As youth cultures go, few others have as long, as dedicated and as controversial a tradition as cheerleading.
General perceptions position cheerleaders somewhere between beauty pageant queens and models. They're admired as much as they're jeered. Cheerleaders are the embodiment of the all-American sweetheart to some, pretty young things in short skirts who garnish the sidelines while the tough guys have it out on the field. To others, they're the feminist foe.
The stereotype is that they are forever effervescent (translation: airheaded) and elitist (catty) and always dress and act the same (conformist).
Headlines in recent years haven't helped the image. Consider the Texas mother who conspired to attempt murder on a cheerleader because her own teen-age daughter didn't make the squad. Costs for uniforms and training camps, which can run into hundreds of dollars, compelled one Newport Harbor High senior to file suit against the district last month. The case reinforces popular opinion that cheer squads are open only to those who can afford to join them.
And what's a cheerleader to do when she hangs up her pompons? The joke is that she either becomes a trophy wife or, if she's forced to, takes a career as an aerobics instructor, fly-girl dancer or a pop diva on MTV.
"We're 'froufrou' girls, and all we do is jump around and say, 'Yeah!' We're just in a skirt to get popular," says Santa Margarita High senior Jeannie Naughton. "No one ever says, 'Oh, those football players are so cliquey.' " To describe the 17-year-old's words as sardonic is an understatement.
"That kind of thinking makes me so mad," adds Jeannie, who, for the record, has a 4.1 grade point average. When she gets to college, she says, "if someone asked me, 'What were you like in high school?' I wouldn't say I was a cheerleader. With that word comes a lot of stereotypes and preconceived notions that I wouldn't want someone to connect with me."
But the role of cheerleading is changing in today's high school life.
Nearly 1,000 young women and men participate in high school cheer squads in Orange County alone. Although no exact figures exist, the Universal Cheerleaders Assn. in Tennessee and American Sports Data in New York estimate an additional 1.6 to 1.8 million do so nationwide.
Mainstream cheer has evolved into a sport emphasizing advanced gymnastic and dance skills with year-round practice sessions that regularly run 15 to 20 hours a week. Summer vacation is no time to rest, with daily classes in gymnastics and cheer, as well as off-campus cheer camps. With a schedule that rivals that of the sports they're there to support, cheerleading never goes out of season.
Athletic-wear companies have recognized the trend by designing high-performance uniforms from futuristic fabrics, and Reebok and Nike have developed cheerleading shoes. But while corporate America is cashing in, not everyone is rallying around its new incarnation.
Many parents and high school sports fans believe cheerleaders should limit their role to sideline support.
Jessica Hong, 16, a junior at Esperanza High in Anaheim, knows this attitude too well. Despite taking first place in three divisions on the national level, her team's accomplishments went unrecognized by the school.
"People just don't care," Jessica says.
"We're not some little campus club," she adds. "We put in so much work for our school. We have injuries as bad as other athletes."
Indeed, taped wrists, splints and massive bruises are common; at a recent Esperanza event, two members of another school's squad walked around in matching leg casts.
Jeannie, whose team at Santa Margarita High last year placed first in the state championship and fifth in the all-girls varsity division nationally, concedes that "it's an ongoing debate. We don't get the kind of respect we deserve when we work just as hard as athletes in other sports. We're not just pretty accessories."
There is a theater to cheerleading that embraces costumes, cosmetics, posturing and the overall image that is as integral to the performance as an actor's.
When hundreds of competitors showed up for the the Universal Cheerleaders Assn. regional championships at UC Irvine earlier this month, most came with clumps of pink or green rollers in their hair, layers of makeup perfectly applied to their fresh faces and bags filled with beauty tools.
The Bren Center foyer became a mass dressing room, where whole squads set up temporary camp to add finishing touches. Some literally changed into uniforms, precariously, without revealing anything. A pleated skirt was shimmied into over leggings, the leggings then slipped off. A Lycra mock turtle neck was pulled through the neck of a huge sweat shirt serving as a kind of body tent while the Lycra shirt was carefully squeezed into.
Young women walked around unabashedly with their hair in rollers. Shortly before show time, out came the mousse, the gel, the hair-shine spritzers and the professional-size cans of super-strength hair spray. They sat in lines of four or five, each combing and arranging the other's hair.
