A Young Woman’s Body Image–A Basic Primer for Guard Instructors

shelba waldronCoaching With Intent, Training and the Technician


I remember every player-every single one-who wore the Tennessee orange, a shade that our rivals hate, a bold, aggravating color that you can usually find on a roadside crew, “or in a correctional institution,” as my friend Wendy Larry jokes. But to us the color is a flag of pride, because it identifies us as Lady Vols and therefore as women of an unmistakable type. Fighters. I remember how many of them fought for a better life for themselves. I just met them halfway.–Pat Summit


It’s band camp time. Thousands upon thousands of kids across America are taking to the marching band field for the very first time. Those in the color guard are holding this odd thing called a flag pole. Many are stretching and finding muscles they never knew existed for the first time in their young lives. Others have never taken a dance class…much less been asked to leap, jump, and move across the floor with grace. Most of these kids who make up the color guard are girls. They are young women who just a couple to three years ago got their first period. Their breasts are still developing. Here are some other things you should know and consider, before the first ensemble drop spin is  even attempted.
  • In 2008, the CDC reported that 36% of high school girls reported strong and persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness in the past year. 19% seriously considered suicide, 13% made a suicide plan, and 9% actually tried to kill themselves.
  • Female athletes experience concussions differently and take longer to recover
  • By the age of 5, children have absorbed a cultural bias against overweight people and females take the brunt of this bias (Musher-Eizenmean, 2003)
  • The media is a multi-billion dollar industry aimed at shaming women into being unrealistically thin, unrealistically beautiful and unrealistically super human.
  • The CDC reports that approximately 17% of adolescents are overweight or obese and the lower the income, the higher rate of obesity.
Did you know that according the the Geena Davis Institute for Women in Media, only 31% of all speaking roles go to women? Only 23% of all films feature a female protagonist. Only 23% of all action films have females speaking in the films and almost all of action films have set the male up as the hero. This is why movies such as the new Ghostbusters and Wonder Woman is so freaking important. This is why the movie Frozen was so groundbreaking. She chose her sister over a man. She was not an evil queen and she empowered herself to use her internal strength. Oh and one more thing. Women highlighted in sports in the movies and on ESPN are less than 4%. Less than 4. Freaking. Percent! Intelligent women who are portrayed strictly for their talent and brain are visually hard to come by on television and in the movies.
Why is this important? Why did I start with it? Because, by the time you get these girls to spin their first drop spin, most of them are dealing with some sort of self-esteem, body image, or inferiority complex that you can never see, they might not even be aware of and it goes back to the beginning of time. We as women have a long history in this world of subjugation that we are just now coming out of. In fact, our right to vote is still less than 100 years old.
When you coach a female you have a responsibility to them as women. Now this is no different than any youth you may coach. Males are just as important, but for this post we are talking about females, because females make up the majority of all high school color guards in this country. Without any proper data on the pageantry arts, it is probably the single largest sport for girls in the country. I have and many of those I know, have taken immense pride in our activity that we…for the most part…take the girls that many won’t, because we take all shapes and sizes. We give them a shot at the 50 yard line solo.
So here’s the problem. When you coach a guard with the pure intent of designing a show and getting a score, then you lose the reason the girls need us the most. When your focus is only on the design of your amazing costume, then you may forget to design to body image. When you put your emphasis on design over proper training and conditioning, then your females lose out on possibly the one opportunity life has given them to pull themselves out of this pit of hell called the objectification of the female body. When your single goal in life is to choreograph equipment phrasing better than Crown…(well first of all good luck with that), then you have made it about you and not them. Here is something else. Teenage girls are not you. They do not have the wrist strength of a man or self esteem of a developed woman of power. How you speak to them and build their sense of self is more important to those girls than your costume design. How you condition them…if you even do…not just builds their strength to achieve your not so good Crown Guard rip off show, but helps them respect the health of the body for life. YOU are building life long habits. You yes you! It is not just that early is on time and on time is late. Their self esteem and health will be with them until the day they die.
Does this mean that we don’t push them to be better every day? Absolutely not. Have you ever heard of the sandwich approach? This is a phrase coined by Dr. Robert Smith that states that when we make a correction, we will get better results by commending the effort first, addressing the technical mistake second, and encouraging future progress third. This technique is not just an idea. It is a well researched method of coaching that yields higher results in performance than just yelling. Athletes and performers are waiting for the negative comment, but what makes this method effective, is that most athletes are already beating themselves up for the mistake. They are mad at themselves for not performing up to par, letting the team down, and most importantly letting the coach down. So why beat them up again? A compliment on effort goes a long way to building the trust in themselves to try something new. Remember, if the stats are right and these young women are walking into your program doubting themselves, then basic psychology would naturally dictate that the emphasis on the positive effort is more effective than the negative.

