Shaikha Al Qassimi is not just the spark behind her younger brother Mohammad’s inspiration to take up CrossFit, which ultimately helped him get into a healthy lifestyle and lose over 100kg. She is a professional Emirati CrossFit athlete who has been championing for more women in the sport in the region, where she says it is traditionally not viewed as a man’s sport. She is also a vocal advocate to end body shaming of women who do not meet unrealistic standards of beauty.

The 30-year-old’s life changed when she became involved with CrossFit in 2012, by realising women of all sizes and shapes could take part in the sport and succeed. This was particularly important to her, because growing up she recalls having insecurities about her petite physique and her “broad shoulders”, which she was told were “not feminine.”

‘The women around me were all petite. I’m the only one who has big shoulders,’ says Shaikha, sipping a coffee after a walk around her Platform Fitness Gym.

‘When I started seeing women of different sizes embracing their muscles and they are all crazy fit, I was like ‘oh, maybe I should try this’,’ she says. Her journey to becoming a CrossFit athlete would lead her to find her voice, confidence in realising her own strength, inspiring others to lead a healthy lifestyle and work towards changing perceptions of beauty.

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Upon deciding that she wanted to take her training in CrossFit more seriously, Shaikha sought the support and advice of a coach and soon discovered that she had a natural talent for the sport, specially its heavy lifting. ‘That’s what encouraged me to stick with it. I thought, maybe that’s what my body was designed for.’

But as she became more invested in CrossFit and began to get noticed for her strength, she started receiving judgmental remarks from those who did not think a woman should be competing in what was traditionally seen as a man’s sport. ‘In our culture, this sport is [considered] taboo. When I started, a lot of people were against it,’ she says.

Even family and friends questioned her motives behind dedicating herself to this exercise regimen. ‘‘You compete, then what? Don’t you want to get married and have kids? A man is never going to accept you the way you are (and your lifestyle)’,’ were some of the comments she received from a friend.

Shaikha found herself torn between doing what she loved and trying to not upset friends. She concedes that part of her struggle was her own fears, which were mostly born from society’s expectations of what a woman should and should not do.

‘I was afraid I’d never get married, have kids, be accepted by society.... It all came down to acceptance. I was looking for acceptance from the outside when all I had to do was accept myself,’ she says. ‘But once I went through the process of accepting myself, all doors opened.’

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Shaikha stuck with her passion, ignored the negative comments, continued to train day in day out, compete and even coach when she could. The hard work started to pay off, not only did she start to gain a huge fan base, by 2015 she was sponsored by three brands, including Redbull making her the first female CrossFit athlete to be sponsored by the brand in the Middle East and the first woman in the UAE in any sport.

Determined to provide a space where more people, especially women, felt more comfortable to workout, in 2017 she opened Platform Fitness Gym. ‘I didn’t want people to walk into a gym and feel intimidated. I wanted to create a more inviting environment. We emphasise so much on moving, and not worrying about how much to train,’ she says.

She designed the gym to have a dedicated space for women, rather than women’s-only classes, to ensure they felt comfortable and did not feel rushed so they could spend as much time as they wanted to train.

Shaikha uses her gym and Instagram, where she is known as Kiki to her 25,000 fans, to promote healthy living, including eating and sleeping well, and doing the right types of exercise. She hopes to reduce the unhealthy relationship many people have with getting fit, which she says is generally focused on trying to lose weight for an occasion or taking extreme measures “to look a certain way”, such as extreme diets that some media encourage.

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‘There is this crazy standard of how women should look. It’s unrealistic,’ she says. ‘What you have to worry about is how consistent you are, what you put in your body and how to take care of it. Once girls understand that, they stop caring about how their bodies look and they start loving how their bodies end-up looking.’

She also feels that social media, while it has immense benefits of providing good information, increases pressure on women to try and look like their favourite celebrities. ‘(Women) think if they just drink this magic tea or they wear this wristband while they train or have a lollypop that suppresses their appetite, they are going to look like [celebrities]. It doesn’t make sense, its unrealistic,’ she says.

Shaikha points out that far too often women forget that their bodies are complicated and struggle with the mindset of accepting certain conditions that come with being a woman. ‘They (women) have hormones to deal with. We go through bloating, menstrual cycle. We naturally have cellulite. Our bodies are designed differently.’ She sees the unrealistic goals that women set for themselves as a factor in emotional eating. ‘People care so much about what other people think of them. As women you shouldn’t care about what other people are telling you what the standard is, you create your own standard,’ she said.

Her advice to anyone who may find themselves subject of body shaming is, ‘Just love the body that you have.’