Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google. Read the transcript below.

They take each girl, and they begin to sort of strip away what you came in with and make you over into what they want you to be.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard

Of the many rules that a Cowboys cheerleader must live by, one looms largest: Don’t gain weight. In this episode, we hear from women who went to extreme lengths to make their bodies fit the Cowboys cheerleaders’ uniform, and endured intense scrutiny from coaches and fans along the way. We also hear about how the squad’s very particular image can make it even harder for women of color to make the team.

You can dive deeper into the stories in this episode in our Pocket collection. You’ll find videos and news stories, including coverage of the lawsuit brought by former members of the Buffalo Jills describing “jiggle tests” required by coaches, and complaints of body shaming on the Cowboys cheerleaders’ reality show Making the Team.

News footage of the 1996 tryouts is from KXAS and housed at the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. You can hear more from Mhkeeba Pate on her Pro Cheerleading Podcast: The Truth Behind the Poms, and read more from Leslie Shaw Hatchard in her book, What I Learned Half Naked.

America’s Girls is written and reported by Sarah Hepola. Executive producer is Megan Creydt. Produced and edited by Patrick Michels. Edited by J. K. Nickell. Production, sound engineering, and music by Brian Standefer. Additional research and audio editing by podcast intern Harper Carlton.

Theme music is “Enough” by the Bralettes.


To be a Cowboys cheerleader means living by a strict set of rules. You heard all about that in the last episode. But to the women on the squad, there’s one rule that looms larger than any other. Don’t gain weight.

Amber Gosdin: Walking into Valley Ranch, there’s double doors and you would open it up. And right there, when you open up the door into the locker room would be a white piece of paper with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders logo and it would have six to eight different names.

You can talk to a cheerleader from almost any era, and she’ll have a story about the “weight list.”

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: There’s a piece of paper and it had all the names listed and what they needed to work on. So you saw that as soon as you arrived at rehearsal. And mine happened to be hips and thighs.

This list could get very specific. Sometimes it had a cheerleader’s current weight, and then a target.

Amber Gosdin: It would say our name, Amber 128 slash 116, it would say buttocks and thighs. Like, that’s what my issue was.

The weight list could make or break a cheerleader.

Sarah Hepola: Because what happens if you don’t make weight?

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: Then you’re cut and you don’t perform. This whole thing is, that’s why we’re all here. So you can perform at the game. So they would do anything.

It wasn’t just about being the right weight. It was about having the right hair. Having the right skin. Having the right boobs, the right legs. It was about all the things you need to be the very particular kind of beautiful woman allowed to wear that uniform.

Today we’ll meet cheerleaders talking about one of the most difficult challenges a cheerleader faces—the fight with her own body. Sometimes that battle was in private, and other times, it was very public.

Jay Johnson: “Her weight is one hundred and fifty pounds. I’ve never seen that heavy of a cheerleader.”

Kelli Finglass: “I don’t think our uniform fits your body.”

Kelli Finglass: “Today we had a little bit of thigh and butt running together, so we’re calling it a thutt.”

Jay Johnson: “If you’ve got any wiggle, any jiggle . . .  There’s no wiggle room when you’re in that uniform and there shouldn’t be.”

Because the struggle to look a certain way—the pressures so many of us feel every day—it reaches a whole new level when you’re representing America’s Sweethearts.

From Texas Monthly, I’m Sarah Hepola and this is America’s Girls. Episode six, “The Perfect Look.

I want to start today’s story by taking you back, about forty years, to this scene you heard in episode two.

A rookie cheerleader named Billie Mitchell is at home, lying in bed, when she opens her eyes and sees a strange man standing over her.

Billie Mitchell: And the police said that I threw him off because I jumped up thinking something was wrong.

She chases him out of the house—she’s not hurt. But she’s shaken, of course. And not just for herself. Her two-year-old daughter was alone in another room while this stranger was creeping around.

Billie Mitchell: I was more worried about somebody taking Amber. The fact that they could have taken Amber out of there and I’d have never known if they would have walked back there.

Billie—who also got a set of butcher knives in the mail from a stranger—quits the squad after a year, and moves her family to a new home. But her daughter, Amber, grows up with her own dreams of being in that spotlight.

