I must admit that when I first started out, cardio was my first choice of exercise. I used to be driven by the number on the scale (i.e. making myself as light as possible). I had similar fears of turning "bulky" and "looking like a man", a common thread amongst many of my existing female clients.
I spent years pursuing a skinny aesthetic, but even at my lightest self I did not feel happy. During my photoshoot (pictured below), I felt like a fraud, and still felt ugly and inadequate.
It made me realize I never truly felt at ease within my body. It was never about the weight. Throughout the years, I have done a lot of reflecting and inner work to heal from the trauma from being constantly criticized during my growing years.
Though beauty standards are not universal, and might not be applicable to all strata of Singaporean women, norms of looking slender embodiments of femininity are alive and well in our society today.
As someone who grew up in a traditional Asian family in Singapore, I know firsthand how challenging it can be to prioritize my own health and fitness goals in the face of cultural and societal expectations.
After 12 years of embracing the benefits of strength training, I've realized these five key struggles that I'm sure resonate with Asian women who lift:
1. High barrier to entry in the gym
Let's face it, strength training is a male-dominated domain, and it can be intimidating for women to step into the gym. I still recall the very first time I stepped into a gym in university. The weight floor was filled with mostly sweaty guys completely at ease navigating the sea of confusing equipment. Feeling utterly out of place, I scurried towards the comforting row of treadmills at the end of the room, thinking "Well, at least I'd be able to work the buttons, that seems easy enough!"
I'm pretty sure this experience mirrors that of so many women attempting to make their first steps towards picking up strength training. I've personally coached many women throughout the years who have shared their gymtimidation - a strong fear of stepping into a gym.
Many women do not know where to start or how to properly use gym equipment, and feel intimidated by the prospect of asking for help or guidance, especially from burly men. We often feel self-conscious and uncomfortable in spaces where we feel like we don't fit in or aren't valued. Adding to that the Asian cultural expectations that women should be delicate and demure, and it's no wonder that many of us (even before stepping into a gym) feel like we don't belong.
2. Pressure to conform to a skinny aesthetic
As progressive and modern as Singapore is, we are not exempt from adopting traditional beauty standards evident in many Asian societies. I recall vividly once when I was a teen travelling in my family car. We were driving along drove along the roads, past a slender, waif-like Asian girl in a floral dress. Looking at me in my oversized Newbie shirt (one of three oversized tees I wore on a rotational basis year-long), my mother made this casual passing remark "Wouldn't it be nice if you were as skinny as that girl over there?"
Asian cultures prioritize thinness and fragility over strength and muscularity. It is not uncommon to hear that strength training is not feminine or desirable, which discourages many of us from pursuing this form of exercise. Comparisons are rife, which worsens the proliferation of such norms. Recall the online fad of the #A4Challenge or #A4WaistChallenge (comparing your waist to an A4 sheet of paper) which went viral in China sometime back.
Strength training requires confidence, assertiveness, and the willingness to challenge ourselves. This might very much be at odds of gender norms of Asian societies.
3. Lack of Strong Female Role Models
Growing up, I rarely saw women who lifted weights or pursued physical strength as a goal. It wasn't until much later that I met other strong Asian lifters in the gym, or read about their accomplishments in the news that I realized there were other women out there who shared my passion for strength training.
It's no secret that women have historically been underrepresented in the strength training world, and unfortunately, this is especially true for Asian women. We're bombarded with images of male bodybuilders and fitness models, while female strength athletes are few and far between.
This can leave us feeling like we don't belong in the weight room, and can make it difficult to find inspiration and motivation.
But why is this the case? Why aren't there more strong and powerful Asian women on our screens and in our gyms? Is it because we're not interested in strength training, or because society doesn't value female strength and power?
It's important to recognize that media representation and cultural expectations can have a huge impact on our perceptions of what is possible and what is desirable. When we don't see people who look like us doing things we want to do, it can be hard to imagine ourselves doing those things too.
Representation matters. Seeing someone who looks like us succeed in a field we're interested in can be incredibly motivating and inspiring.
4. Lack of Family Support
If you're like me, you've probably heard your fair share of detracting comments from relatives who mean well, especially during the much dreaded festive period.
If you feel a deep sense of dread at having to meet your relatives during reunion gatherings, you are not alone.
How many of us have had comments targeting our weight, career choices and even relationship decisions?
I've had family members tell me that lifting weights will make me look bulky and unfeminine, or that I should focus on my studies or my career instead. These exact statements might even be familiar to you (from you 'well-meaning' relatives) ranging from "Wow you're putting on weight recently, have you tried running or dieting?" to "Weightlifting? You'll look like a man if you get too muscular." And when cultural expectations prioritize beauty standards over strength and athleticism, it can be hard to prioritize strength training in our own lives, despite the dearth of benefits.
5. Guilt at Prioritizing Self-Care
I have met so many women who express guilt at making time for themselves, to prioritize their own wellbeing and pursuit of personal hobbies over familial obligations. It is common to hear of women sharing how their husbands feel little guilt at pursuing their hobbies outside of work, while the women take on the majority of household responsibilities. In particular, my postnatal clients struggle with this immensely, alongside mothers who feel that the responsibility for caring for their families fall squarely upon their shoulders.
There are deep-seated differences between more individualistic cultures and communal-focused mentalities in Asian societies. In Asian societies, there is more pressure to conform and follow what the society deems as acceptable, with a strong emphasis on putting family and community above oneself.
While this is a noble sentiment and a valuable component of Asian culture, it can make it difficult for women to prioritize their own health and fitness goals.
I have coached so many women who express their deep sense of guilt at taking time away from our families or for doing something that is seen as self-indulgent.
I believe this is not just the biggest barriers to strength training but the adoption of any form of self-care practice in our society, particularly for Asian women.
Though challenges abound, my goal is to help Asian women overcome these cultural and societal barriers and embrace the benefits of strength training. Despite these challenges, I firmly believe that strength training is one of the best things that we can do for ourselves. It's empowering, it builds confidence, and it can help us live longer, healthier lives. By prioritizing our own health and fitness, we can set a positive example for the women around us and pave the way for a healthier, stronger future for the future generations too.
One question that drives the creation of an AMFIT community is this: "How can we shape existing narratives surrounding female strength training and carve out space for ourselves as strong Asian women, not just in the fitness sphere but beyond?" By creating a community of female fitness enthusiasts in brave pursuit of their own goals, prioritizing strength and athleticism, I hope for AMFIT to break down the barriers and cultural expectations that have been holding us back. Join the AMFIT community today by keeping up to date email@example.com on Instagram. If you'd love to work with a certified women's health and fitness coach, feel free to book a call and let's connect. For more holistic health and fitness tips, subscribe to my writing on Medium. Lastly, if you're a fellow fitness professional, I'd love to hear from you on LinkedIn!