My relationship with strong women is perhaps an unconventional one. Since the age of about ten years old, I attended a handful of body-building competitions every year. From the audience, I watched the tanned, well-oiled figure of my mother flex her muscles on the stage. Though many girls grow up admiring their mothers’ strength and independence, my mother was strong in a different, more uncommon way.
This image, a sketch of New Yorker Walt Kuhn’s dated around 1920, struck me for the same reason that many people still express surprise when I tell them about my mother’s physical fitness. Women, particularly women in art, are so rarely represented as physically strong. This sketch by Kuhn is likely the result of an evening with the performers at the Ringling Circus, meaning that even the ‚ÄúStrong Girl‚Äù that he depicts is unusual ‚Äì she is an anomaly, a freak show, a marvel.
What I see in Kuhn’s representation of the ‚ÄúStrong Girl‚Äù is different than our cultural conceptions of body-building ‚Äì that it is a sport for the beefy, the block-headed, the vain. The ‚ÄúStrong Girl‚Äù is focused. She is determined. Her wide-legged stance makes her stable; she stands on her own, she carries her own weight. Though this image still marvels at the female body, the ‚ÄúStrong Girl‚Äù is admired more for what she has accomplished with her body than what her body means to others.
My mother, a woman in some ways made in the image of Kuhn’s ‚ÄúStrong Girl,‚Äù does not need anyone to help her move the furniture, or to carry her bags to the car. Though many admire her for her physical prowess, as Kuhn admired his ‚ÄúStrong Girl,‚Äù what I find most remarkable about her is her drive to improve herself and to attain her goals.
Strength is an element of girlhood that we don’t often see, but Kuhn offers it here in its physical representation. The ‚ÄúStrong Girl‚Äù did not become strong merely by chance. She worked at it, and she worked hard, and in this image she is still working. Even at the turn-of-the-century, Kuhn saw a strength in girlhood that we still have a difficult time recognizing.
Girl Museum Inc.