Strong! Fat! Happy!

Chery Haworth, Julie Wyman, and me in the middle – it was my job to pass the microphone between them and not turn into a geeky fan girl.

Last night I had the joy of hosting a screening of Julie Wyman’s amazing film Strong! about three-time Olympian Cheryl Haworth.

I met Julie through the HAES community and the way she conceptualized and handled this move was so deft that I knew as soon as I saw it that I wanted to bring it to Austin.

Julie and Cheryl both came to the screening and I was really impressed with how honest and open they both were.  Cheryl talked openly about her struggles with body acceptance and about how the fact that her body made her successful at her sport didn’t make it easier to live in our culture as a big woman.

That really struck me – one of the things that I thought would be a big positive about the sport of weightlifting is that they get weight divisions and can acknowledge the advantages of having a bigger body.  (In my sport (dance) we definitely don’t have that) But the truth is that nobody is immune to the massive fat-phobia that we are dealing with right now.

The reason I really wanted to bring the film to Austin is that it is so important for fat people to have role models who look like us and Julie gives us that opportunity.  Seeing Cheryl and knowing that a large woman is representing our country in the Olympics is such a huge motivation for me as an athlete and I wanted other people to have that experience.

This film flies in the face of the ridiculous notion that showing a successful athletic fat person “promotes obesity.”  As if people will see us and say “I want to be an athlete – I’ll start by getting fat”.  The whole idea of promoting obesity is utterly stupid (does showing Mary Lou Retton promote shortness?) and serves only to keep positive fat role models out of the media which means that lots of fat people don’t think that fitness is possible for them, or believe that the only “correct” outcome of fitness is weight loss because every fit person they see is thin.

Of course you know that I don’t think anyone is obligated to  exercise, but I find it heartbreaking that so many people of size are turned away from doing movement that they would love to do because they believe they have the “wrong body” (this is bullshit by the way, if you want to dance then you have a dancer’s body – if you want to swim then you have a swimmer’s build), or they don’t think it’s possible since they’ve never seen a fat person doing it – though  there are probably fat people rocking whatever activity it is, but they aren’t shown because of the stupid irrational fear of “promoting obesity”.

There were a lot of moments of the film where I felt a kinship with Cheryl and one of them was when she is in a store and can’t find her size of clothes and she jokes that she finds solace in the fact that she could probably beat up everybody in the place.  I know that one of the reasons  I walk around the world happy and confident is that I’m fit.  I know that however people may be stereotyping me, they probably can’t do half of what I can do physically.  I love walking around in a body that is strong and fit.  When it comes to knowing that I can beat people us (though I never would) there is solace in the fact that I can do a switch-leap which basically makes me a 300 pound flying fatality.

One of the most annoying questions I’m often asked is if I think I’m an “anomaly” among fat people – meaning that I’m active but most fat people aren’t.  My answer is that I’m an anomaly in almost any room I walk into no matter what size the people are, that I think  there are a lot more fat people who are into fitness than people’s stereotypes indicate, and that even if I am an anomaly it’s because fat people are never given fitness role models who look like them, they face stigma and shaming when they do exercise, and they are told the lie that exercise will make them thin when the truth – based on all the evidence – is that it will make us healthier but won’t make us thin.

If there’s some kind of movement that you love, why not try it now and if you don’t have a role model, you can become one!

If you’re interested in getting some support please feel free to join us at the Fit Fatties Forum.  It’s a free forum for people of all sizes to talk about fitness from a HAES perspective. It includes photo and video galleries, discussions and groups for Newbies, Oldbies, Strong Fatties, Runners, Belly Dancers, Yogis and more.

If you want to bring a screening of Strong! to your town (the process that we used was super easy), e-mail me at ragen at danceswithfat dot org  and I’ll get you hooked up with the right people.

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I do HAES and SA activism, speaking and writing full time, and I don’t believe in putting corporate ads on my blog and making my readers a commodity. So if you find value in my work, want to support it, and you can afford it, please consider a paid subscription (it works like a fan club – you get extra stuff, discounts, and you’re always the first to know about things) or a one-time contribution.  The regular e-mail subscription (available at the top right hand side of this page) is still completely free. If you’re curious about this policy, you might want to check out this post.  Thanks for reading! ~Ragen

5 thoughts on “Strong! Fat! Happy!

  1. Fuck the ‘promoting obesity’ argument!

    This post reminds me strongly of a story I have heard many times from Nichelle Nichols (Uhura on Original Trek, and yes, I am a great big geek). She seriously considered leaving the series after the second season because she was frustrated. She was beginning to feel like scenery she had so few interesting lines.

    One evening she was at an NAACP event seated next to Martin Luther King, Jr. She discussed the matter with him and he told her it was important for her to stay on the show. He made her realize that without her the only images African American girls would see on their TV screens of their possible future were maids, slaves, and prostitutes without hope. But if they turned on their TVs and saw Uhura, they saw a strong, black woman in a position of authority. Seeing her would give them permission to dream of a world where they could grow up to be doctors, lawyers, scientists, or anything else they might want to be.

    If fat children see this film, see Cheryl Haworth being powerful, then they know they can be powerful, too, not just physically, but in terms of standing up for themselves and finding what matters to them to do.

    Hope is powerful. It’s as powerful as an Olympic weight lifter, as powerful as standing up for someone else’s dreams.

    Nichelle Nichols has lived to see little girls with skin in every color of the human rainbow grow up to be NASA scientists in significant part because she stuck with that role on a TV show.

    My guess is that you and Cheryl Haworth will see little girls with bodies of every size and shape find their own grace and their own strength in significant part because of you.

  2. thank you for this post. It really resonated with me. I have decoupled my food choices from dieting but am still working on doing that with movement. Stuff like this really helps.

  3. Hi Ragen,

    Thanks again for making this screening possible, and you were the one I was geeky fan-girling for most of all!

    As a White, able-bodied, ‘in-betweenie’ or borderline fatty, I struggle with a sense that I “almost made it” to social acceptability. I have a constant mental stream telling me that “maybe if I hadn’t dieted and binged so much, maybe if I had lifted weights this whole time, etc”, then I could have reached a magic place where I wouldnt have to hate myself for how I look.

    It was important and painful to hear that Cheryl still feels shame about her size, despite the amazing things her body can do… It reminded me that self-love will always be a choice we get to make, regardless of how we think we are supposed to look.

    Thanks again!


  4. I appreciate your blog and feel it has helped me have a little more self acceptance and courage to try things instead of waiting until a certain weight. I used to be a lot skinnier and was still not happy. I’m learning to eat intuitively, focusing on exercise for health (not weight loss) and be happy where I am. I have just started yoga and am enjoying something new. Thanks for being a role model for us!

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