The intersections of femininity, health, and athleticism can be fraught, to put it lightly. Finding ways to feel comfortable in our bodies is hard, particularly given the dominance of unattainable and contradictory cultural norms. Julie Wyman’s latest film Strong! explores the ambivalences and complexities of strength and health through a compelling portrait of world-class weightlifter Cheryl Haworth as she seeks to become the world’s strongest woman at the 2008 Olympics.
Cheryl Haworth began weightlifting at the age of 14, and quickly rose to international competition. By the time she was eighteen, she had earned a bronze medal at the 2000 Olympic games. Haworth competes in the super-heavyweight division, which allows her to take advantage of her mass and size. Early on in the film, Haworth explains how her butt helps her to keep balanced as she squats massive amounts of weight. Wyman pairs Haworth’s explanation with clips of women in lower weight divisions struggling and falling under the weight of the heavily-loaded bar.
This cadence of strength in her body captured my own body as a viewer in the audience. I often found myself tensing my muscles in embodied empathy as Haworth pushed the bar above her head in the final motion of the clean-and-jerk. I marveled at the strength of her body and that of her fellow weightlifters, and found myself cheering aloud with other audience members as she lifted a new record best. Like the shadowy trees that Haworth sketches and wanders about, I feel her body to be one of strength and rootedness. This image of rootedness extends as we get to know her family. What is remarkable about her mother, father and sister is both their deep support of their Olympian daughter and their…well…normalcy.
Throughout the film, Haworth finds (literally) Olympian strength in her body and expresses ambivalence about her size. Wyman demonstrates the complexity of “health” for athletes such as Haworth, whose body mass index is far from the normative ideals of medical charts. She demonstrates how in athletic arenas, “health” often means freedom from injury. Consequently, as Haworth struggles with injury in her training for the Olympics, her sense of bodily health also suffers. A sense of bodily competence borne from success in physical endeavors can go a long way toward combating competing ideals of health and normalcy. Solid, strong muscles are comforting so long as they continue to function as such. When injury creeps in, so can doubt about one’s sense of identity as an athlete inhabiting a non-normative body.
My own experience competing as a college athlete and working in college athletics undoubtedly colors my reception of Wyman’s film. The clear difficulties Haworth faces as she considers atheltic retirement resonated with my own experiences and the identity crises I saw many athletes experience as their college careers drew to a close. After so many years defining the self based on what the body can do, what remains when the competition is over?
Strong! debuted in Davis at the Davis Feminist Film Festival as the only feature film among an array of admirable short films by independent filmmakers. I was lucky enough to have a short film that I co-produced with friend and colleague Denise Green featured a few years back in the same film festival. Our film, Fifty-Fifty, explored how roller derby girls use fashion and appearance to express their own sense of athleticism.
I think that sport and athleticism is a powerful way for humanities scholars to consider the ways cultural norms, nationalisms, and resistances become embedded into bodies. This is why I have continued to do my research on technology-body relations and consistently use sport as a teachable example in the classroom. Julie Wyman’s film is a stellar film that demonstrates the complexities of athletic competition and life, with remarkably artistic representation. Wyman is an assistant professor in Technocultural Studies at UC Davis and maker of numerous other films.