“No One Wants to See a Fat Cheerleader”: Using Body Shaming as a Weapon in Female Conflict

Bring it On: All or Nothing is available to watch for free on BoB


I’ve realised that Bring It On: All or Nothing (2006) was one of the formative films of my childhood. It was hardly a critically acclaimed masterpiece but, in a modest way, the film attempted to tackle issues of race and class, adhering to and deviating from teenage stereotypes in equal measure. As well as this, there are cheerleading routines galore, an amazing noughties soundtrack and an appearance from a young Rihanna – what more could you want from a film?

But something I hadn’t questioned or considered when I watched Bring It On as a pre-teen, was its problematic treatment of body image and the recurrent use of body shaming amongst the central characters.

Throughout Bring It On, there are examples of comments and remarks relating to an individuals’ weight that are used to emphasise the film’s central conflict, which is between cheerleaders Britney and Winnie. For instance, Winnie attempts to alienate cheer captain Britney from her teammates by encouraging her to tell fellow cheerleader Brianna to lose weight in order to keep her spot on the team. Winnie’s remark that “Pacific Vista has never had a fat cheerleader”, exposes the aesthetic pressures that exist within high schools, for example, to maintain a certain body image and the equation of appearance with one’s social standing.

Gif Source: Giphy

At another point in the film, after Britney has moved to a different school, Winnie also insults Britney’s friend Kirresha’s weight to underline her disapproval of Britney’s new cheer team. It appears as though criticism of a person’s size is the most scathing weapon in one’s verbal artillery, should someone wish to hurt their enemy. Thoughts about body image tend to determine the actions of Bring It On’s characters, as shown most clearly in the narrative arc of Brianna – as a result of the ultimatum given to her at the beginning of the film, her dangerous new fitness regime leads her to collapse at an audition (prompting Winnie to request a “skinny cheerleader” to replace her).

Perhaps this discussion extends further than Bring It On as weaponised body shaming is a common trope in many twenty-first century ‘chick flicks’. Remember when, in Mean Girls (2004), Cady tricked Regina into eating Swedish nutrition bars that made her gain weight and unable to fit into her prom dress? Or in Bride Wars (2009), when Emma sent chocolate to Liv’s office, so she gained weight and couldn’t fit into her wedding dress? This manipulation of the female body is evidently featured across film, rather than being limited to the high school cinematic setting.

Gif Source: Giphy

It seems as though a number of films are suggesting that the most effective way to damage and disempower women is by attacking their weight. However, what is perhaps more interesting is that the perpetrator of this offence is usually female themselves. This paradox exists within Bring It On; Winnie attempts to body shame members of both her own cheer team and members of rival groups, in order to exert power and to further her social position, but she too is affected by body image and uses her appearance to seduce Britney’s boyfriend. Body image is certainly not a purely female issue, but ‘chick flicks’ such as Bring It On, which have traditionally been marketed to female audiences and have provided leading roles for women by using predominantly female casts, may have inadvertently isolated body image issues to a solely female sphere, problematically suggesting body shaming only affects one gender.

Despite female body shaming being used as a problematic trope in modern cinema, it is not the only way that film addresses the issue. There are many examples of films, including ‘chick flicks’, that actively promote body positivity. For example, in The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (2005), a pair of jeans magically fits four friends of different body shapes and becomes something that connects the group as they spend a summer apart. And in one of my favourite films, Little Miss Sunshine (2006), child pageant hopeful Olive eventually realises that she doesn’t need to conform to the unrealistic beauty standards imposed on the young competitors. Instead of body shaming being used as a weapon to hurt others, body confidence is used as an incredibly powerful tool, to strengthen relationships with family and friends, and to liberate oneself from the societal model of beauty.

Gif Source: Giphy

Despite its flaws, Bring It On: All or Nothing is still one of the formative films of my childhood. As we get older and wiser, we can watch these films in a different way, with a more complex, more socially conscious eye. We can still enjoy and appreciate these classic movies, even if we now view them more critically, and are able to notice the more problematic elements. Bring It On: All or Nothing promotes unrealistic body ideals, but it also advocates for acceptance, diversity and kindness, and the film puts strong female friendship at the core of the narrative (which I always love watching in films). There has been much discussion in recent weeks about how to approach older films and TV shows that deal with sensitive issues inappropriately. Perhaps as audiences we need to take more responsibility for realising which aspects of films are positive but equally identifying which are damaging. The weaponization of body shaming within Bring It On: All or Nothing is wrong, but the overarching themes of inclusion and solidarity are what we should take from this cheerleading classic.

Erin Zammitt

Featured Image Source: Megan Shepherd

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