"Dare Me": When Cheerleading Becomes a Hunger Game

By Mark Anspach

Look at Emily. Isn’t she the picture of perfection? There’s no sexier girl on the high school cheer squad. The boys like her just the way she is. But not Coach. She thinks the poor girl is fat – and next thing you know, Emily is trying desperately to lose weight. Soon dieting will be her downfall.

Emily is only a side character in Megan Abbott’s popular 2012 thriller Dare Me, but starvation dieting is an accepted part of life for all the cheerleaders. That makes them unwitting victims of what critic René Girard calls our “culture of anorexia.”

Dare Me is about ruthless, “Hunger Games”-style competition among young women – and so is the present-day race to be thin. In Anorexia and Mimetic Desire, a new book for which I wrote the introductory essay, Girard observes that being thin is no longer enough: if you really want to be a winner, you have to be thinner than your rivals.

The drive to be thin is not spontaneous – it is a prime example of a “mimetic” or imitated desire. High school girls want to look like the images they see in magazines or on a screen. They strive to emulate the few classmates who manage to approach the impossible standard held out by the media.

Girard is not the first to denounce the role of imitation in eating disorders, but he places new emphasis on the way imitation feeds rivalry. “Once the mimetic ideal is defined,” he writes, “everybody tries to outdo everybody else in the desired quality, here slenderness, and the weight regarded as most desirable in a young woman is bound to keep going down.”

When rivals focus exclusively on surpassing each other, any more concrete objective tends to fall by the wayside. The race to be thin is a case in point. Why do hetero girls go on a diet, if not to make themselves attractive to boys? That at least would be the default assumption in a culture that assumes girls are boy-crazy. But as Jess Eagle reminds us, female competition is not necessarily focused on getting a guy.

In her high school, Eagle recalls, “we girls were always trying to impress one another, not the boys. When we were catty and competitive, it almost always had to do with climbing up the social ladder, improving our reputations – and much less often about winning the attention of the boys.”

The same is true for the character in Dare Me. With her “balloony breasts and hip cascades,” Emily is already the “joy of all the boys.” They watch her raptly whenever she walks down the hall, “their gaga throats stretched to follow her gait.” She has no reason to feel anxious about her body.

Until the new coach comes along. On the second day, Emily “lifts her arms languorously above her head in an epic yawn.” The girls have seen her do this many times in class. It’s a well-rehearsed gesture that “makes Mr. Callahan turn red and cross his legs.” A genius move, really. The arms above the head say, “Look at me!” The yawn says, “I don’t care if you look or not. Your gaze on my bared midriff leaves me supremely indifferent.”

But Coach knows how to pierce Emily’s cool façade. She reaches boldly for a tempting bit of flesh beneath the girl’s raised tank top. It’s exactly what the boys in school yearn to do. Except, in Coach’s hand, the stuff of male dreams becomes excess fat. Grasping tightly, Coach twists until the girl gasps. “Fix it,” Coach says, as if she had discovered a problem under the hood of a car.

Emily can’t take her body into the garage for an overhaul. Instead, she runs to the bathroom as soon as practice is over, trying her best to regurgitate the “cookie dough and Cool Ranch,” begging another girl “to kick her in the gut so she can expel the rest.”

Vomiting is a quick fix – “a very American, very practical solution to the problem,” as Girard comments sardonically in the interview that closes his book. “One can eat, stuff oneself, then get rid of the food. It’s the height of technological progress.” Of course, in the long run it causes more wear and tear than the body can safely withstand.

Emily does not rely on vomiting alone. She cuts back drastically on her eating, too. Is she anorexic? Is she bulimic? There’s no need for a psychiatric diagnosis. She just wants to lose weight. And it’s not because she wishes to make herself more attractive to boys. It’s only because Coach humiliated her in front of her fellow squad members. They’re her friends, but they’re also her rivals – and they’re already on a diet. Emily wants to keep up with them.

The new coach is the catalyst for heightened rivalries among the girls. They used to be content with making the squad. As cheerleaders, they were assured of a glamorous status in their school – cheerlebrities, they called themselves – and that was enough. They didn’t desire anything else.

But the ambitious new coach wants more for the girls. She doesn’t care if they’re the reigning queens of Sutton Grove High. She wants them to shine in competition with cheer squads from other schools. She wants them to do fancy stunts and take home trophies. And now, all of a sudden, they want that too. They copy her desire and make it their own.

By infecting the girls with her ambition, she turns them into driven strivers. It’s no surprise they begin competing among themselves. But the new coach does something else that sets off a free-for-all: she upsets the hierarchy within the squad by dethroning the girl who had been captain and unquestioned leader for as long as anyone can remember.

In a fateful attempt to assert her own authority, the youthful coach abolishes the position of squad captain entirely. This triggers a battle of wills with Beth, the former captain and consummate mean girl. Emily ends up as collateral damage when Beth sets out to prove the squad cannot succeed without her.

After assiduous dieting, Emily is “peashoot thin” and ready to take a star turn as Flyer at the top of the squad’s pyramid formation: “All the hydroxycut and activ8! and boom blasters and South African hoodia-with-green-coffee-extract and most of all her private exertions have made her airless and audacious.” But Beth rattles her by talking loudly about how ‘mia girls “drop like dead weight.”

Then, when Emily’s moment arrives, Beth sabotages the routine by not showing up. Her replacement is a too-skinny girl whose spindly arm gives way when holding Emily’s leg. Already spooked by Beth’s horror tales, a wispy Emily slips and crashes to the floor, damaging her knee. Later, Beth puts her own convincing spin on the episode: “Em fell because she’s been living on puffed air and hydroxy for six weeks to hit weight for Coach.”

Even though her knee injury will sideline her for the rest of the season, Emily keeps coming to practice, cheering on the other cheerleaders, clinging to her identity as one of them. But as time passes, they no longer notice the pale figure on crutches watching from the stands. They stop including her in their conversations. Soon it is hard to recall that she was ever part of the group.

There will be other casualties in the cutthroat competition to be “top girl.” Nobody draws a lasting lesson from what happened to Emily. Her role in the novel remains a small one, yet her story has a larger significance. She is a stand-in for all the young women today who are caught up in a reckless quest to embody an impossible ideal of physical perfection.

It’s not just cheerleaders, and it’s not just anorexics or bulimics. As Girard stresses in Anorexia and Mimetic Desire, “the obsession with thinness characterizes our entire culture; it is not something that distinguishes these young women from everyone else.” The entire culture encourages young women like Emily to sacrifice themselves in a brutal real-life “hunger game.”

Although Emily is only a minor character in Dare Me, Megan Abbott lets her speak the words that best sum up the novel as a whole. Emily’s vantage point as a victim exiled in the bleachers gives her an insight nobody can have in the heat of the fray.

“I never saw it before,” she tells an old squad mate. “Did you ever really think about it before? About what we’re doing?” She means the dangerous high-flying stunts that make cheerleading the extreme sport it is today. But Emily could just as easily be talking about the extreme dieting spawned by the same spirit of rivalry when she concludes:

“It’s like you’re trying to kill each other and yourselves.”