What ‘Physical: 100’ Taught Me About Strength

Writer Anjana Pawa on how the Korean competition show changed her views on what it means to be a strong Asian woman

Words by Anjana Pawa

If you’ve been living under a rock, you may not have heard about Physical: 100, Netflix’s Korean reality show that’s taking the Internet by storm. It’s time to lift that rock above your head like Atlasand like badass female contestant and decorated boxer Shin Bomire did on the showand get into the know. The aim of this reality competition series is to find the “peak physique.” One hundred contestants compete in challenges that allow them to display their strength. The nine-episode first season had 77 men and 23 women competing to win the coveted title and 300M won (about $240,000). There’s a bit of a kick to the ego if you get eliminated; you must break a clay bust of your physique with a hammer. Brutal, right?

After succumbing to peer pressure, fueled by that familiar FOMO associated with cultural phenomena, I watched the show, and genuinely enjoyed it. Though most of the show combines light-hearted fun with a competitive spirit, it unexpectedly forced me to take a step back and reconsider what I perceived strength to be, especially as it relates to being a woman, thanks to the amazing female competitors. Like most people, I’ve long thought of strength as much more physical than what it actually entails: I think of a person who looks muscular, who has the ability to lift heavy weights. I think of someone who can run particularly fast and cross the finish line first. I think of a person who is aggressive and has the capacity to fight. There’s a sense of masculinity that has always dominated the idea of strength. But what Physical: 100 excelled at was showing what strength looks like beyond the parameters of muscle mass and gender.

Rather than the all-American shows that foster unhealthy competition, Physical: 100 was a space where cheers of encouragement like “hwaiting!” were heard from the sidelines. All the competitors knew and respected each other. Some of these men and women were decorated Olympians and teammates or fitness content creators with millions of followers. Since the finale, one unnamed participant received an assault allegation and some participants were involved in bullying scandals. There were even rumors that the outcome was manipulated by the creators. But this doesn’t change the fact that the tone of this reality competition show was refreshing as a viewer.

The female contestants would be completing the same challenges as the male ones even if it was a one-on-one fight in the mud or rolling a 100-kg boulder up an angled hill. And it’s not often that we see so many different bodies, especially female and especially Asian, represented in this way. The women competing have bodies that range from ones that look like bodybuilder Kim Chunri’s, which is bulky, with defined biceps and abdominal muscles that match her male counterparts, to ones that look like cheerleader Joo Jo Yeon, who has a slimmer and leaner frame.

Fan favorite competitor Jang Eun-sil is the underdog team leader who defied all odds. Her team was made up of the perceived weakest participants because the other team leaders had chosen everyone else. The visuals of her team of smaller-framed men and some of the other women, including equally as badass Seo Hayan, set against the biggest and bulkiest people you’ve ever seen, leads the viewer to think, “How could she ever pull this off?”

Ultimately to be successful in the challenge, the teams needed to be diversified by body types and skill sets, so Jang actually had the advantage. You must have good balance along with sharp agility, but all of that would mean nothing without the right concentration. The team that was the “strongest” would strike a balance between all of these elements, not exclusively be able to lift the most or run the fastest. Because strength isn’t any one of these things but actually the culmination of them all, and participants like Jang knew this and used it to her advantage to lead her team to victory.

Physical: 100 introduces pink-haired pilates instructor and influencer Shim Eu-Ddeum early on, and she is assumed to be the weakest one in the bunch. Her physique is seemingly dainty, without the upper body structure that the other contestants have. Historically, Asian women have been subjected to infantilization and being perceived as subservient due to having a petite frame. Shim debunks this, proving that she can be victorious, even if her body doesn’t look like her male counterparts’.  When given a second chance to come back and compete after being eliminated, she was able to single out seemingly stronger people in a competition of core strength and concentration. Shim proved that strength isn’t just the size of your muscles or how much weight you can lift, but a combination of concentration, stamina, and sometimes sheer determination. Her redemption was triumphant.

Participants like Shim and the other women on the show allowed me to reexamine the meaning of strength and how I perceived it. Strength doesn’t have to be any one thing or have one look, and maybe even the smallest of us can unlock a superhuman strength out of willpower, like our pink-haired friend, too.

Published on March 17, 2023

Words by Anjana Pawa

Anjana Pawa is a Brooklyn-based culture reporter who regularly covers music, entertainment and beauty. You can find her on Twitter at @apawawrites.