I’d like to vent about a silly little thing that somehow, for me, represents a larger issue in our culture: hair bows. Specifically, the ridiculously huge hair bows that part of high school cheerleader uniforms. I’m not sure if the giant bows were part of the cheerleader uniform when I was in high school, but if so, I never really paid attention to them. Recently, however, I saw a group of high school cheerleaders wearing giant white bows on their heads at my stepson’s high school. These girls looked insane.
When I did a little digging on the history of giant cheerleader bows (just to see if it’s really a thing now), I found a website called “Omnicheer” that sells a bunch of cheerleading accessories. It was on Omnicheer that I found an article (I kid you not) called “History of Hair Styles and Hair Bows in Cheerleading.” These statements are taken directly from that piece:
When woman first joined cheerleading, it was still just sideline activity. The stunts and acrobatics that are commonplace today were not yet a part of cheerleading. While cheer was about raising spirits, it was also about looking cute and being trendy. Many old cheer team photographs show a group of girls with very similar hairstyles. In the early days, the styles were short and simple, in more recent times there was more length, more teasing, more curls ““ a lot “˜more’ – in an almost stage show style.
A couple of things caught my attention here. First, they clearly don’t shy away from the fact that a big part of cheerleading is being cute. If I learned anything from the Bring It On movies and Glee, though, it’s that cheerleading has, over the years, become a sport in and of itself. The cheerleaders are themselves athletes who compete against other teams, sometimes with more success than the football teams they cheer for. Cheerleading has become an arduous physical activity that, among other things, involves hurling another human being into the air. So if cheerleaders are athletes, why do they need accessories to draw attention to themselves? Shouldn’t their performances speak for themselves? I’m reminded of the “hairography” episode of Glee. When the McKinley glee club sees the Jane Addams Academy for Girls perform “Bootylicious,” the New Directions are initially intimidated by their performance, until Rachel assures them that it’s all “hairography:” smoke and mirrors in the form of frequent and dramatic hair tossing in order to distract from the fact that they don’t actually have great voices or choreography. Later, Sue tells Will that her Cheerios all wear their hair pulled back in pony tails so as not to distract from their talent. At best, those giant hair bows are a form of cheerleading hairography.
At worst, though, those giant white bows are an unnecessary part of the cheerleader uniform that reflect a troubling reality. We are infantilizing these girls in subtle ways, and in ways in which we would never infantilize male football players. Can you imagine if high school boys were asked to wear pacifiers or sailor hats as part of their uniforms? We would never ask such a thing of them. But we’re okay with a ludicrous “little girl” symbol. Seriously, young women should never be asked to wear accessories intended for two-year-olds. This, for me, brings up a not-so-obvious question: Why can’t we ever let women and girls just be their age?
I’m reminded of the criticism that is often directed toward child beauty pageants. Critics often state that the little girls in the pageants are made up to look too “adult.” Specifically that child beauty pageants promote a hyper-sexualized definition of youthful beauty, making little girls look like mini-adults. What is wrong with us? We make toddlers flaunt a type of “sexuality” that they are not fully equipped to comprehend. Then we infantilize young adults, making them flaunt an entirely different sort of child-like sexuality. And it doesn’t stop there. As women age, we’re not exactly expected to age gracefully; we are expected to fight the good fight. Botox, facelifts, tummy tucks… we need to stop the insanity! It’s fairly common knowledge that, as a culture, we don’t value older women, but a more disturbing realization is that we don’t value women and girls at any age. On some level, we are always expected to be something we’re not.