Lifting Cultural Expectations

By Tina Tang

When I step into the weight room of my neighborhood gym, I am usually the only woman. If there is another one, I check her out and greet her in my head, “I see you. I see your muscles. Good to see you here, too!”

At the gym or in any strength class I take, I am also one of the only Asians. I constantly ask why — what is it about some cultural upbringings that inhibit its women from daring to lift?

My parents are Chinese immigrants. I’ve grown up with an old world Chinese expectation to laugh quietly (which I don’t), to be slim, petite and willowy (which I am not), and to be extraordinarily respectful to authority (which I likely do too much). I shouldn’t be lifting weights, and yet I do. Lifting heavy weights fuels me with confidence, and I embrace the fact that I am not an expected quiet little Asian woman.

In this article, I’ve interviewed four minority women who defy their heritage stereotypes and embrace lifting weights. What has their journey been?


Joyce Wang, a Taiwanese-American CrossFit regionals athlete whose mother doesn’t want her to scare the boys away; Nimisha Lad, an East Indian-Canadian lifter whose coach encourages her to lead the way as role model for Indian women; Nurulhuda Izyan , a Singaporean Muslim woman whose mother is worried Izyan will “break her uterus,” and Syeda Ali, a Muslim Indian-American college student who thought cardio was the only way to keep fit.

What got you started in lifting?

Joyce: Growing up, I snowboarded, played volleyball and ran track, but did not start training until college. Even then, I ran on the treadmill and did circuit workouts. I never touched a barbell until my senior year of college. Having played competitive team sports in college, I wanted to thrive in the same collaborative team experience afterwards. My search ended when I discovered the CrossFit Games — the games were my “a-ha” moment! By end of 2013, I was going to CrossFit five times a week.

Nimisha: I had worked with a few trainers over the years to lose weight and become more fit. They would usually have me do cardio-based exercises or burpees, anything that gassed me. There would be no exercises that built muscles. I’ve always found women that looked strong so appealing, and I felt I needed those right tools.

A couple years ago, I found a personal trainer who was a world pro bodybuilding champion. I trained with him three times a week for six months plus four times a week doing HIIT. I started to notice changes. I leaned out and lost fat in a lot of different places. I noticed definition and people told me I had a type of brightness showing on my face. Now, I lift three to four times a week, meal prep often and I’m conscious with my nutrition and fitness goals.

Nurulhuda: I started out as a boxer. But, when I changed careers to apprentice as a carpenter, I couldn’t continue such a cardio intensive exercise. The boxing was tiring me out during the day.As I searched for another form of exercise, I came across weightlifting in social media.

I was introduced to Jen Sinkler’s Lift Weights Faster. Her ideology really appealed to me. Her philosophy supports lifting weights as a purposeful means to raising heart rate. With traditional cardio, I’m always counting calories. With lifting weights, I see a bigger picture of life. At a local gym, I took a class on how to lift weights. But, the men in my gym weren’t encouraging. They all told me “you’re gonna get big.” I finally found a powerlifting gym near me where everyone, including the men, was encouraging and welcoming.

Syeda: I was always insecure and conscious about my weight. I would run the treadmill for three to four hours a day to battle my insecurity. I was doing cardio so much that people at my college would recognize me as “the girl who is always on the treadmill.” Running that often kept me at a 95 pounds. While maintaining that weight, I was constantly tired and feeling malnourished. The more cardio I did, the less happiness I found in my body.

One day, one of my male friends suggested weightlifting. Since cardio wasn’t helping me feel better or happier, I decided to try it out. The first time I went into the lifting section of the gym, I didn’t do much. I started with a couple machines because they displayed instructions.

What did your parents think?

Author’s note: I asked this question because immigrant children often feel a heavy influence of parental opinions. From a young age, many immigrant children are instilled with a “we came to this country just for you” guilt, “so do what I say.”

Joyce: I never told my parents about it. My mom encourages us to be fit and active but she wouldn’t have been happy about CrossFit. She would ask, “Why do you need to be buff and strong? You’ll scare the boys away.” So, rather than explain, I put it on the back burner.

As I continued with CrossFit, she did notice my body change and asked, “Where are all your muscles coming from?” As CrossFit became more popular in 2015-2016, my mom became more aware of what CrossFit was but was still not a fan. My dad, on the other hand, noticed my muscles much sooner. He was interested in learning about it. I think his interest originates from his youth as an athlete. In my doing CrossFit, his only concern was my safety.

Nimisha: They were supportive. They have always encouraged my siblings and I to be active.Sometimes they wished I ate more Indian food instead of my healthy diet. Fitness is not very predominant with East Indians. It’s not considered as important in my culture as engineering or medicine.

Nurulhuda: When I was a boxer, I was featured in the local newspaper. It was a novelty to see a woman in a hijab while boxing. My parents didn’t like that I was boxing. When I started powerlifting, they were just happy I wasn’t boxing. They figured it was just a phase.

When I entered a powerlifting competition, my mom agonized that I would break my back. She also worried, “Something is going to happen to your uterus!” As I continue powerlifting they have commented, “You’re so big! How come you’re going to the gym and not getting smaller?”

Syeda: I didn’t tell my parents and still haven’t. They are very culturally and religiously oriented.They would never approve. They would think weightlifting is too masculine. In addition, I know they would claim it’s inappropriate to be in a facility full of sweaty men.

How do you think about your ethnic heritage vs. this “contrarian” activity?