Once again, eyebrows were lined, lashes brushed and lips colored in. Their skin, already thick with foundation, was checked for shine and powdered. It's an Avon lady's dream--no cosmetic goes unused.
Jeannie prefers limited attention on this ritual. It's not all that cheer is about, she reminds.
Granted, but looks are a part of cheer. As Eric Brown, a junior at Santa Margarita High, puts it: "This is definitely the sport with more good-looking girls."
Eric, 16, dates classmate and cheerleader Kris Vallas.
"Jocks are more likely to hang out with cheerleaders than someone not into sports," Eric says.
And one would be hard pressed to find an overweight cheerleader: Maintaining a level of fitness is paramount to executing all those flips, tumbles and hip-hop moves.
But "it's not about being really skinny," says Jessica, on the squad since her freshman year. Jessica says none of her teammates have had an eating disorder--to her knowledge. "And we're like a family. I think it's because our coach talks about anorexia, bulimia and those other problems all the time--constantly."
Weight (that is, the lack of it) is just one among the list of stereotypes about cheerleaders, Jessica adds.
"People think of the tall, skinny, blue-eyed, blonde airhead--the girl who can't fend for herself and depends on others," she says.
Jessica is Korean, 5-foot-5, muscular from years of gymnastics and an honor student.
She volunteers that the discrimination she's had to face as an Asian American who cheers comes from other Asian Americans.
"When I first made cheer, I was told by some other Asians that cheer wasn't the Asian thing to do," she says. "They said why didn't I go into (student government). There's a lot of Asians in ASB."
This semester, her younger sister, Roxan, a freshman, is among several Asian Americans who made the junior varsity squad.
"I think there's less of that attitude now since I've been on the squad for three years," Jessica says. "I figured I can do whatever I want, and I didn't have to listen to those people."
She has had to prove herself on campus with more than just her peers.
"Every year," she says, "a couple of my teachers think because I'm a cheerleader . . . they don't expect me to do as well."
Los Alamitos sophomore Jeremy Ploessel has had to contend with another assumption: "The typical stereotype of a guy cheerleader is he's gay," says the 15-year-old Cypress resident. "I just brush it off and figure they're not tolerant and they don't know me."
Unlike most cheerleaders, male or female, Jeremy got involved at the young age of 9 as a mascot for the Los Alamitos High football team. His father was the water polo team coach there, and, despite Jeremy's initial interest in that sport, he preferred the gymnastic challenges and pep rallying of cheerleading. He got on a cheer squad and began competing at the middle school level and slid right in when he entered high school.
Young men are an increasing presence on high school squads, providing impressive support strength to tosses, lifts and pyramids. Ironically, the original cheerleaders were only male, according to Kristine Tulp, Universal Cheerleaders Assn. regional manager for the West Coast. Half the team at Century High in Santa Ana is male, and Mater Dei counts five males on its varsity squad of 20.
Being a male cheerleader has its benefits, says Jeremy, who would like to pursue cheer in college. Those benefits aren't what you might think, however.
"Because there are so many girls trying to get into the program, it's tougher for them than guys," Jeremy says.
Image is also easier.
"The only thing they ask these days," he says, "is to keep our hair short and not pierce anything noticeable."
He adds: "I think of myself as part of the squad, not a guy on the team." Of course, as the only guy on the team, Jeremy says it's like having 20 sisters.
It's the camaraderie of the squad, cheerleaders say, that they most enjoy. There's something very tribal to the cheer scene, even among those long out of it.
Postgame pizza parties, training camps and sleep-overs are all a part of pep life. So are bake sales and painting spirit posters.
Many count best friends among their squad, and all say they could depend on each other like family.
And when a teammate falls, everyone comes together afterward to console and hug.
"Some cry a lot under the pressure," says Jessica, "especially if they mess up during competition."
The pressure and responsibility are not easy, says Jessica, even when you ignore stereotypes.
"You can never be negative or doing anything bad because it reflects on the squad as a whole," she says. "And you don't want to give your school a bad reputation."
Belonging to another type of school group just wouldn't compare for these teens.
"I can't imagine not being a cheerleader," Jessica says. "I've been in it so long."