Amber Gosdin: I grew up and I look back at pictures and I had the little white satin jacket with the little blond girl on it. I think it was something I always wanted to do, but I didn’t think it was possible.

But by the time she was seventeen, she’d decided to go for it. When Amber told her mom—you can imagine, Billie didn’t love the idea at first.

Billie Mitchell: Because when Amber wanted to try out, I was like, “Oh no.” I mean, I had kind of that feeling as a mother, “Oh, God.” 

But Amber insisted. And Billie had loved cheerleading. Nothing had ever matched the exhilaration of being on that field. So eventually she came around. 

You might assume that, because her mom was a Cowboys cheerleader, it was easy for Amber to make the cut. She had her mom’s genes, and she’d been an all-American cheerleader in high school. But she knew how fierce the competition would be, and she took tryouts very seriously. She gave herself a strict routine.

Amber Gosdin: I got up at five a.m. every morning and worked out before school. This is my senior year in high school. And I ate grilled chicken, rice, and broccoli with Mrs. Dash for three meals a day.

Amber was a few weeks shy of graduating high school when she tried out. 

Amber Gosdin: I remember driving to Texas Stadium and the sun was rising. It was just beautiful. And I had a good feeling about it. I just thought, “You know what, I’m going to do this.” And I pull up, and all of a sudden that nausea just overtakes you. And you see all of these girls that had been there since when it was dark, lining up.

She remembers about eight hundred cheerleaders being there. Eight hundred women in full makeup and leotards, with big nineties hair and legs for miles. Each of them looking more perfect than the last. 

You can hear what this room would’ve sounded like in a local TV report from the following year.

Carrie Reeves: “My name is Carrie Reeves and I’m twenty years old.”

Tiffany Love: “Hi, I’m Tiffany Love . . .”

Judge: “Five, six, seven, eight . . .”

Amber Gosdin: And I called it a cattle call. You go up there for forty-five seconds to maybe a minute and a half. They just will kind of swipe you off when they’re done. And we had jazz shoes on. I’m not very comfortable in jazz shoes, and that floor is pretty slippery. And I had seen before two or three girls do high kicks and fall. And they just got up and ran off. And I got up there to show them up, I guess. And did the same thing and fell. Foot came right out from underneath me. And I just got up and started busting a move like it was part of the plan, and mortified. I remember Judy looking at me and just wanting me to keep going.

Judy Trammell was the cheerleaders’ head choreographer at the time.

Amber Gosdin: And later on, she had told me, “You know what, not one girl that fell stayed. You were the only one.” I was like, “Well, here I am. You’re not getting rid of me. So . . .”

In 1995, Amber Gosdin became the first daughter of a Cowboys cheerleader to make the squad. Four other mother-daughter pairs have done it since.

And when Amber made it, she thought the hardest part was done. But another challenge was right around the corner.

Amber Gosdin: I think we had done squad photo in July so I had probably made the team, but I wanted to actually cheer a game and I was constantly on the weight list.

Just to be in training camp, Amber missed her senior prom, and then her high school graduation. She wasn’t about to let herself get cut.

Amber Gosdin: We would all be out there practicing in the dance studio, and they would call your names and I got called in almost every single time. And I just wanted to throw up every time I walked in there, thinking I was going to get cut.

The woman waiting for her in that office was Kelli Finglass, the cheerleaders’ director. And her message for Amber was a lot like what her mom Billie heard in the seventies from the cheerleaders’ former director, Suzanne Mitchell. Here’s Billie:

Billie Mitchell: I mean, they were on me about my weight all the time because I was a gymnast. I was muscle. I’m solid muscle and I have big legs, big thighs, but they were solid. 

So Billie knew what her daughter was up against.

Billie Mitchell: And I was like, “They’re saying you’re big.” Kelli was on her case. I said, “You cannot let that go to your head. Do not pay attention, just work at it, but do not let it . . . have an eating disorder or something like that because you look beautiful.” And I think she knew she did, but still. You just got to really . . . you know, they have a certain look.

So Amber kept working at it. And it was a great time to be a cheerleader. The Cowboys were on a hell of a run in the early nineties. They won three Super Bowls in four years. That put the cheerleaders in the spotlight too.

