[Editor’s note: the following essay contains frank discussion of disordered eating and associated body image issues.]

In elementary school, I consistently and spectacularly failed every fitness challenge set before me, so I had to run around the gym with the other fat kids twice a week. It accomplished nothing aside from forcing me to walk back into class red-faced, dripping in sweat, and cursing my P.E. teacher.

I never liked to play outside; all I ever wanted to do was read, preferably indoors, preferably alone. And yet, somehow, my sexual awakening was all thanks to movies about girls playing sports. I blew through Bend It Like Beckham, All You’ve Got, Gracie, Bring It On, and She’s The Man, but the movie that really captured my heart was Stick It.

Stick It stars Missy Peregrym as Haley Graham, a sullen, snarky gymnastics prodigy. The first time you see Haley, it’s a surprise reveal — that person who just did a death-defying bike trick was… a girl! Unfazed, she jumps up and sprints back through the window she just shattered while police sirens blare. She takes off her helmet and a few layers of clothing, revealing long hair, beautiful muscular arms, and a shit-eating smirk, launching into the first of her many moody monologues. “This isn’t the first time I’ve made out with law enforcement,” she begins.

At eleven years old, I couldn’t decide if “made out with” or “law enforcement” was the more titillating part of that sentence.

Between the ages of 11 and, well, now (21) I’ve probably watched Stick It fifteen times. Sometimes I show it to friends, usually billing it as “the movie that made me gay” and apologizing a bit for the overzealous editing techniques. I’ve watched it while crocheting and while doing a long yoga practice, but mostly I watched it while sitting on the floor in my parents’ basement about five feet away from the television, utterly transfixed. More times than I’m willing to admit, I didn’t watch it all the way through, fast-forwarding to that one scene.

Although that scene made me feel some things I didn’t quite understand, what appealed to me most was how deliberately un-sexy it was. It was pure power and strength, sensual but not objectifying; it made me understand what my dad saw in his macho action movies, from Gladiator to Cool Hand Luke.

Haley wears long sleeves, sweatpants, and a sports bra, not the neon leotards that define the rest of the film’s gymnastics scenes. She confronts the viewer head-on, more often with a smirk or eye-roll than not. The entire voiceover is about the brutal physical toll gymnastics takes on the body, and the music is an equally intense Green Day track. “The only thing more fun than rips is when your rips get rips,” intones voiceover Haley. She continues, with a heart-melting smolder that can be felt from off-screen, “It’s suuuuper sexy.”

And then there’s that damn ice bath. In a bathroom shot like a boudoir, Haley drags a bag of ice across the floor, hoists it into the air, and pours the ice into the tub. She groans a little bit as she takes her shirt off (the better to view her rippling abs with), and slowly lowers herself into the bath. Suffice it to say that when I finally figured out I liked girls, my slack-jawed obsession with this scene was my biggest retroactive lightbulb moment.

THAT SCENE in Stick It

In yet another moody monologue, Haley admits, “The only reason I’m doing these tricks is because somebody said, ‘I don’t care if this is nuts, and I don’t care if it hurts. I’m doing it. I’m going to climb this insanely high mountain. Watch me.’” I loved that the main conflict in the film was Haley’s physical and emotional journey from jaded felon to team leader/athletic powerhouse. Stick It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors and emphasizes trust, support, and determination, on and off the mat.

I returned to Stick It over the years, as I developed a deeply unhealthy relationship with exercise. In high school, I spent night after night holding a plank on my bedroom floor until I could barely get back in bed, fretting over having eaten four sticks of celery instead of the one that I had permitted myself. Stick It represented exercise as a source of power, pleasure, and strength, rather than as my preferred way to self-harm.

As a freshman in college, I started going to the gym because, as I liked to put it, “I need to do something to blow off steam; sex is complicated, drugs are scary, alcohol is expensive.” I tried to use my capacity for discipline and focus to actively attempt to feel better in the moment rather than suffering toward some ultimate platonic ideal. It was a difficult paradigm shift, but I loved it. My endorphins started flowing; the knots in my stomach untied; the fog in my brain cleared. I felt euphoria. I felt clarity. I felt stillness, not the stagnation of depression that I know too well, but a contentment that felt foreign to my neurotic mind.

Watching girls’ sports movies as a child/tween/teen with heaps of body image issues, I thought I found them so fascinating because I was fat and slow and uncoordinated. Characters like Peregrym’s Haley or Parminder Nagra’s Jess (Bend It Like Beckham) represented something that I thought would always be unattainable for me. But now, as a bona fide rugby player and connoisseur of the “angst run,” I take a great deal of pride in becoming the strong, confident woman I’ve always wanted to be.

I was waiting all along for the “I like girls” shoe to drop, but more important was growing to appreciate my own body. Disney Princesses may have been my first fictional role model for proscribed heterosexual hyperfemininity, but a few years later, Haley Graham from Stick It was my first true fictional crush. In a world where women are expected to be frail and quiet, the smartass with rippling abs absolutely had my heart.

Who was your first fictional crush? Do you want to write about them for Rogues Portal? Email pitches to Samantha! (Submissions are unpaid at this time.)

Molly McGowan
Molly McGowan is a consulting archivist, or historical gossip connoisseur, living in Boston. Her passions in life are making elaborate crafts to foist upon her loved ones, trying not to get trampled on the rugby pitch, soliciting life advice from her many tarot decks, and searching eternally for the perfect vegetarian Buffalo wings.

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