Once upon an Eastern Standard Time, I was an NFL cheerleader for the Carolina Panthers. I left Charlotte a few months ago to take a job co-hosting the new morning show on KOMP 92.3-FM, and now I’m in search of other Panthers fans with whom I can cheer on Cam Newton every Sunday. As for why I left cheerleading after one season in 2006, well, it has much to do with the reasons behind highly publicized labor lawsuits filed by NFL cheerleaders from multiple teams. Although, as I recently stated on-air to the surprise of my co-hosts, I believe the lawsuits themselves are as dumb as the stereotype being a cheerleader perpetuates.
Having been behind the curtain, I can sympathize with these girls; being an NFL cheerleader is far from glamorous once the stadium lights are turned off. I know all too well about the laughably low wages ($60 a game); the list of rules that make a prison seem lenient (such as being contractually prohibited from drinking in public or curling my hair without permission); and the ridiculous body requirements that I could barely meet (even with 9 percent body fat). The struggle was real. But no one held a gun to my head and forced me on the field.
To become an NFL cheerleader, you have to spend weeks auditioning against hundreds of other girls and then spend whatever is left of your energy trying not to get kicked off the team. Instead of filing a lawsuit, I just looked in the mirror at my clown makeup and bony ribs, and asked myself why I needed the title “NFL cheerleader” so bad that I was willing to sacrifice my health and identity.
While the players were trying to avoid injuries, I was deliberately damaging my body to make weight each week. I tried everything from colonics to diet pills (despite the warning of side effects that include anal leakage) to good old-fashioned self-starvation. Yet, I still got pulled from a game for missing my number by a mere 2 pounds. I was constantly exhausted and hungry, and became so intolerable my friends didn’t recognize me anymore. Even worse, my own father literally didn’t recognize me from the upper-level seats reserved for cheerleaders’ family and friends. I had been spending so much time in the tanning bed trying to tan what I couldn’t tone, he actually mistook me for an African-American girl on the team, which I learned when he showed me his pictures. It was an honest mistake, seeing that I was ordered to dye my black hair red to “look less ethnic.” My dad, who needs glasses, is Costa Rican … I am “ethnic.”
Aside from the free seats to the games, I put up with all this crap (literally) because of the power the uniform gave me. When I would attend community events as a TopCat, little girls would react like I was in a boy band. I was able to make someone’s day and satiate my own childish need for attention at the same time, all because of the uniform. It was my Spider-Man costume, just with a lot less fabric.
Then one night I came home from practice crying after a manager who had an issue with my job in media scolded me: “Your face does not belong to you!” It was then I realized the only thing I was a role model for was eating disorders and submissive naivety. I just didn’t see the point anymore, because really, how far can being an NFL cheerleader take you? Once you get past feeding a self-indulgent need for approval from strangers, you won’t get farther in life than the 10-yard line.
Besides, I wasn’t very good at being in a chorus line. I just didn’t fit in. So, I got into radio where I’m encouraged to stand out, and I get to eat food. Plus, I get to wear clothes.
Cason is the co-host of BS in the Morning with Brittney and Sparks, airing 5-9 a.m. weekdays on KOMP 92.3-FM.