At the time, Kelli Finglass was the cheerleaders’ director. Kelli grew up in East Texas, in a town called Lindale. She was a drum major in high school before joining the cheerleaders in the mid-eighties. 

Kelli had helped steer the squad out of the rocky years after the Jerry Jones takeover. One of her first big moves was to fire choreographer Shannon Baker Werthmann, and replace her with Shannon’s assistant, Judy Trammell. And just a few years later, Kelli was training the cheerleaders to perform on the biggest stage in football. Super Bowl XXX, in Arizona. Amber was headed there too. She spoke to a reporter from Entertainment Tonight in 1996. 

Amber Gosdin: “Yes, well my mother was a cheerleader in 1979 and 80 for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. And at that point I was two years old.”

That’s Amber.

Reporter: “Is she living vicariously through you?”

Amber Gosdin: “Yes, I think so, it kind of helps having a mom being a cheerleader because she supports me and knows what I’m going through sometimes with all the energy and lack of energy and being tired. So it’s great . . .”

The players at this time had a reputation for wild parties and reckless behavior. But the cheerleaders I talked to said they didn’t have time for club-hopping. They had jobs or school, and late-night rehearsals, and of course the pressure of keeping a certain physique. It wasn’t just about having the stamina for three hours of performance. Their body had to fit that uniform just right. I spoke about this with another woman.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: My name is Leslie Shaw Hatchard, and I’m a former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. I cheered back in 1991.

The first thing Leslie heard at auditions was that she needed to lose weight. She lost five pounds, and came back the next year and made the team. 

She remembers being intimidated by director Kelli Finglass. 

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: I was scared out of my wits of her and what she was going to say and what she thought of me.

Sarah Hepola: Was she new?

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: Yes. That was her very first year. Jerry had just bought the team and then she came in.

This was the start of a new era, the third epoch of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Over the next decades, Kelli and the choreographer Judy Trammell would put their stamp on the organization. But many of the traditions stayed in place. Like the previous leadership, they were masters of image management.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: They take each girl, and they begin to sort of strip away what you came in with and make you over into what they want you to be.

Leslie was nineteen when she joined the cheerleaders. At four-foot-eleven, she was the shortest girl on the squad. And she says at that point, she didn’t have a strong sense of who she was. She absorbed what she was told.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: It didn’t matter how I felt about it because my thoughts and feelings weren’t included. If they told me they needed me to lose weight, that meant I needed to be skinnier, period. End of story.

Leslie says the biggest change they wanted was her hair. 

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: They told me that they wanted my hair on my shoulders. And I said, “Yes, ma’am.” And I went and got hair extensions to my shoulders, and thus began the addiction to hair extensions. The lifelong addiction. 

Thirty years later, that change has stuck. Leslie’s husband has still never seen her without hair extensions. 

Sarah Hepola: So you had never used hair extensions before?

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: No. Never even thought about it. I was just in awe that that could happen and they could do that. And of course they thought I was pretty, so then I thought I was pretty.

Sarah Hepola: This dynamic that you describe—I like it because they like it— it’s very specific to the DCC, but it’s also completely true in life.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: Oh yes. And I think everybody has those battles. Mine just happens to be, I was a professional cheerleader.

Some transformations were a bit more under the radar.

Sarah Hepola: Did you see much plastic surgery?

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: Yes. After Christmas, girls came back looking very different. And I was naive at the time. I didn’t know. I’m like, “Wow, her nose looks so different. Wow, her breasts grew.” And I wouldn’t say it was encouraged by the organization, but again, you want to be that picture-perfect idea of a woman. 

There were these other times when the feedback cheerleaders got surprised Leslie. Like the very first time she tried on the uniform in front of the coaches.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: I put on the shorts, and they fit, but I have that kind of bottom where it hangs down at the bottom. And mine hung out of my shorts and I thought, “Oh, this is the day I’m going home. This is the day I get cut.” 

