By: Vanessa Sison
I was a competitive cheerleader for 13 years.
Before I go into anything else, a competitive cheerleader is a person (male or female) who joins a team to compete against other cheerleading teams. They perform in cheerleading competitions and divide teams into categories by age group, sex and level. A cheerleader can start from as early as 3 years old and upwards, have all girl teams or co-ed teams (mixed male and female participants) and have a set of rules to govern safely and how difficult a routine can be. They (usually) perform on a sprung floor and to win first place, get scored by sections based on stunts, tumbling, dance and jumps.
Competitive cheerleaders do not cheer for a specific sports team. Unlike college cheerleaders or professional cheerleaders you see cheering during half time on the field like the ones you see in the American football games with pom poms. Their role is to engage with crowds and encourage them to cheer more loudly for their team creating a more exciting atmosphere.
I started at uni, during all of my 20’s and up until my early 30’s. I loved it. As cliche as it sounds there is a real team spirit. Your teammates relied on you and you relied on them to ensure you perform a stunt safely (for example, a pyramid) and tried your best so that no one got injured. When you’re learning something new it involves a lot of falls and catches, working together as a team and timing is everything. I’ve got a few cheer injuries of my own whilst catching people fall during practice.
Now, I know you’re already thinking…a cheerleader? But how? You don’t fit into the cheerleader mould. I would get this reaction all the time, shock and disbelief. I remember at one point specifically not telling people what I did in my spare time because they already had a preconception of what a cheerleader was 1. Blonde and skinny or 2. Hypersexualised/sexy, which I did not fit into. Whenever it was brought up, I had to go into explanation mode. I explained, we throw people in the air, like in the movie ‘bring it on’. I remember one time, someone saying to me ‘Oh so you get thrown in the air?’ In a backward snarky joke type of way because of my obvious weight. And I would have to laugh it off and say ‘ Haha, of course not, I throw people in the air’. But then I would spin their words around and use my weight as strength, and I was darn proud of it too.
When I first started, I had those same thoughts and the same preconception of how cheerleaders should look a certain way. I was unsure if they would take someone ‘like me’. I asked a friend I knew on the team if being overweight was okay because I wanted to join and it looked like fun. I had a lot of self doubt thoughts going through my head. Maybe they wouldn’t let me join because of my weight? Do overweight people take up cheerleading? Is there anyone my size on the team? That would at least make me feel like I wasn’t the only big person there. There wasn’t. I just remember feeling self conscious of my weight, I knew I was a big girl. And I feared I might ruin group photos because of how big I was.
My friend said that was a silly thing to think and that I should try out. I didn’t even think I fit, but it didn’t stop me from trying. I didn’t let my weight and self doubts get in the way of doing something I wanted to do. And in the end I bit the bullet and finally tried out for the team, and got accepted. It felt scary but exciting stepping out of your comfort zone and doing something new.
I joined the team and though at the start a little self conscious, I used my weaknesses as literal strengths. My body, that I was so critical of, helped me to realise I could do things that I didn’t think I could do. My arms, legs, wrists, my whole body did ache from this new type of movement I wasn’t use to, but I found I was strong and my mindset changed. I’ve now learnt to trust my body and now willing to give new things a try. I still have self doubts from time to time but I realised alot of my insecurities were in my head. My weight does not define me.
So now when someone asks me about cheerleading, I don’t feel offended if they think I could never have been one, or made sly comments on what a cheerleader actually is. They’re just misinformed, and I educate them.
Vanessa Sison is one of the models who took part in the Asian representation photoshoot that went viral, highlighting the need for plus sized Asian women in the media.
Originally from Sydney, she moved to London 9 years ago and works as an operating theatre nurse. Apart from cheerleading, she loves travelling, music festivals and boozy brunches.