as a tween. But is it really all that much better when these bodies aren’t healthy?

In the “I weigh 96.6 pounds” scene of the premiere episode, one of Morgan’s fellow Flyers gives away the game by offering up a line worthy of 1990s Kate Moss: “Hopefully I’ll be skinny enough that you’ll be able to see my ribs.” Arguments that it's "just about being light enough to be thrown around" fall flat after a line like that. 

Cheer is an incredible document. It tells a vital story of hope in Trump’s America. But when it comes to body image, it’s telling a very old tale.


  • Body Image /
  • Documentary /
  • Netflix /
  • Fitness /
  • Health /
  • Cheerleading /
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