When you think about how many months and years women train to get their body in shape—it’s kind of crazy that something like how your butt fits in a pair of booty shorts could seal your fate. But it can, and Leslie knew it.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: And we had to go out and stand in front of Kelli and Judy and I was so, so nervous. And we were facing them. And then they said, “Turn around.” And I turned around, and I’m just ready for it. And then Kelli said, “Everybody look at Peanut.” They called me Peanut at the time. “Look at Peanut’s shorts.” And I was like, not only am I going to get cut, I’m going to get humiliated. And she said, “This is the way your shorts are supposed to fit.” So I had to wear those shorts the whole season. My poor grandma had to come watch me perform with my bottom hanging out of my shorts.

Sarah Hepola: It’s such a funny story because it’s one of these things that like, you couldn’t have ever controlled. You didn’t even know it was happening.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: I didn’t know. That’s just the way my body was made. And I don’t even know how you fix that.

Sarah Hepola: You couldn’t!

The compliments, and the critiques, could be hyper-specific. She says one of her teammates got a note to work on her knees. But for most cheerleaders, the orders were some version of that familiar line.

Judy Trammell: And I’m being real honest with y’all, you’ve got to lose some weight in your stomach. Okay? And it’s down to the wire now.

That’s the choreographer Judy Trammell, talking to a group of cheerleaders during the 2002 season of the HBO documentary series Hard Knocks

Judy Trammell: And I know that sometimes y’all don’t think that you need to. But you need to. You have gained, look at you, even in your face.

It was a rule that was enforced right away.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: When you first make cheerleader, you get a thick handbook, and inside of it, it did have different ways to lose weight, but they were all very quick. It was kind of fad diet ways of losing weight, nothing healthy.

Since then, the cheerleaders have added a trainer and a nutritionist. But back in the nineties, it was up to them to figure out how to hit that target.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: Dancers would get done with practice and go running at night just to get that cardio in so they could make weight.

Sarah Hepola: I find myself torn between thinking this is actually really impressive and a sign of physical excellence that I could never accomplish, and thinking it’s dangerous and scary.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: Yes. Very dangerous. Very scary. But sometimes you get tunnel vision, getting in that uniform, getting to perform and what that means. And that means you’re beautiful, that means you’re perfect. You’re that picture-perfect woman. You just want the goal.

Amber also went to some pretty great lengths to make weight.

Amber Gosdin: I had put on this big, you know the trash bag workout pants and the trash bag workout tops, I would run probably three, four miles. 

The trash bag workout suit. Maybe you saw Kim Kardashian wearing something like this in 2017. It’s pretty much what it sounds like: a baggy black suit with elastic at the wrists, stomach, and ankles. And it does help your body lose water, which cheats the scale.

Amber Gosdin: It’s August and I would run probably three, four miles with a couple other girls before practice, and go and dance for four or five hours after that. It was excruciating. 

Sarah Hepola: I got to tell you that suit does not sound healthy.

Amber Gosdin: No! And there was like ten of us that had them. You just did. I’m sure people thought we were maniacs. You know, we’re going down MacArthur and there’s probably like a three-mile stretch, and we were just running and it was just sweltering. And I looked good and they didn’t bother me, but I mean, I could barely dance. I was having a very hard time with energy level, just not being able to eat. I didn’t know what to do, I was just trying to get rid of muscle.

Amber says she also tried things besides running. Water pills. Weight-loss supplements.

Amber Gosdin: I think Metabolife, or some kind of, I don’t know, you pick it up at like a kiosk at a mall? And it probably it had ephedrine in it. I mean, like you basically feel your heart pound out of your throat. I know I probably did a lot of that.

Metabolife was a popular product in the nineties that contained ephedra, but the FDA banned ephedra in 2004 after reports of heart attacks, strokes, and even deaths. Of course it had been marketed as “safe and effective.” None of this was new. The Metabolife and fen-phen of the nineties had been the Dexatrim of the eighties had been the Vita-Slim of the seventies.

Amber Gosdin: I’m sure other girls did other things. Probably Ex-Lax. And I’m sure that there were some eating disorders on there.

And cheerleaders’ weight had been monitored closely since Suzanne Mitchell took over the squad. Back then, cheerleaders were told the camera adds ten pounds, and Suzanne had been a stickler about the scale. She was known for circling jelly rolls on pictures, or grabbing a woman’s rear end and saying, “Lose weight!”

