A film review by Dr. Deah Schwartz
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How do I review a film without giving anything away but still write enough about it to entice people to see it? I am referring to Julie Wyman’s wonderful and poignant new documentary, Strong! One of the factors that made the film so compelling was that I really didn’t know how things turned out for Cheryl Haworth, the subject of the story being told by Ms. Wyman. And correct me if I am wrong, but spoiler alerts just don’t cut it. When I see a spoiler alert, try as I might, I wind up reading the spoiler anyway because there it is right in front of my eyes! Granted, not everyone is as ignorant as I about the splash that Ms. Haworth made in the Olympic weightlifting world between 2000 and the year she moved on from her athletic pursuits, but I can’t be the only one who, for whatever reason, missed all of the press coverage about this female athlete, who also happens to be bigger than the average competitor. So, without telling you how certain events unfold, I will try to write about other aspects of the film that may influence your decision to see it once it is released.
This is a story about strength and vulnerability, about confidence and insecurity, about self-loving and self-judging. This is a story about a very extraordinary and very “human” person. As we get to “know” Cheryl, we see a woman intent on protecting her strong sense of self and remarkable accomplishments from her negative inner voices with intentions of their own. We witness a battle that most women and girls are all too familiar with. The conflict that arises when our body size is cause for a declaration of war and the battlefield is our self-esteem.
Cheryl is so authentic, so approachable in the 53 minutes that I spent with her, it was hard to believe we weren’t hanging out together. Even more difficult to grok was that if I ever met her in person, she wouldn’t remember me from the time we spent together in her kitchen, her car, and the training room! Standing by her side, the audience watches the journey of a multi-talented woman repeatedly gain and lose self-confidence based on her body’s ability to lift weights at any given time. At her most self-assured, we hear her challenge her mom with great conviction,
I’ve been to the Olympics twice and I graduated from college. What do you want from me?”
And then, in what feels like a 180-degree turnaround, Cheryl shares another side of her story:
People like you if you are smaller. It ties in with being more or less unhappy in my body. It’s not how I want to be physically but it’s very good for what I do. So you begin to hate what you do because it’s keeping you trapped somewhere.”
We relish in her poise and spitfire approach in the weight room and feel that she could be anyone or do anything she sets her mind to and then sit in amazement when we see her, a mere mortal, victimized by the fashion industry that refuses to integrate plus sizes with the “regular” sizes and then nod our heads in empathy and shake our fists in rage when the plus sizes can’t accommodate her big, beautiful, accomplished body.
The cinematography is creative and draws us close to a world that few people are privy to — the world of Olympic athletes and the intensity that it demands of its participants. The level of comfort that Julie Wyman must have provided as she followed Cheryl around is obvious in the natural and nonchalant attitude and full self-disclosure we see as the film unfolds. I found myself laughing, crying, and wishing that the world was not such an all-or-nothing place to navigate when it comes to beauty, femininity, and self-worth. Without any kind of lecturing or preaching, the film conveys the fact that society’s intolerance of body diversity adds yet another weight on the barbell that women have to lift in order to prove their worth. Another hurdle to leap over in order to feel confident and proud of how remarkable our bodies are, whether we are Olympians or not. Cheryl poses a question that hangs in the air long after the camera has shifted to another angle and scene:
Can you imagine being huge but graceful and beautiful and just gorgeous?”
There is no simple message in Strong! There are no pat answers or Hollywood ending. There is a chance to spend some time with someone both remarkable and ordinary who is trying to live her life with a commitment to honoring who she is and making peace with the fact that society is flawed, not her. It is not her insecurity talking when she tells us,
Maybe if you are a man…it’s not… you know… some of these guys at the training center; these super heavyweight guys are constantly trying to get bigger and bigger and it’s OKAY! All the men are always trying to get big and strong but all the women…they’re always trying to get smaller. You want to be big as strong as you can but you want to be little too. There’s no such thing in this culture as being big and strong and completely and totally accepted as a woman.”
Spoiler alert: It is a movie about loyalty to ourselves and how each of us, if we choose to, can step up to the task of living life to our full potential…in whatever ways WE define that.
Made ya look! 😉 Told you spoiler alerts don’t work!
I would love to hear what you felt about the film…but if you comment, please don’t give anything away. We know how inefficacious spoiler alerts are! For more information on the film, Strong!, by Julie Wyman, please visit http://www.gooddocs.net/#!strong/c4r6.
Deah Schwartz, Ed.D, CTRS, CCC, Educator, Activist, and Clinician with a private practice in Oakland CA, has more than 30 years of experience in using Expressive Arts Therapies to treat Eating Disorders and Body Image issues. Deah is the co-author of Leftovers, The Ups and Downs of a Compulsive EaterDVD/Workbook Set, a resource for Eating Disorders, and author of the Size Acceptance syndicated blog, Tasty Morsels. To find out more about Dr. Deah’s work visit her website at www.drdeah.com