Falling in love with fitness is something that happened naturally to Mel Poon.
Growing up, the 25-year-old Torontonian was physically active; she tried to participate in every sports team she could. When she started her Master of Architecture program at the University of Toronto, she tried everything from boxing to jiu-jitsu, but muay thai was the sport that eventually stuck.
The grad student has been training consistently since last year, and just fought in her second amateur level tournament earlier this month.
“I think I was drawn to sports as an outlet to release all my stress,” Poon told HuffPost Canada, “but then I actually started to fall in love with the sport more and with being physically active.”
But Poon’s passion for fitness is not something her immigrant mother understands. Not only is her mom — who is Chinese — “freaked out” by the fact that she does a contact sport, but even just the sight of Poon’s flexed biceps makes her uncomfortable.
“She would be grossed out,” Poon said of her mom’s reaction to her body. “She’d [say], ‘Oh, too much. Don’t do that. You’re gonna get so big and gross and muscular!’”
It’s not unusual to hear comments like these from immigrant parents. In an article on Australian site SBS, writer Zoya Patel revealed that her Indian parents also faced a barrier to understanding fitness. When Patel first told her family she joined a gym, her dad said, “But you don’t need to lose weight.”
“That was the first moment when I realized that there is a cultural difference in the way my Indian relatives think about exercise and fitness than how I do, having grown up in Australia,” Patel wrote.
Why immigrant parents might not understand fitness
The cultural barrier is one reason Poon brushes off her mom’s comments. Her mother emigrated from Hong Kong at 16 years old and “has never been exposed to a lot of physical activity,” Poon said.
“I think the extent of her exercise was walking to school,” Poon said. “I don’t think her family ever partook in a lot of sports either and because of that, she’s never really had that chance to find out what it’s actually like.”
A 2019 study, which looked at how university students’ physical activity was influenced by family values and Muslim Arab culture, found that families gave priority to academic and work achievement over physical fitness and that a health condition was the main motivation for families to be physically active.
“Remember that [your parents’] opinion is not a target at you, but it has its roots in tradition, culture, and their own upbringing,” Reyhane Namdari, psychotherapist (Q), told HuffPost Canada.
WATCH: Easy full-body workout moves you can do at home. Story continues below.
Immigrant parents “may fear that working out might deviate their [kids’] focus from studying” since “one of the main concerns of immigrant parents is that their children become successful,” Namdari added. For parents, success is often associated with graduation and getting a career.
But that’s not the only barrier. Parents who have traditional views of gender roles might not understand why their daughters, in particular, are interested in fitness either.
“I don’t think [my mom] would mind me getting big and muscular [if I were a boy],” Poon admitted. “I think that would be highly encouraged. I think that goes back to her mentality of being more on the traditional side — like girls should be frail and dainty and men should be big and bulky.”
How negative comments impact body image and mental health
Parents play a huge role in shaping their kids’ self-esteem and attitudes towards their bodies. Studies have linked body dissatisfaction in adolescents with a lack of social support from parents, so off-hand comments about body image or fitness regimens can affect someone’s mental health.
“We sometimes underestimate the power of words and language,” therapist Durel Allen, of Heartspring Therapy, told HuffPost Canada. “Socio-linguistic scholars have long posited that language is powerful in framing one’s reality and lived experience. And since our mental health [is] affected by how we navigate our reality, words can be powerful in shaping our perception and ideas of ourselves.
“She’d [say], ‘Oh, too much. Don’t do that. You’re gonna get so big and gross and muscular!'”
“When we encounter negative comments, these comments carry meaning which we use to make sense of who we are and the world we live in, leaving us with a sense of inadequacy and feeling disconnected from an idealized self.”
While peers and the media can influence body image, it’s parents who “help to build a strong foundation,” according to About Kids Health. A Canadian study conducted by a psychologist at Sudbury, Ont.’s Laurentian University found that kids as young as three years old can start to develop a negative body image.
Girls are more likely than boys to have body image issues, studies show. In a 2017 global report, seven out of 10 girls with low self-esteem said they stopped eating, putting their health at risk. Additionally, eight out of 10 girls avoided seeing family and friends, and refrained from joining extracurricular activities.
How to talk to your immigrant parents about fitness
Not everyone will react the same way to unsolicited comments from their parents. Poon, for example, laughs off the remarks and even teases her mom by purposely flexing in front of her. “I think her reaction would be even more [intense] today if I showed her my progress. And I’m not even that muscular; it’s just toned” the grad student, who trains for performance rather than aesthetics, said.
But for others who may feel like their parents’ comments are a cut to their self-esteem, therapist Amreeta Kaur recommends having an honest conversation with them. Her top tip? Be assertive, not defensive, when speaking to parents about how their comments affect you.
“[It’s a] conversation about values. The person may value fitness but their parents may not for different reasons. Approach them using ‘I’ statements, like ‘I feel upset when you say that my arms are too thick,’” Kaur advised.
But don’t forget to give space to parents to explain their stance, “because then [you] can have a productive conversation about where [you] both stand on that issue.”
If you find it difficult to speak honestly with your parents, another tip is to communicate what you’d like to see happen. For example, instead of saying, “I want you to stop making negative comments about my body,” which could make them defensive, you could say, “I’d like you to make supportive comments about my fitness journey because it’s important to me.”
Be specific and positive, American psychologist Aaron Karmin told PsychCentral. “If we say ‘stop doing so and so,’ they may be confused on what else they can do, so they simply continue acting as they always have.”
Additionally, remember to pick the right time. If you know the conversation is going to be tough, make sure you schedule a time to sit down and chat with your parents. That way there are no distractions and you have their full attention.
Some conversations may be harder than others, especially if parents hold very traditional views, particularly when it comes to gender norms. For example, believing that women should be petite and stay away from aggressive activities, while men should be big and muscular.
If that’s the case, it might be helpful to do some self-reflection before having the conversation, said psychotherapist Namdari. That way, you’re ready to “respectfully explain the importance of fitness in your life, its impact on your well-being, and what you gain from it.”
There are plenty of online resources Canadians can use to demonstrate the benefits of fitness to their parents, including the Government of Canada website, Everyday Health, Canada’s Physical Activity Guide, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, and Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines.
But studies and articles might not be enough to convince your parents. That’s why Namdari suggests you ask them to join you if all else fails.
“A lot of the times, fear comes from the unknown,” Namdari said. “If your parents have never gone to a gym, take them with you. This will create a bonding activity where they can slowly enter your world and see what goes on in it.”
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