Women with Muscles: Athletes in Asia Inspiring Inclusivity
Asia/ Vibe/ Sports

Women with Muscles: Female Athletes Inspiring Inclusivity Through Strength

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This interview is part of The Beat Asia’s International Women’s Month coverage. Through highlighting women’s voices, we are celebrating and uplifting the women around us through their stories and multifaceted experiences.

Originally conceived as a campaign to combat baseless stereotypes characterizing female athletes as physically weak, Women with Muscles has evolved into a community that champions strength and diversity in female athletes across all sports, smashing discrimination in the process. By spotlighting women passionate about sports and fitness, their work encompasses casual panels, group-led talks, photography exhibitions, and promoting athlete profiles.

In honour of International Women’s Month, we gathered a group of remarkable women to share insights into the rewards and challenges of defying expectations and shaping a better future. Taking a seat at the proverbial table are Hong Kong-based sisters basketball player Ma Tan Fung and footballer Ma Chak Sun. Also joining from Hong Kong is rugby player Mary Cheng, who is hearing impaired. Representing the Phuket Women with Muscles are track athlete and strength and conditioning coach Phorntida Chulopas, and fellow chapter member, CrossFit athlete Lexi Walker.

As these female athletes share their stories of strength and past experiences building up their careers, we witness how the power to persevere can open the doors to new opportunities for women within the sporting world. Read on for The Beat Asia’s International Women’s Month roundtable, featuring the talented individuals above from the Women with Muscles Hong Kong and Phuket communities who are inspiring inclusion.

How has your personal growth as a woman been affected by your journey with fitness, and vice versa?

Ma Tan Fung: ⁠I used to have a smaller frame, and because I wanted to become a tougher basketball player, I started to go to the gym to try and build up more muscles. While I am getting more toned, I was getting criticised as being manly. It does bother me sometimes, but I actually enjoy the state of my body. I think my body is its own form of beauty.

Mary Cheng: Before, I would be self-conscious about my body shape and personality, and compare myself to others. Female physiology also affects my emotions. Now - I don't care.

Lexi Walker: Fitness has helped me embrace my feminine and masculine, which has added a lot of diversity to my approach with life, relationships, and how I take on challenges in my sport.

Phorntida Chulopas: Besides acknowledging male dominance in some areas, I still aim to pursue excellence. Fitness shaped me as a woman despite my family’s discouragement. It’s more than a routine; it’s empowered me and taught me resilience. As a female athlete, I pave the way for future generations.

Ma Chak Sun: Everyone encounters many different things every day, whether they are happy or not. Football makes me happy. When I finish playing football, the unhappy things will be forgotten.

What words of advice do you have for young girls aspiring to become athletes, or who are simply beginning to explore the world of sports and fitness?

Ma Tan Fung: ⁠Just do it! If you want to achieve something you have to do it. However you do have to find a way that is suitable for you. If you understand your body and what it needs, you can work step by step. You will not succeed all at once, but every day you will get that 1% gain, and it will build up!

Mary Cheng: Every woman has her unique charm. Women can also shine in sports venues to express their beauty and strength. Don't limit yourself. No one can dictate how you should be a “standard” woman.

Lexi Walker: If it lights you up, then don't give it up!

Phorntida Chulopas: To girls in sports: Dream big, defy norms, and enjoy the journey. Play for passion, not expectation. Embrace your abilities and showcase that femininity and athleticism can blend seamlessly.

Who are your biggest idols and why?

Ma Chak Sun: Lim Seon Joo from South Korea, he’s great at football and very kind.

Phorntida Chulopas: My senior female athlete idols taught me confidence and hard work. Their guidance moulded me into the athlete I am today.

Mary Cheng: Nakamura Chiharu. She made me appreciate the violent aesthetics of women in rugby games. She is 35 years old now. Her practical actions prove to everyone that age is not a shackle. Her strength still fascinates me!

What is the biggest misconception about your chosen sport? What about the misconception about female athletes that bothers you the most?

Mary Cheng: I'm deaf and a female athlete, and I play judo and rugby. When people first learn that I play such an intense sport, their reactions are surprising. They will all ask, “Are you a woman who plays such a violent sport? Isn't it dangerous?” I think all women have the right to exercise their own choice and can handle strenuous exercise. Women are no weaker than men.

Phorntida Chulopas: In my sport, it’s wrongly believed that girls shouldn’t be too athletic or try to outdo boys. Another misconception is that unless you’re aiming for Olympic glory or a career, pushing yourself is pointless. While winning matters, the journey of self-improvement is key, focusing on growth and realizing potential.

Lexi Walker: The biggest misconception I think is that CrossFit isn't that hard! Keeping on top of so many different movements, your endurance and conditioning, strength, recovery, nutrition. It's challenging but that's why I like it.

What changes do you hope the sporting industry and community can move towards, to better achieve inclusion for all?

Ma Tan Fung: ⁠I wish Hong Kong basketball’s scene could become more professional!

Mary Cheng: I hope that society will not objectify female athletes and that the public could pay attention to how much hard work female athletes put into their favourite sports. Women's sports lack resources, and I hope the genders can be seen as equal and be taken more seriously. Support more female youth sports, do more publicity, and promote the development of female sports!

Phorntida Chulopas: The sporting community must prioritize inclusivity by offering more youth sports, increasing female coaching presence, and establishing support systems. Seeing women in coaching and elite roles inspires young girls and fosters a sense of belonging.

Ma Chak Sun: What I want most is that football can be popularized in Hong Kong. Just like running or basketball, football can be practiced in the PE classes of primary and secondary schools, so that everyone feels that not only boys can play football.

Lexi Walker: It would be great if there were some programs set up for underprivileged communities to give CrossFit a go. It changed my life and helped me a lot with mental and emotional struggles. I could see it helping a lot of other people if only they could afford proper access. The community that comes with CrossFit is unlike anything I've experienced. And I think community is so important, especially with all that’s going on in the world.

What’s in store for you in the year ahead?

Ma Tan Fung: ⁠I hope that in the upcoming season, I can maintain my progress or even further improve my results. The other thing is, I wish I can train harder and improve my fitness so I can perform even better on the court.

Ma Chak Sun: I hope to play well in every game this year, whether in the club or the Hong Kong team.

Mary Cheng: I have been exploring and challenging myself to improve my career in rugby and try new roles. I want to try to become the first Deaf rugby referee in Hong Kong. I don’t know if I can do it, but I will try it! I want to set an example and tell women through actions that they have potential and can make themselves stronger!

Phorntida Chulopas: My aim for the next few years is to become Asia’s top Female Athletics Master Sprinter.

Lexi Walker: I'm planning to continue training hard and learning hard, and I hope to take part in more competitions. This is only the start of my journey. If the world didn't end before then!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Click here to see the rest of our International Women’s Month series.

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