Senior year of college, I ditched my $10/hour work study job at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender to make $150 a game shaking my non-existent bon bons for the New Jersey Nets. I’d been a cheerleader since the 11th grade and, at 21, the next step was to either go pro or buy a house on Memory Lane.
Before I showed up for auditions, all I knew about professional cheerleading was that you had to be “pretty,” perky and have a double pirouette. Nobody told me about the double Ds.
Lining up with the rest of the girls in the rehearsal studio in my basic sports bra, I missed a few steps staring at the other girls in the mirror. One of these things was not like the other. These bitches were serious. Everyone but me was bursting at the seams and all I could think was, “How do you dance like that? Where’s your center?” Add to that the extra pounds of ponytail, eyelashes and fingernails.
I didn’t belong. I was a flat-chested Waldo. And for a woman with confidence coming out of her sweat glands, it was one of the first times I felt deficient in some way — as if my perfect A-cup, drugstore mascara and ballerina bun would never make the cut. The rest of the girls, who were mostly white, seemed like they were made for this, long-legged Legos. But not me. I didn’t have the building blocks. I wasn’t a Barbie. There was absolutely no way I’d make it past the first round.
A promo shot of the Power N’ Motion Nets Dancers in 2002.
Not only did I make it past the first round, and the second and the third (despite forgetting the entire routine), I made the squad eventually and spent the next year traveling three times a week from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the Meadowlands arena in Rutherford, New Jersey. It was awesome and grueling and pretty damn bad ass.
A decade has stretched between then and now, but it’s still a guaranteed conversation starter, being a former professional cheerleader. People often ask if I used to hang with NBA players (Nope! It’s contractually prohibited.) or if I got hit on a lot by courtside ticketholders (Nope! I wasn’t playing that.) or what it’s like “backstage” in the arena (smelly, very smelly).
But rarely does anyone ask about the intersection of racial and gender politics on the pom pom circuit, because, um, who thinks about race when “Hey! Boobies!”
Recently Ebony.com ran a story, “Black Skin, Orange Shorts,” about a black woman’s experience working at Hooters where the buxom “all American,” “cheerleader,” “surfer girl” and “girl next door” memes reign supreme.
“My research found that, unsurprisingly, an African-American woman must go to greater lengths to conform to the brand’s image than her Caucasian, Asian or Latina counterparts. Yet few, if any women, embody this ideal ‘naturally,'” writes Rachel E. Cook who conducted her master’s thesis “on being a Hooters Girl of color.”
That’s one of the things I found both comforting and confusing in the locker room when I was a Nets dancer; we were all expected to conform to an “ideal” none of us actually subscribed to no matter our color. Remember those double Ds I saw at auditions? They were deflated by our first official rehearsal. Nearly every single one of us had a custom-made padded bra, even the girl who had falsies already.
And the hair? The first order of business, besides weighing us and adding those numbers to our contract, was figuring out each girl’s hair situation. Were you going to be a flat-ironed red head, a curly blonde or a brunette with a bob? None of those descriptors, of course, had anything to do with how your hair naturally grew out of your head. It was my fellow dancers who taught me how many bobby pins it took to secure a fake ponytail.
The point is none of us looked the part. Sure, as Cook suggests, as a black woman I had to work a wee bit harder — keeping my non-relaxed hair straight after hours of dance sweat threatened to destroy what hours in the salon had done — but it was smoke and mirrors for all of us.
Too often, the counternarrative about the Barbie image is that it’s a mainstream ideal perpetuated by real life white girls. Black, Latina and Asian women are somehow then exempt from what’s deemed in beauty salons as “white girls’ stuff,” even as those same women chemically straighten and synthetically lengthen their own hair. The thing is no one looks like Barbie, not naturally anyway. Even the girl next door doesn’t look like the girl next door. So where do all the real bitches live?
For me, my time as a real-life Barbie Doll was eye opening in this sort of fucked up way. We walked in the locker room looking like ourselves — freckled, stringy haired, flat chested — and walked out after an hour of Frakensteining ourselves. At the end of the night, after the last shot clock had been struck, the dregs of our efforts littered the floor nearest the mirrors — lashes, cheap mall-stall hair. No one would recognize the group of girls dragging huge duffle bags stuffed with costumes, make up and silicon across the dark parking lot.
They were big enough to stuff a body in. And I guess there was someone inside.