I read a 1991 memoir written by three sisters who are all former Cowboys cheerleaders—Stephanie, Suzette, and Sheri Scholz—and they describe “constant pressure” to stay thin. They have a great line. They say that Suzanne “looked at fat like a Baptist preacher looks at sex. It was evil.” 

That legacy lived on in the nineties. You could even say it got more intense. The expectations for the women got bigger—and so did the boobs.

The nineties brought a new vogue for ultra-thinness. Models like Kate Moss became all the rage. At the same time, Pam Anderson was becoming famous for those bouncy swimsuit runs across the beach in Baywatch.

Sarah Hepola: You mentioned the boobs. I have to say in looking through squad photos over the decades, the nineties are really the boob years.

Amber Gosdin: Yes, I think so. I do.

The nineties cheerleaders reflected both these trends—the thinness, the eye-popping cleavage—at the same time they perpetuated the look themselves.

Amber Gosdin: Those were kind of the girls I had on my wall, the women that I had posters of Sports Illustrated, but they all had big breasts and were very thin.

The nineties were a decade of ThighMasters, supermodels, and fat-free everything. 

Man in ThighMaster commercial: “Great legs.”

Suzanne Somers: “Thank you.”

Man: “How’d you get ’em?”

Suzanne Somers: “I used to do aerobics til I dropped. Then I found ThighMaster.”

Jenny Craig commercial announcer: “Start Jenny Craig now and you could lose twenty pounds for twenty dollars . . .”

This was only a few years after Oprah went on a liquid diet and walked onstage hauling a wagon of fat to show how much she’d lost. The obsession with thinness fueled an industry of quick fixes to speed the slow, hard, stubborn battle of weight loss.

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders had hopped on that bandwagon back in the eighties, with a workout album called In Training With the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Like so many folks selling these products, they were presenting an ideal of beauty and selling the hope that it could be attained by the average person. And home fitness kept exploding  through the nineties, with step aerobics, and Buns of Steel, and Billy Blanks’ Tae Bo. In 1996, the Cowboys cheerleaders gave us a Country Western Workout VHS.

Cheerleaders group: “Hi! We’re the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders!”

Cheerleader: “Our country and western workout features some of our favorite songs from Dallas County Line. The exercises and dance steps are easy and fun to do.”

What Amber and Leslie’s weight-loss stories remind me of most are my own teen years. Not because I was a cheerleader. In fact, I was so embarrassed by my own body I refused to try out for cheerleader. The auditions took place in front of the entire school, no way. And drill team was off the table for someone like me, who was always fighting the scale.

Sarah Hepola: You know, what it’s taking me back to is actually high school, drill team. I wasn’t on the squad but I had friends that were, and that constant rigorous supervision over your weight. I wonder how you feel about that culture or how it shaped you and your understanding of your body.

Amber Gosdin: So, looking back, I definitely think I had emotional eating issues growing up, so it was just one of those things that brought me extreme comfort. I don’t think cheerleaders who might’ve had an eating disorder, I don’t think cheerleading gave that to them, so I hope I can make that clear. I think whatever baggage we all had, we brought in there with us. 

I had my own suspicion that cheerleading ramped up the insecurities and frantic dieting set in place by the culture, but in the moment, as we talked, I was reluctant to argue with Amber’s perspective. I could feel her trying to balance something she cherished with the problems it introduced. How do we love a thing that can also bring us such pain?

Amber Gosdin: I mean, there were some girls that just naturally had everything, that just came in there that never had to watch their calories, and they could go and gorge on Mexican food and margaritas and never gain a pound. And I just wasn’t—I mean, was I envious of that? Absolutely, I still am. But I really, really struggled with just not liking myself and feeling very insecure. Almost to a point where I love every single one of these women, but you would love to be just some kind of special.

I was relating to everything she was saying. I don’t know many women who don’t look back on their teen years and wish they’d been a little gentler with themselves about their appearance.

Amber Gosdin: I had all the support and I’m so thankful for that. But I wish I would have appreciated everything and enjoyed every single moment. But I was always just so scared and insecure. Just constantly struggling to try to be what they wanted me to be.

In a way, this felt like so many conversations I’ve had with friends over the years, but Amber has the rare perspective of a woman whose body was central to her value as a performer.

