By Aymen Sherwani, March 17 2020 —
Like any other community, the South Asian community has expectations for what the body of a woman should look like: lean, demure and as delicate as a lotus blossom in the water garden of the Taj Mahal. Heavy sarcasm implied. Curvier and more full-bodied women are considered, ironically, unfeminine. They are told to eat less rotis and lift less weights so as to not look so “healthy.” This, when directly translated from tone-deaf boomer auntie speak, is a nice backhanded way of calling someone a fatass. In this case, I’m looking directly at the auntie that called me chunky during the summer I was training my glutes, and asked me if I knew what vegetables were. Clearly booty gains mean nothing to the older generation.
This lack of consideration for a healthy lifestyle through exercise is projecting a toxic way of life onto young brown girls. We are dealing with the dilemma of staying thin to satiate gossip-mongering aunties, and being afraid of strength-training and the weightroom in the process. Sara Ibrahim, who currently majors in Kinesiology at the University of Calgary, challenges this rhetoric as a Pakistani-Canadian vegan weightlifter. Aside from her dedication towards healthy living, Ibrahim is a graduate of Blanche Macdonald makeup school and continues to redefine what it means to break the cultural mould and live life based on your own happiness. In an interview with the Gauntlet, she explains more about how she advocates for ending the stigma against women who weightlift in the South Asian community.
The Gauntlet: Following your Instagram, on top of being a female weightlifter, you’re a Pakistani-Canadian vegan woman, who graduated from the Blanche Macdonald makeup school, and currently majors in Kinesiology at the University of Calgary, so living an unconventional life adjacent to your fellow students in the South Asian diaspora must be nothing new to you. What inspired you to develop such a healthy lifestyle in the first place, in reference to weightlifting?
Sara Ibrahim: I grew up very underweight, and my parents always had difficulties getting me to eat as a child. When I finally hit my growth sprout later than most of the girls my age, you can say that I hit it hard. I put on weight rapidly and uncontrollably and as you can imagine, I faced a lot of body image issues. I was always very active growing up, so it seemed difficult that no matter how much I was moving around, I wasn’t able to lose weight.
In my first year of high school, I decided to take sports medicine as my elective, despite none of my friends being in that option. We would spend two days a week in the YMCA, lifting weights as a team. Surprisingly, it turned out to be what began my passion for human movement and the psychological and physiological processes that surround it.
G: Can you address the initial reactions you faced or continue to face being a woman who weight-lifts and are you affected at all by the level of stigma surrounded by “women with muscles”? Do cultural body standards dissuade you from pursuing your personal body goals?
SI: There are the regular comments of other brown women and distant family members saying that the weight room is a place for males, and girls should strive to be thin and eloquent rather than full and muscular. I believe all healthy styles of bodies are beautiful, but every woman should try pushing themselves and their bodies, as it conditions both your body and mind. There are definitely the awkward stares and uncomfortable approaches, but over time you learn how to deal with them. I am not personally affected by the cultural stigma because I have enough confidence to thank my body for what it does for me on the daily, instead of feeling sorry that I don’t look like Instagram models. It definitely does take a toll on me sometimes when I find that I have gained fat in the process of gaining more muscle. It is a constant reminder to me of hard work and perseverance and I try not to let it discourage me from pursuing my goals.
G: Do you believe that there is a certain level of un-femininity ascribed to weightlifting in the South Asian community and in Western culture, where a woman is expected to look thin and demure rather than being a representation of strength? Why do you think that is? How do you work around this?
SI: I think that the lack of representation of brown women in fitness in the past is what fostered this mindset of women in the weight room. In the past, the only female lifters that were represented in the media were bodybuilders, bikini competitors, and a lot of the time women who took injections or steroids. Naturally, this scares South Asian women away from that area of the gym in order to avoid any possibility of them appearing muscular. In the past few years, however, I think women are being exposed to more images of other women who lift and train hard but are able to keep their feminine figures during the process. Brown ladies are starting to appreciate the biceps, poppin’ shoulders and v-shaped back that comes with incorporating upper body days into their training regimen. In 2020, body standards are changing and challenging traditional ideas, and giving the chance for both women and men to choose to develop a healthy relationship with eating well and feeling good about themselves.
G: What advice would you give to other South Asian women who are also dealing with the same issues related to society’s standards of what a woman should look like?
SI: I would advise them to do tons of research on the health benefits of weight lifting, as that might inspire them to try it and see how it goes. I would also advise them to learn from other women who weight-lift, who have a similar body to the one they are trying to obtain. Since everybody has different goals, we can’t all have the same sources of inspiration. Learning from and observing the many different styles of strength training can really help other women decide what will work for them and what is suitable in the long run. Never be afraid to reach out for help and advice from people online, and in person, because those who make fitness a regular part of their lifestyle are more than happy to encourage and help others in whatever way they can!