Aside from the Playboy Playmates, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (DCC) have long been marketed as the most enviable girls next door—somehow walking a treacherous tightrope between the best “natural” American beauty and scintillating vampy glamour. On Tuesday, the DCC’s social media accounts posted a video that provided a glimpse into how that image is manufactured, showing a male photographer editing the teammates’ bodies for their annual poster.
These posters are used both as a memento of each year’s team, as well as handouts to be signed and distributed by the cheerleaders at games and other engagements. With a poster in hand, fans get to take home a little bit of the spirit and charm of the DCC, one of the most revered teams in the country. And if the women are going to be plastered on the wall of someone’s bedroom for a number of years, it’s in everyone’s interest—the team’s, the photographers’, and the cheerleaders’—that these women look their best. What the editor is doing on a technical level in the video is somewhat beside the point. Rather, it’s the appearance of what’s happening in this video, within the greater context of the cheer industry and beauty standards at large, that left me, social media users, and at least one current NFL cheerleader feeling...weird.
For one, promoting the unapologetic and (ironically) unfiltered use of photoshop to digitally manipulate photos of the women, regardless of whether or not the photo editor actually made them appear smaller or artificially chiseled, is a chilling marketing choice. Professional photos of people of all genders are almost always edited or manipulated in some way for marketing purposes—but watching the process up close is extremely off-putting in 2022.
“I was like, ‘Really? That’s the way that you want to show off your team?’” a current NFL cheerleader, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, told Jezebel. “I mean, I feel like that team’s brand has been built off this natural, girl-next-door kind of beauty, and the fact that they showed editing was strange to me...and definitely told me that they do do that kind of editing.”
In advertising, there’s been a shift towards minimal, if any, editing of women’s bodies in photos. And on the whole, we’ve become more empathetic toward those with a history of body dysmorphia or eating disorders who may be triggered by the visual of needless alteration of body parts. To that end, it’s one thing for the team to uphold an archaic and unattainable body standard, which is damaging on its own (after all, we are talking about the NFL, which operates about 30 to 50 years in the past, depending on the issue). But it’s another thing entirely for the team, or whoever approved the post, to not only say the quiet part out loud, but to use it as part of its marketing. Even America’s sweethearts, apparently—positioned as ideal feminine prototypes—are edited to hell and back in the photos you end up seeing online.
As a former NFL cheerleader myself, I’ve fought—and am still fighting—to change the narrative around women cheerleaders and dancers. I’ve insisted that women like the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are exercising agency in pursuing this particular job, despite the valid feminist anxiety around the “male gaze.” In a system still dominated by men, cheerleaders have every right to put their assets to work if they so choose—brain, face, body, or all of the above. Content like Tuesday’s video, however, does nothing but perpetuate harmful stereotypes by showcasing a cluster of malleable women, silent, smiling, and sponsored by a tanning booth.
But for individuals who consistently have their bodies picked apart by fans and social media users (an unsavory but unavoidable part of the job), being retouched can also protect teammates from harassment. The cheerleader I spoke to, for example, recalled a time in which a former team distributed an un-retouched series of photos that left bruises and body hair stubble still visible on some of her teammates.
“A total lack of editing looks really unpolished and also felt cruel. I think there’s a nice middle ground...because regardless of if we like it or not, our bodies are put under such scrutiny, and people will be looking really closely,” she said. “There are definitely some things that are appropriate to touch up, but I [still] felt like that was a very weird marketing choice by the Dallas Cowboys.”
It’s also extremely outdated and out of touch with reality to post a video of zoomed-in body parts, which does less to empower and humanize these women and more to objectify them. They are easily resized, easily deleted, even—a particularly scary sentiment, when cheerleaders have filed several sexual harassment lawsuits in the last year.
The DCC—and their colleagues across the industry—deserve better than this. They deserve to be shown as Marvel superheroes, or working women, or even just as human. There’s nothing wrong with producing a poster of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders; but watching women’s bodies be so easily manipulated and reproduced for public consumption underscores how far we still have to go.