When I was younger, I hated working out with what I considered to be traditional fitness methods. Gym class, which mainly meant running laps and doing crunches, was not a class that I enjoyed. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t active: I played basketball and soccer, and those required hours of practice every week. Both sports were challenging, fun, rewarding, and built on teamwork — all things I loved.
My activity level plummeted when I began college. No longer part of an athletic team, I believed that the only way I could still be fit was to work out regularly at the university gym — a prospect which really scared me.
You see, I am a Muslim woman who covers, so I work out wearing pants, long sleeved tops that tend to be loose and long, and a headscarf.
My high school basketball team was comprised of other Muslim girls, so I felt at home during practice, but people would often stare at us in shock and bewilderment whenever we went to other schools to play against their teams. I have had to deal with these reactions while playing recreational soccer in my hometown as well.
The long-standing stereotype of Muslim women is that we are timid, uneducated, oppressed by our families, and forced to cover. I can tell from the way people look at me, and the tone of their voice, that they somewhat pity me for having to work out dressed this way. It is not uncommon for someone to ask me if I’m not too hot, or if I can breathe.
The very idea that I can move and challenge my body as easily fully clothed as another woman can while wearing shorts and a tank top is a foreign concept to many.
On top of that, like many other women, I struggled with body image issues. I could not bring myself to go for a run or workout in the gym because I was hyper aware of how out of shape I was, and I didn't want others to witness me in that state.
If you've struggled with being overweight, you might be able to relate to this feeling of people looking at you while you huffing, puffing, and jiggling. That image may be exaggerated in our heads, but it is true that some people do stare at those of us who are heavier in a way that makes us very uncomfortable and unwelcome.
So here I was, hating the gym because I viewed it as a place to work out and look “good.” But, at the same time, until my body looked the way I wanted it to, I felt like I would never be comfortable there.
I was positive that everyone would be looking at this fat, oppressed girl working out with lots of clothes on and laugh. I let what other people would think of me get in the way of me bettering myself.
There are lots of reasons why people decide to try living a healthier lifestyle. Identifying your “why” is one of the most crucial aspects of making long lasting change. When you find that goal that resonates with you just right, you’re more likely to continue making decisions that serve you and your body well.
My perspective on health began to completely turn around when I spent a semester living in Alexandria, Egypt. Studying abroad allowed me to step away from my stressful college environment and to reevaluate my priorities. I had a lot more time to look inward and to work on my spiritual growth.
I was living with my grandparents at the time, and seeing them go through every day with a multitude of health issues pushed me to really challenge the way I was treating my body. Islam teaches us to regard our body as a blessing, and to take good care of it. I had to be honest with myself and realize that I had been disregarding this aspect — and mistreating my body and mind — for a long time.
My mindset towards health completely changed when I internalized the fact that my body is an incredible gift for which I have to be grateful. Gratitude is a huge cornerstone of belief in Islam, and I realized that I had been neglecting to be grateful for my body itself for far too long.
When I began to actively thank God daily for giving me a body that was for the most part healthy, amazing shifts happened, and every little thing about my body began to amaze me.
Having had a number of injuries in the past, I can no longer take mobility itself for granted. Being able to walk, climb stairs, squat, lift my arms, see clearly, laugh, touch my toes, smell crisp air and spices from my kitchen: all of these are huge blessings.
Whereas I once struggled to bring myself to go out for a run or to exercise in the gym, working out no longer feels like a chore to do in order to fit into a size X, but rather a way to become stronger, more flexible, and more energetic — all things that will help me live a full life!
This shift in perspective was the beginning of my journey of body acceptance and self-love. While not linear, thinking this way most of the time allows me to take steps towards leading a healthier lifestyle every day.
My goals shifted from appearance based ones to activity milestones. I now look forward to being able to swim for hours in summer afternoons, to hike easily, to bike a scenic route, to carry my children into this world more easily, to be able to run after and play with them.
When my “why” became much bigger than what I saw in the mirror, I began to worry less and less about what people may think in the gym and started working towards these goals.
The gym is no longer a place I hesitate to enter except at odd hours when it is empty — it’s now my playground. It’s where I realize that I am mentally and physically stronger than I ever thought I could be. It’s where I go to be in awe of what my body can do, and to thank God for my body’s ability to heal old wounds and come back better than before. It’s where I choose to de-stress, and to honor and respect myself.
Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed or find myself falling back into old mental habits with regard to my body image, I pause and focus on the little things that I need to do daily to meet my goals. I refocus on the important role that gratitude plays in my journey.
I can choose what I eat for my next meal, and I can make it nourishing; I can drink as much water as I want; I can move in ways that serve me. These are all incredible blessings.
I now chew my food mindfully, am grateful its sustenance, lift some weights, and send praise to God for another day of life and growth.
Next time you feel stuck in your journey, take a moment to breathe, count the different ways your body serves you every day, and utter a word of thanks.
People still stare at me.
My posture and the way I carry myself in the gym now emanate confidence, and I think that shines through. I'd like to think that any of the gym bros staring at me are just in shock or awe of me. They've probably never seen another visible Muslim woman working out, and here I am, lifting weights and not caring that I may be the only woman in that section of the gym at any given moment.
It's an incredibly empowering feeling to be pushing my body's limits and proving to myself and the people around me that nothing, not even some extra fabric, can hold me back from becoming stronger physically and mentally.
This increasing strength and confidence that I feel when I'm in the gym should be something that all people should be able to experience regardless of how they dress, the color of their skin, or their pant size.
There are so many days when I regret avoiding the gym for all those years. I wonder how much further along in my journey I could be right now. At the same time, I know that relationship with my body and the gym has evolved this way for a reason.
Having firsthand experience of the importance of making the gym an open, accepting space, I now go out of my way to smile at newer faces, because I realize they may be feeling uncomfortable the way I used to. I also love talking about my body with other Muslim girlfriends in the hopes of encouraging them to break down those walls of anxiety that keep them away from the gym.
Over the past few years, I have come to know of other Muslim women in fitness through Instagram, which has been extremely exciting for me because I never had those role models to encourage me when I was younger. Because I know the power of representation, I am hopeful that more and more Muslim women will be encouraged to proudly show up and grow in a gym.
I hope any woman will be able to walk into a gym 10 years from now, and not feel uncomfortable because she'll see people of all shades, sizes, and faith represented around her — and know that this space is for her, too.
If these sound familiar to you, you are not alone.
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