“Oh but Shelba…kids today are so soft. Back in my day our coaches carried pistols and shot our hands off if we dropped.” Oh, but reader…keep an open mind to science and psychology and try not to scream, “Get off my lawn to the kids on Halloween.”

Here’s something else to think about. Women have had their bodies objectified by the media, men, and even other women all of their lives. “You aren’t thin enough. You’re too athletic. You’re too fat. You’re hair isn’t blonde enough. Your skin isn’t soft enough. Look at your body. It’s so sexy. Your breasts are so supple. Your ass is so round. Your ass isn’t round enough.” Think about the messages these girls have been seeing and hearing their entire lives.
“Here little Suzy. Here’s your first Barbie Doll. Oh and by the way…don’t forget that you will NEVER, EVER look like her.”

“Oh look at how beautiful your daughter is dad. You’re going to have to lock her in the house until she’s thirty.”
The messages are real and they have detrimental impacts. When girls stretch in front of their male staff for the first time in their lives in a second position, with their legs wide open…it matters. When we have them bend over to stretch out in front of the band…it matters. When we put them on the ground to work leg stretches, while their legs are in the air…it matters. When we put them in uniforms that are too tight…it matters. IT MATTERS and there are easy fixes, such as how we ask them to dress in rehearsal. Some girls need more time to anesthetize or get comfortable with the idea of a second position stretch. Some need more time to acclimate to a world where showing skin in a rehearsal setting is common. Also remember, at least one of your girls if not two by statistics, state they have been date raped. Giving an option of rehearsal attire that covers the top parts of the legs around the thigh area helps in the acclimation process. Some of your young women may have never worn a sports bra and need encouragement to wear one, because all women participating in high impact sports should be wearing breast protection. It helps in their becoming comfortable with their growing chest and reduces soreness after practice. Only a woman can truly know this, hence the reason for this blog post. And one more thing…when costuming girls, please think of the large breasted girls. Fashion designers screw this up all the time. Most of us simply are NOT a B cup with a tiny waist.
Finally, I would like you the reader, the coach, the director, the designer who is reading this to consider how you approach punishment in terms of exercise. We need girls in this world to exercise for life. We need them to love exercise as to cut down on a number of diseases such as diabetes, breast cancer, and high blood pressure. Exercise for conditioning and health is a much better approach than exercise for punishment..not to mention that if you yourself are overweight, eating french fries and barking orders from a tower…all you are doing is building a guard that doesn’t trust you. Put the fries down and pick up an orange and tell them to do the same damn thing.
When I coach I have a simple philosophy. It took me years to grow this philosophy. I had to go through the yelling phase, ego phase, and arrogance phase. I’m now in the “leadership” phase. I want to lead them to lead others. I want them to love who they are, because it took me way too long to love myself. Sometimes it takes domestic violence, sexism in the workplace, and being called a bitch, cunt, whore, and tyrant to come to the realization that you are none of those things. I am and you are a strong, powerful, unstoppable, and once in a lifetime woman. My philosophy is to build young women who know who they are faster than I ever did, so finding that man who hits and berates them is not even an option in their lifetime.

Coaching women is an undertaking that if done right can build leaders of our country. Standing in front of them is an awesome responsibility and part of that responsibility is the undoing of generations of women being told they aren’t good enough. It is your job to say, “You are good enough. You are a leader. You will make it. I believe in you.”

Shelba is a coaching and program consultant for youth programs and youth development expert. To contact her please email her at [email protected] or visit the services page at  http://forwardyouthconsulting.com/services/
The Marching Roundtable is producing a series of podcasts focused specifically on how to coach young women. They are also putting in place a mentoring program and diversity program. I encourage you to check out their site to sign up here to mentor young women or men, so we can start building coaches, directors, and designers who know the how of the young people and not just the what.