statement by director JULIE WYMAN

I made STRONG! because Cheryl Haworth inspires me.

At first it was her image that spoke to me – a 17 year old 300 pound girl standing proud and triumphant, barbell overhead – flouting conventional ideas of femininity and completely exploding our assumptions about what an elite athlete looks like. These images flashed through the mainstream media in 2000 after Cheryl medalled at the Olympic Games at Sydney — the first Olympics to include Women’s Weightlifting.

Images wield huge power in our culture. In these images of Cheryl, I saw a solution to a major societal problem: our extremely narrow standard of beauty, and the limited scope of bodies that we consider healthy, powerful, and valuable. Rather than seeing role models of successes they can strive toward, young girls and women receive the resounding message that their shape and appearance are wrong, in need of constant monitoring and correction. Bodies that are too big, too tall, too short are seen as imperfect, and fat on the body is seen as ugly, a sign of gluttony, laziness, or even failure. These negative stigma effect young women and all people – resulting in a culture where eating disorders are widespread, and where a
diet industry that fails to help the vast percentage of people lose weight earns $55 billion dollars a year. Most troubling and ironic, these skewed ideas about what a healthy, active body looks like discourage people from inhabiting, celebrating, and living actively in the bodies they have.

I also saw, in Cheryl’s image, the potential to inspire others, particularly girls and young women, to feel strong and powerful in bodies of all sizes, to find and pursue their talents, and to not be limited by the usual narrow scope of bodies that we’d imagine to be athletic.

Nearly eight years since I started following Cheryl’s story, I remain inspired – only now it’s not just her image, but her character that get me. Cheryl’sintegrity, and her way of navigating challenges offer a model for moving through life’s opportunities as well as life’s disappointments and setbacks. During the process of making STRONG! I’ve been humbled and instructed by Cheryl’s skill as a competitor – the amazing concentration that she musters on the platform – combined with her ability to relax and center herself through her rich connections to family, friends, her community, and the world that surrounds her.

It’s been daunting and disheartening to see that even a champion like Cheryl is affected and sometimes stymied by the real limitations that large women face in our culture. From negative stigma, to limited access to clothing, chairs, healthcare, health insurance, employment, the challenges are formidable. But Cheryl’s process of acknowledging and grappling with some of these challenges has also re-fueled my original commitment to fight against these limitations.

I intend for STRONG! to provide girls and young women – as well as people of all sizes – with a sense of empowerment: the possibility of feeling pride in their bodies and excitement about being active at whatever size, and at whatever level, they can be. Some people say that it doesn’t matter what you look like, or how your body is shaped – “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” — but I strongly disagree: I believe that all bodies can be seen and recognized, on their own terms, for their uniqueness, their beauty, and their strength.

I’d like the documentary to invite discussion about health – an awareness that the term “health” can mean many things, and a skepticism about health being defined by weight or Body Mass Index. I’d also to help audiences discuss the stigma and sense of ostracism that large women experience; I hope that the film engenders a sense of indignation about and resistance to those limits.

I invite audiences to view STRONG!
- for the pleasure of Cheryl’s company – the opportunity to get to know an amazing athlete and a unique, compelling character.
- for the experience of learning about the little-known sport of Olympic Weightlifting: a sport that is graceful, acrobatic, and incredible to witness,
- to gain a new perspective – to re-conceptualize the body image dilemmas that most of us grapple with on a daily basis, and to ultimately to experience a sense of confidence, power, vitality, and fun in our own bodies.