Director Julie Wyman on the Strongest Woman in the World

Director Julie Wyman on the Strongest Woman in the World

Julie Wyman is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and professor of film and technocultural studies at UC Davis. Her 2012 film STRONG! offers an intimate and uplifting portrait of Olympic weight lifter Cheryl Haworth, and serves as a visual investigation of cultural and media constructions of health, weight, gender and body image. Julie has long been interested in the body, embodiment, and ideas of empowerment, and proclaims a fascination with "locating, exploring, and inventing various situations in which the codes, conditions, and visceral experiences of physicality defy expectation." Julie is a Health at Every Size advocate.  

We caught up with Julie just before National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and discussed the making of STRONG!, the promises and challenges of our new media environment, the intersection of academia and filmmaking, and how to promote dialogue about healthy body image.  

Can you talk about your motivations for making STRONG!?
I made STRONG! to provide an image, a story, and a possibility that bodies of all sizes can be athletic, accomplished, and champion. We live in a world where images wield huge power and where there is simply a dearth of a diverse set of images - particularly for young women - of power, beauty, and health. This limited set of images is destructive: it results in a world where young women are held back by a widespread lack of confidence - all due to this narrow set of models and possibilities.  

When I learned about Cheryl Haworth back in 2000, her existence as a 300-pound elite athlete, stood as a kind of proof or evidence for something I believed - that bodies of all sizes and particularly large/fat/heavy bodies can have a utility and purpose and can be celebrated for exactly that which makes them unique - and that which is often the source of their ostracism. I think that this image is useful to people and to girls and women of all sizes - and to those of us who are athletically inclined as well as those who aren't.  As I got to know Cheryl, her humor and her vulnerability - ie the way that even she began to grapple with her own confidence athletically and in terms of her own place in the world - became the storyline and the motivating factors for getting this film out there: If even this champion struggles with this society's limited set of possibilities - we can see very clearly a problem that needs to be changed. Cheryl says it concisely and articulately. "It's not possible in this culture to be big and strong and totally and completely accepted as a woman." I made this film because I want to change this aspect of our culture: to make it possible. 

You have long been interested in bodies as a subject of study - why? Any big takeaways you've learned over time from filming bodies?  
I'm interested in the social/cultural dimension of our physical experiences. I believe that the complexity and the struggles we experience in our own bodies – down to the level of sensation, desire, dysphoria, feeling "fit "and like we fit (or don't fit) in our own skins - tells us a tremendous amount about the world we live in and the ideology and politics of our world. So studying the body is really a way to study so many other things: definitions of gender, the intricacies of being female/male/feminine/masculine and beyond, our understanding of individualism, agency, our relationships to larger entities such as media, economics, and culture.   But, at base, my work as a filmmaker - telling these stories and making these images that flicker on the somewhat "immaterial" screen up there is an attempt to bring it back home: to empower people physically, at the level of embodiment: to enable confidence and connection in the way that we each inhabit our skins. I think that images both create the problems we grapple with and that images can be - must be - part of the solution. 

What concerns you about the media environment that young women (and men) are exposed to?  
I'm excited about the potential for girls and young people, and particularly people who traditionally would not have access to the means of production - to now interact with media in a way that's very different than it was just a short while ago. Interactivity means that the range of possible representations out there is potentially endless, that the passive consumer of media position can now be replaced by a more active critical and creative type of position. 

That said, it is still disheartening, and maybe even more so, that the representations of beauty and power continue to be of young white thin taut bodies. And it is worrying that interactivity attributes an ever-increasing sense of self-determination to these images. There is all the more danger for us to assume that if someone does not fit this mold it is their/our own fault – that this idealized body is within each of us if we just exhibit the right degree of self-control and - essentially- compliant behavior. In other words I think that the problems with the beauty standard articulated by Jean Kilbourne, Naomi Wolf, and so many others since second-wave feminism are very real and quite operative. There are now new modes of resistance and they're also new modes by which the media dominates its audiences into docile subjectivity.   So in some ways - the struggle continues. In other ways, the struggle has morphed and continues to in parallel with larger questions about the technology, culture, and centralized versus distributed power.

What has been your experience of STRONG! as a teaching tool? How does STRONG! add to the resources and tools that educators can use to address eating disorders, body dysmorphia and self-esteem in general?  
It's been exciting to share this film with young audiences. Children, teenagers, and college-aged groups seem to be rightfully impressed by Cheryl Haworth's personality, her story, and her candor.  I think that the film hopefully provides a very positive model of one young woman who lives within and attempts to reconcile the difficulty of having a body that is both triumphant and does not fit in. In the discussion about eating disorders, we often focus on people who are victimized by trying to fit a beauty standard. One aspect of grappling with this beauty standard that does not get explored is what really happens to those who live far beyond the body types that are deemed beautiful, feminine, etc. What is it actually like to be fat and to feel and have the knowledge that you are positioned outside a thin-privilege system? While Cheryl doesn't articulate her story exactly in these terms, I feel that her coming-of-age is very much about recognizing the way that she both has and will never have a certain level of privilege as a 300-pound woman. The takeaway/message from the film is sometimes complicated. Because it acknowledges Cheryl's vulnerability and insecurity, I find that it's been ideal for audiences to be guided to think about those moments in particular. In other words, this is not a story that leads to a simple resolution – rather it portrays someone in the midst of questions that are not yet answered, even in some cases, by the end of the film. The film raises questions for audiences to discuss and this is why it's perfect for a classroom or educational context. As such, I hope that it will be a useful tool for talking about the nuances and complexity of living in a body in our culture.  

What is it like working at the intersection of academia and documentary filmmaking? What are the challenges and opportunities?  
What I love about being a filmmaker and a professor are the moments when these two realms intersect. For me documentary filmmaking is less a profession and more a calling:  to respond to and deeply engage in the world around me. My response happens to be the act of - with a camera/ microphone - carefully listening, witnessing, and then re-presenting those stories and situations that feel urgent and important to share. But there are many ways to move beyond a passive position into a mode of action and creativity. To the extent that I can provide the students with the confidence and the awareness of their own passions – what makes them light up and take part – I feel that I've helped educate in the sense of engaging students in meaningful citizenship – whether they go on to be filmmakers or not.