Feminine strength comes in many forms. The physical kind is on display now in a photography exhibition at City Hall featuring female power lifters in honor of Women’s History Month.
Before taking on this project, photographer Liane Brandon barely knew power lifting for women existed. That changed after her personal trainer Jessica Diedrich explained she was getting ready for a competition.
Stereotypes of female bodybuilders with skimpy costumes and bulging muscles filled Brandon’s imagination. She didn’t say it out loud, but admits she was confused by Diedrich’s pursuit.
“She doesn’t look like a bodybuilder,” the photographer told herself, before finding out exactly what power lifting was.
“It’s a sport consisting of three lifts,” Lodrina Cherne told me at the Total Performance Sports gym in Everett. She’s one of Brandon’s four subjects.
“You have the squat, where you put the bar on your back, you bend down and stand up again. You have the bench press. And then you have the deadlift, which is your standard pick things up and put them down lift,” she explained.
Brandon followed the 32-year-old Cherne and three other power lifters for about a year.
“Lodrina just set a new American record for the deadlift in her weight class,” the photographer said, like a proud parent.
At 123 pounds, Cherne made a 352.5 lift at the Arnold — as in Arnold Schwarzenegger — Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio. At the gym in Everett, she makes 115 pound squats — which are considered warm-ups — look easy.
Brandon is still blown away by what these women can do. She’s a founder of New Day Films, an independent feminist film and video collaborative.
“I’ve done a lot of films about women’s issues and women’s image,” Brandon said, “so finding women who are healthy, strong and interested in what their bodies can do gives people another idea of what women can be, and what they can look like.”
In Brandon's photos the women grimace, strain and glisten with sweat under hulking weights.
“What I tried to capture was different stages of the women lifting and also training,” she recalled, “and there were a few in between lifts [when they’re] just trying to recover or rest.”
“I was so pleased that we were represented in such a strong light," Cherne told me, adding that the media hasn’t paid much attention to power lifting.
Jane Stabile, another one of Brandon's subjects, laughed as she introduced herself. “I’m the old one. I’m 62 and I’ve been power lifting since I was about 50.” Then smiling she added, “I am also known around here as the world’s strongest granny.”
Stabile holds a few world records.
“I think my best squat is 415, my best bench press is about 215, and my best deadlift is about 405,” she said.
Stabile hopes to get up to 500 pounds with help from her trainer CJ Murphy, the owner of Total Performance Sports.
“We used to make it like an achievement when a guy would join the lifting group and be able to squat as much as Jane could,” Murphy said.
Murphy hovered over Stabile as she lay on the bench press, spotting her as she warmed up. Her back arched as she maneuvered the bar, and he went into coach mode.
“Drive back into the bench,” he said. “Heals down. Bring it out. Shorten. Knees. Hips. Meet it, meet it...” then clang, Stabile dropped the 115 pounds after completing the rep.
The seasoned trainer said he’s impressed with Brandon’s photographs, but he predicts the public will have a hard time getting their heads around how far these women push their physical limits.
“They’re doing things that your body is not supposed to do. You know a 62-year-old grandmother is not supposed to be able to deadlift over 400 pounds, but she’s making herself do it,” he said. “The two ladies that are with us here, Lodrina and Jane, they’re not big ladies, and they’re lifting weights that men don’t lift.”
Jane Stabile is also the mother of three grown daughters, and she says they’re proud of her.
“One day one of my daughters who was still in college at the time put on Facebook, 'My mom can bench press your mom,'" she shared, laughing.
Her daughter is power lifting competitively now, too. Stabile says she's happy to play the part of “strong female role model,” and hopes the exhibition in The Mayor's Gallery at City Hall shows people how powerful women can be — and that power lifting can be beautiful, even if it’s not always pretty.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the name of the gym. It is Total Performance Sports.
The exhibition “Lift” is on display at The Mayor's Gallery at City Hall through the end of March.