A lot of women have dreams about what it would mean to make that team, how it might finally put their insecurities to rest. Leslie Hatchard joined the squad with the idea that it would give her validation, but she kept feeling out of place. 

Sarah Hepola: What was the look on the squad at the time? 

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: Wow. The team was mostly Caucasian. You had about four Black girls, maybe one Asian girl. It was the nineties.

Leslie was one of those four Black women on the team.

Sarah Hepola: You mentioned to me one time, there’s kind of a placement for the Black cheerleaders.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: Oh, yes. Well, in the stadium, the cheerleaders are divided into four sections. And so if you’ve got four Black girls, there’s going to be a Black girl in each section. Never two in one, because they only had four. Which I kind of appreciate. I mean, if you only have four, at least spread them out.

And for a Black woman to be a Cowboys cheerleader, the bar was especially high.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: I call it the triple threat. You have to be skinny, you got to look good, and you got to be a great dancer. But for some reason, it seemed like if there was a beautiful Caucasian girl, had a great body, but she couldn’t dance, that was okay. We’ll push her through. It’s all good. She looks good. And that’s frustrating. And I dislike talking about race, but it is a part of it and we have to talk about it.

This is something I also talked about with Mhkeeba Pate, who hosts a podcast about professional cheerleading called, The Truth Behind the Poms. She’s a former lawyer who cheered for the Seattle Seahawks for five seasons and left in 2017.

Mhkeeba Pate: I auditioned four times and there was only one Black cheerleader on the Seahawks at the time. So just breaking this barrier of that there can only be a small handful or one at a time was probably the biggest challenge that I experienced. It just seemed like there was an unspoken quota or number that you couldn’t move past.

Back in the seventies, the Cowboys cheerleaders had a reputation for being relatively diverse. A lot of the Black women were leaders on the squad. But over the next decades, the number of Black women had dwindled to just a handful. As low as two or three in the mid-eighties and again from 1999 to 2001. And then, in fall 2020, the Cowboys cheerleaders debuted a squad with more women of color than any year since 1971. This was after a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, and a lot of teams were rushing to respond to calls for racial justice. The team also started a partnership with a salon that specializes in Black hair.

Mhkeeba Pate: I mean, those were the types of strides that just, that get me excited in this space because that is growth.

Of course, you could argue that the salon partnership is a superficial response to a more ingrained problem. 

I talked with Mhkeeba about the deeper reasons behind this racial imbalance. Dance classes are expensive. It’s often seen as a white girls’ hobby. And beneath it all, there’s a strict idea about what women should look like. 

Mhkeeba says other squads are broadening their ideas about weight and body, bringing in women with curvier shapes. But she says the Cowboys aren’t.

Sarah Hepola: You mentioned that the DCC has kind of like a signature classic look, historically at least. I wondered if you could tell me, what is that?

Mhkeeba Pate: I would say, if I’m guessing on weight, somewhere between ninety and a hundred ten, twenty pounds max. It’s very, very lean. I think they’re looking for hourglass on top of all of that. So good luck with trying to put that together. So it’s like a very narrow package and body frame. And it’s kind of sad because I see all the other NFL teams that I monitor as part of the podcast, and these women have beautiful shapes. It’s just not like the same shape over and over again. I feel like [with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders] it’s more or less kind of the same shape.

Not many people fit in that narrow window—and particularly women who aren’t white. 

Mhkeeba Pate: You know, the darker your skin is, or the shapelier your curves are, or different things that people just aren’t used to seeing, they won’t promote that. You won’t be on the cover of their calendar or featured on their social media, or it’s—your beauty isn’t as celebrated.

Even after Leslie’s first season on the Cowboys squad went well, she knew it would be tough to make the team again.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: I was unsure if I should try out because I just had a feeling in my gut, “I don’t think that Kelli likes me.” And so I tried out anyway. I didn’t make it. So Judy who, she’s hugging me and she’s like, “Why don’t you set up a meeting with Kelli and talk to her?” And I was like, “Sure, that’s a great idea. Then I can find out exactly what I need to do.” Because I’m already in the head space of, I need to change something about myself so I can make the team again. And I went to the office on an off day and I sat across from Kelli and she looked at me in my eyes and told me there was nothing bad she could tell me, she just had to pick a certain amount of girls that were just pretty. 

