Go, Fight, Win! (Meals Not Mandatory)


Bea Lunardini, Editor

The second season of Netflix’s “Cheer” was an undeniable hit across the United States despite, or perhaps because of, the immense controversy that the program was shrouded in. The success of the series was surprising, initially. Competitive cheerleading involves an extremely small portion of the population, and for many, the sport is defined by the stereotype of the grinning high school girl with pom-poms. Nevertheless, “Cheer” spread the harmful diet culture that permeates the sport to a massive audience. 


In the first episode, flyer Gabi Butler discussed a ‘watermelon diet’ that she planned to undergo. Butler praised the diet as a cleanse of her body that restores her health after she feels that she’s been eating unhealthily. The coverage of the ‘watermelon diet’ in the show is relatively minimal, but in a sport with a strong tendency for eating disorders, the mere mention of an extreme diet can be disastrous. 


First, the term ‘diet’ for Butler’s watermelon cleanse is generous, because even the most restrictive sports diets account for the minimum calories and nutrients needed to sustain an athletic lifestyle. Watermelon is nutritious, boasting fiber and protein, but any diet that consists of only one thing, especially a fruit that is over 90% water, is harmful to its consumer. Watermelon does not contain enough fat, protein, carbohydrates nor vitamins and minerals for a healthy diet. The cleansing aspect of the diet is also null. The body already has a natural detoxification system thanks to the liver and kidneys, and focusing on one particular food won’t impact that. 


Equally as important as the physical health consequences of Butler’s ‘watermelon diet’ are the impacts on the mental health of those watching “Cheer”. The show’s target demographic is teen girls, many of them cheerleaders themselves, meaning that the ‘watermelon diet’ is being pushed to an already vulnerable group, with a recent study estimating that 33% of cheerleaders have an eating disorder. While Gabi Butler’s ‘watermelon diet’ alone is not indicative of an eating disorder, it is an example of the extreme pressure that cheerleaders feel to look a certain way. 


The potential harm of the ‘watermelon diet’ doesn’t lie entirely with Gabi Butler, though. Much of modern television hinges on the shock factor of its content, often tempting filmmakers to sensationalize. In his attempt to pull back the curtain and give viewers a look at the complicated reality of competitive cheerleading, director Greg Whiteley exposed countless impressionable young teens to a dangerous diet endorsed by their role models. Directors who paint the subjects of their documentary as aspirational have just as much of a responsibility to protect their viewers as they do to entertain them.