Georgia high schools have a long tradition of creative, enthusiastic and award-winning cheerleading teams. Cheerleading can be a fun, team-oriented sport with plenty of benefits. At some point in time, every girl dreams of being cheer captain at her high school. The bright lights, the pom-poms, and being the focus of so many eyes is appealing to a lot of teens. Being the center of attention can be damaging to some teens. Parents of cheerleaders, both male and female, should be aware of the impact that cheer can have on kids. Attracting attention is the teenage way of life. It’s during this time that teenagers develop their body image: how they see themselves and how they want others to see them. Adolescence is a crucial period when events that adults may consider trivial mean everything to a teen. Developing a healthy body image promotes self-esteem and confidence in young adults. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true, and an unrealistic view of one's body image may lead to life-threatening eating disorders. A recent study done at the University of South Carolina suggests that the skimpy outfits worn by most cheer teams contributes to a higher percentage of eating disorders in cheerleaders, especially when the cheer uniforms are midriff-bearing. Toni Torres-McGehee, author of the study, concluded that no matter how tiny cheerleaders in their study became, they all assumed that their coaches wanted them to be smaller still. Having a teenager with an eating disorder is a devastating thought for parents. Eating disorders can lead to a multitude of health and mental problems and in tragic cases, death. Eating Disorders The three main types of eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Anorexia is characterized by an intense fear of weight gain, reluctance to eat, and an obsession with exercise. Those who suffer from bulimia often overeat, then vomit in order to purge the food before the body can absorb it. Binge eaters habitually overeat, consuming large amounts of food at once. All of these disorders are characterized by a seriously skewed body image, self-deprecation, and a preoccupation with food, eating and exercise. These are serious disorders with complex mental and emotional roots. Trivializing or ignoring the problem does not help. If you fear that your teenager is suffering under the burden of an eating disorder, seek help from a professional. Your family doctor can help you address the problem and direct you to programs that specialize in recovery. Prevention The best way to stop your child from developing an eating disorder is to prevent it. Help your teen make good choices about food, develop self-esteem and have a healthy body image. Your help can make a world of difference. Some schools and community centers offer prevention programs. As awareness of eating disorders and their connection to cheerleading rises, many schools and cheer programs have taken steps to protect their cheerleaders. Midriff-baring cheer uniforms are being replaced with more age-appropriate attire and cheerleaders are being coached with acceptance instead of a drive for perfection. Ask your teen’s coaches what they're doing to promote a healthy body image, and see what you can do to help. Other Dangers While many argue about whether cheerleading should be considered a sport, routines become more and more difficult, requiring athleticism well beyond anything that cheer squads did a couple of decades ago. Your bouncy teen may be thrilled to cheer at her high school, but clubs like Cheer Extreme in North Carolina exist to prepare kids from second grade to college for challenging competitions. If your child is sensitive or fearful in a competitive environment, think twice about enrolling her in a situation that could exacerbate the conditions that lead to eating disorders. References: Torres-McGehee, T.M., Green, J.M., Leeper, J.D., Richardson, M., Leaver-Dunn, D., & Bishop, P.A. (2007). Prevalence of eating disorders: Effects of body image and anthropometric measures in auxiliary units. Medicine in Science in Sport & Exercise, 39(5), S409. Torres-McGehee, T.M., Monsma, E.V., Washburn, S., Minton, D.M., & Searson, J.R. (2010), Prevalence of Eating Disorder Risk and Body Image in NCAA Collegiate Cheerleaders. Medicine in Science in Sport & Exercise, 42(5), S288-289. Levine, M., & Maine, M. (2005). Eating disorders can be prevented! National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved March 30, 2011, from www.NationalEatingDisorders.org Sidebar: Cheerleading Camp Give me a “C”! Give me an “A”! Give me an “M, P, S!” Cheerleading camps all over the country are a great place for your teen to develop confidence and learn to thrive. Combining great exercise with a love for team spirit is a fun way to spend the summer for any teen, male or female.