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: It was like something clicked and I just gathered my things and I left and I thanked her, and I never felt the need to go back to DCC after that. Because what how can I fix that? What do I do with that information?

What Leslie decided to do, eventually, is write a book about her experience—first as a Cowboys cheerleader, and then as a dancer for the Mavericks and other teams around Dallas. Her book’s called What I Learned Half Naked. She wanted young women to know what they were getting into.

In her book, Leslie writes that whenever people would ask her what it was like to be a cheerleader, she’d always answer the same way.

Leslie Shaw Hatchard: I would automatically say, “It was fantastic.” And in my head, I’m going, “Why am I lying? Or why can’t I just tell the whole truth?” Instead of the half-truth. It was a really great experience—some parts I didn’t like, some parts I loved. But I couldn’t bring myself, because I was trained to answer a certain way and to portray that image.

Trying to answer that question honestly—how to describe the good and the bad, when they’re all tangled up together—is part of the reason Mhkeeba started her podcast too.

Mhkeeba Pate: We were missing a voice, one that can be very honest about the good, bad, and the ugly, but also just represent it in a more balanced light, so that if you’re going to talk about all the challenges within the industry, really hopefully understanding why we do what we do. But I always say that if people understand and respect the work or the art of what we do as professional athletes, it just lays the groundwork for people to understand why these issues exist and what potential solutions there are to fixing it.

A lot of what she does on her show is talk with ex-cheerleaders about how they understand the time they spent on the sidelines. Because that career might only last a year or two, but the lessons they pick up can stick with them for a long, long time.

Mhkeeba Pate: I think the most damaging thing, it’s not even so much of those crazy fad type things or whatever the latest way of staying within that weight threshold is, it’s just the lasting impacts of it. So if you’re hearing messages about your body parts or narrowing in on certain things, you have that voice in your head. And I know people who’ve struggled with still hearing that when they look in the mirror when they stopped dancing. And that’s, to me, what is probably the saddest part of it, is that it lingers way longer than when you’re on the team itself.

These days, you don’t even need to make the team to be deeply affected by the harsh messages about who can wear that uniform. I spoke with a woman who had a fantasy about what it would mean to wear one.

Vivian Ralena Williams: My name is Vivian Ralena Williams. And I was a training camp candidate for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders for two seasons, season eight and nine.

You probably picked up on something different about the way Vivian introduced herself. When she mentioned seasons, she wasn’t talking about the NFL. She meant TV seasons, on the cheerleaders’ reality show, Making the Team. It’s aired on CMT since 2006.

Vivian was on the show in 2013 and 2014. And she didn’t actually make the team. She never got to cheer on the field at a Cowboys game. But she’s probably more famous than most of the women you’ve heard here so far, thanks to that show.

She was voted fan favorite in her first season. And her openness about her difficult childhood made her a standout in a cast of beautiful and talented women.

Vivian’s parents split when she was young, and she spent a lot of time moving around as a kid, with a mother who struggled to make ends meet. She was always the new kid. 

Vivian Ralena Williams: I was made fun of because I was ugly, air quotes, ugly. I was cute, you turds. I had really kinky, curly hair, and big lips, and brown skin. I thought what was beautiful was like really thin lips, and blue eyes, and fair thin hair. I was okay with it. I was okay with who I was. I was bullied to the point where I was like, “All right, well, my hair’s brown, my name’s Vivian, I’m ugly.”

But she found her place in dance, first in high school and then at Tyler Junior College, with their drill team, the Apache Belles. They’re a precision dance team that, along with the Kilgore Rangerettes, have been around since the nineteen-forties.

And their routines are not so different from the Cowboys Cheerleaders’.

Vivian Ralena Williams: They do high kicks and jump splits and they cheer for the football team. And it’s just such a very cool Texas tradition to be a part of.

So, it’s no wonder the Apache Belles are a pipeline to the Cowboys cheerleaders. Vivian says she hadn’t thought of trying out until a teammate suggested it. But then, she was hooked.

