My friend Ally is hands-down the most warm and welcoming person I know. When meeting new people, she's the first to smile and shake hands. Ally's also the first person to introduce me to people I don't know, which I've always appreciated.
However, her greetings have recently taken on a new tag line, and I've been trying to come to terms with what it means to people and how it makes me feel. Ever since April, Ally's traditional "This is my friend Erika" has become:
"This is my friend Erika-she's a Tiger-Cat cheerleader."
The entire introduction is said with a glowing smile. As she emphasizes 'Tiger-Cat,' her chin dips down and her eyebrows raise slightly. When it's over, she turns and grins at me the way my sister did when she told my parents I'd been hiding jars of Nutella under my bed and devouring them with a spoon.
It must be very satisfying to divulge information for the sole purpose of getting a reaction at my expense.
And the reactions certainly vary.
Reaction 1: Cheerleaders are funny.
If the people we meet are our age, I either get a request to do a cheer, or I'm subjected to their imitation of cheerleading. I know it's not a typical part-time job, but it seems to be the only one that people feel the need to enact. I wonder what would happen if every time someone told me what they did with their time, I turned it into a game of charades.
"Oh, you play in a band?" I'd say. "Do you play drums [I'd wave my fists as if holding drumsticks], guitar [I'd strum the air Guitar Hero-style] or maybe the accordion [insert your vision of playing the accordion here]?"
I would be socially ostracized.
But apparently when guys jump up and flail their arms, yelling 'Go Ti-Cats,' it's comedic genius.
Reaction 2: Cheerleaders are anti-feminist.
A co-worker who I both admire and respect told me that she thought it was a great gig for a dancer, but she had a problem with the female image it perpetuates. The gist of her opinion was that cheerleading is a performance exclusively for men and encourages the kind of verbal assault commonly associated with objectifying women.
Not wanting to abandon my feminist ideals, I used a defense that doesn't solve the argument, but still made a point.
I was walking downtown Burlington after a job interview. I was wearing black heels and a dress to match that was high-collared, hemmed below the knee, and fit loosely. I passed a group of men unloading furniture from a truck and was met with whistles and various hollers.
Later that week, Ally and her mom took their dog for a walk. Ally was wearing dance pants and an exercise top. Her mom wore a knee-length summer dress. A car drove by, and a man yelled "SLUTS" out of the window.
I've concluded that it doesn't matter if you're wearing a half-top on a football field or a business dress on Brant Street. All you have to do is look like a woman to be publicly degraded. Regardless of this defense, I still get uncomfortable waiting to hear how people react. Is it funny that I'm a cheerleader? Am I contributing to the oppression of women?
But a walk through the forest behind my house made me realize that sometimes I should take myself less seriously.
Reaction 3: Cheerleaders exist-at the most basic level-as a representation of the team for the fans.
I was returning from a promotional event wearing black dance pants and a white Tiger-Cats t-shirt with a logo about the size of a ping-pong ball on the front. As I approached a small bridge, two boys rode past me on their bicycles and stopped at the top. They looked about fifteen years old.
"Are you a Tiger-Cat cheerleader?" one of them asked. Too bad Ally wasn't there to introduce me.
"Um…yes," I said awkwardly as I paused on the bridge.
"Could I get a picture with you?"
I felt my face turn red as I agreed to pose for a photo. The guy handed his cell phone to his friend, who fumbled for at least thirty seconds before figuring out how to work the camera. I've never felt as strange as I did in the middle of the forest trying to smile for this kid's photo-op.
I stuck out my hand and introduced myself, thinking that I would make conversation for the rest of the walk home. But as soon as we shook hands, the boy turned his back to me. The two of them started talking to each other while I was still standing there, completely ignoring me.
The guys didn't care what my name was. They weren't laughing at me, and they certainly didn't judge me to be anti-feminist. The Tiger-Cat fans probably don't give us a second thought; they just accept us as part of the team that they love.
And so I briefly became a backwoods celebrity not because of who I am or what it means to be a cheerleader, but because of what I stand for.
All they wanted was a picture with someone who was part of the Tiger-Cats team. And there's nothing wrong with that.