Joyce: Immigrant parents raising their kids in the U.S. want them to assimilate but to also remember their cultural heritage. In Asian culture, it’s desirable to be fit, but thin. Asian women are scared away from being bulky so they do a lot of yoga or swimming. An openness to building muscles is linked to how Americanized the women are.

Nimisha: It’s misconceptions people hold when they are not informed. Even though a few don’t get why I lift, a lot of friends of my generation ask me, “What have you been doing? Can you help me out?” The difference in attitude may be a generation gap.

My parents’ generation considers the ideal Indian beauty to be slim and without muscles. That isn’t appealing to me.

Nurulhuda: When I wear a headscarf, I am always judged. Before I started competing, I questioned myself, “Is that OK to wear tights to cover my legs? It’s still showing the shape of my body. Will I be accepted wearing a hijab?”

I decided to wear the hijab, long-sleeved shirt and pants to my gym. I found that in the powerlifting gym, no one cares what you wear. In coming to terms with my religious debate about the tights, I realized in my religion, it is about the intention. While the clothing is tight to cover my body, my intention is to lift properly.

Syeda: Culture and religion are not supposed to be intertwined but with my parents, they are.Growing up they would tell me not to wear or do certain things. When I asked why, the answer was never logical. It would simply be “because our elders told us to.” Lack of reasonable explanations has made me feel detached from my culture. The way I see it, there is no harm to weightlifting. It makes me feel better mentally and physically. It makes me stronger. Thus, I don’t consider culture when I lift.

What kind of negative feedback have you gotten?

Joyce: People mostly react positively. The only apprehensions come from my mom who believes girls aren’t supposed to be muscular. I don’t bother arguing with her.

Nimisha: When I started to shed weight and lean out, my parents’ friend said, “You should stop working out, you’re getting too skinny. Your face is too thin. You need to eat more.” Perplexed, an uncle asked me, “What is your goal?” I want more muscle, which they don’t understand.

Nurulhuda: Occasionally, my parents’ friends may comment. They ask why I want to carry heavy things? What are my goals? My choice is something they don’t understand.

Syeda: My parents, while they don’t know I lift, must suspect something. They comment on my curves and pester me to cover it up or to start doing cardio. My father has mentioned that I look more masculine.

Whether I was skinny during cardio, or now muscular, I have always gotten criticism. “You’re too skinny.” “You look so small.” “You’re too masculine.” “You need to cover your legs.” “You have resting bitch face.”

Why don’t you care about the stereotype that lifting makes you bulky?

Joyce: I used to care about fitting in. People would stare at me in public if I was wearing a tank top or make comments about my physique. The stares and comments made me feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t until after college when I found CrossFit that I embraced being different and utilizing my strengths. Seeing the women in the CrossFit games with similar physiques gave me some sense of normality. The women competing at the highest level of the games were being celebrated as athletes. People weren’t gawking at their muscles. Now, I care about breaking personal records and getting stronger. I don’t care about “getting bulky.”

Nimisha: I’ve always known from working out, that women aren’t made to be bulky. Unless you take steroids, women don’t get bulky. Lifting is so empowering. It leads to a well-shaped and toned body. The advantages are just so much greater in and out of the gym.

Nurulhuda: I don’t believe it as I don’t get big and bulky. It takes so much to make muscles. How can I get bulky?

Syeda: I’ve always been insecure about my body in the past. If I was doing cardio, people would comment that I was too skinny. If I put on a couple pounds, people would tell me I needed to lose weight. We are never satisfied full with the way we look. Even if lifting ever makes me bulky, I don’t care. Lifting weights has made me confident and strong.

How does lifting make you feel?

Joyce: It makes me feel empowered, strong and confident. Lifting gives me such an exhilarating feeling that I don’t get when I am doing other exercises like cardio. I feel productive after every lifting session knowing that I am getting stronger than the day before. I may look small, but I can lift more than twice my bodyweight.

Nimisha: I’ve always loved Wonder Woman and She-Ra, admiring their strength and power. I was determined to make that change in my life. I saw for myself, the inner confidence that comes from those heros. Lifting makes me feel powerful and strong both physically and mentally. It’s given me a sense of competence knowing my body can do heavy workouts with dedication, time and effort.

Nurulhuda: Lifting makes me feel in control. It makes me plan. Cardio and other classes are exercising without a plan. Lifting makes me look at life as a whole. It has taught me that I can learn a skill by just showing up regularly. I am no longer exercising, I am training. This has helped me translate it into other parts of my life. Just show up and things happen.

Syeda: Lifting makes me feel strong and independent. When I see the results, I feel more powerful and confident. I am not afraid to stand up for myself. I am capable of keeping myself safe.

Do you struggle with body image? Have you ever…

  • Felt anxious about clothes shopping or wearing certain clothes?
  • Dreaded going to an event (like a reunion or a wedding) — or even skipped the event altogether — because you felt too self-conscious about how you looked?
  • Found yourself not wanting to be in pictures or videos, or hiding behind other people in the picture to shield your body?
  • Scrolled through social media and felt worse and worse as you went?

If these sound familiar to you, you are not alone.

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About the author:  Tina Tang

20 years ago, Tina shocked her parents into silence when she told them that she quit her job at Goldman Sachs. Since then, she's been happily training women to pick up heavy things and designing inspirational jewelry that marks their achievements at Iron Strong Jewelry. You can connect with Tina on Instagram and Twitter.

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