Vivian Ralena Williams: But I didn’t want to go there until my body was acceptable by them. Because, at that time I wasn’t rail thin. I was skinny. There was nothing wrong with my body, but I was just curvier than the cheerleaders.

She took a year off, and she lost twenty-five pounds in time for her first audition. It’s a lot of weight for a woman who’s five foot four and was already fit.

All of the work she put in to prepare, it wasn’t enough. She didn’t make the team. And the problem wasn’t her dancing.

Vivian Ralena Williams: The first time that I got cut, they said that my thighs were like hams, I believe, or chicken drums or I don’t know.

This wasn’t in a one-on-one conversation. This wasn’t even on a “weight list” posted on the locker room wall. This is still out there on streaming TV. Kelli watches Vivian posing for her squad photo, and she turns to Judy and says: 

Kelli Finglass: “What bothers me the most is her boots are all the way up to her knees. I mean, there’s no leg. Huge quads, like a drumstick.”

Vivian Ralena Williams: I can’t watch the episodes because I get nightmares and they won’t stop. And I will just have perpetual thoughts of things replaying in my head. I need to take all of it in healthy doses.

On one hand, this is an elite squad where appearance matters, tremendously. The judges know brutal honesty is part of their job.

On the other hand, this is being served up for entertainment purposes, during an era when we’ve finally started changing how we talk about women’s bodies. The things those judges said to Vivian—it’s what I’ve feared all my life.

But the fantasy of making that team was fierce, and Vivian tried out again the next year. She had lost more weight, and the judges seemed happy. The show even flashed side-by-side pictures of her thighs from one year to the next.

Vivian Ralena Williams: And that was because I dehydrated in a sauna for hours, not drinking water and dropped five pounds, so I could be one-seventeen for weigh-ins, which is ridiculous. It didn’t matter to me. It was just a numbers game and I was like, they just want me at this weight. If I could just be this weight then all my problems will go away.

But again, she didn’t make it. Her radiance had dimmed that year. She seemed a little lost. 

This time, Vivian wasn’t knocked for her weight. She got criticized for paying too much attention to her social media. The show makes her look self-absorbed and just generally flaky. The experience was so humiliating, she says she’s blocked some of it out. 

Vivian Ralena Williams: You go through the initial shock of, oh my God. That was so embarrassing. And then you get to a point of where you’re ashamed. And then you don’t know how to deal with the shame so then you just try to avoid it.

She went into a spiral, drinking excessively and lashing out at people around her. She wrote about this time in an Instagram post in 2018. It brought attention back to her story, and the harm that gets hidden in an industry that’s all about flaunting perfection.

In recent years, there’s been a new emphasis on body positivity in pop culture that has made any kind of body shaming unfashionable.

Over the last decade, some NFL cheerleaders have sued their teams for this kind of demeaning treatment. The director of the Houston Texans cheerleaders resigned following one lawsuit. And former members of the Buffalo Jills described “jiggle tests” where the women did jumping jacks while team staff critiqued their bodies.

Many of the teams have done away with regular weigh-ins, including the Cowboys cheerleaders. Watching the last few seasons of the show, you don’t see these moments anymore. But it’s unclear if they’re getting healthier about weight or smarter about what they show to the public.

Today, Vivian says those awful experiences helped shape the person she’s become.

Not making the team helped her understand she was never going to fit that mold, and the pain of holding on to that fantasy was too great.

Vivian Ralena Williams: I had to change so many different parts of myself in order to try to fit into this uniform that I never really was meant to fit into.

But she says she’s happier, and healthier. 

Vivian Ralena Williams: I had to buy five new pairs of jeans the other day. And I was excited—first time in my life that I was excited to buy a bigger pair of jeans. These are the biggest pair of jeans I’ve ever had in my life. And I was excited because I was like, damn my butt looks good. My body has gone up to fifty pounds heavier than I was at auditions. And I personally think I look best now, better in this body than I did before. Everyone has their own personal opinion of that, but I really don’t care anymore about what other people think about my body, because it’s mine.

By the time we were wrapping up our conversation, I felt close enough to Vivian to make a joke about a topic we both found pretty sad for a long time.

Sarah Hepola: You know, you don’t fit that uniform.

Vivian Ralena Williams: I know. And I’m so glad. Yeah. I’m so glad.