Oscar-winning actor Michelle Yeoh and Nobel Peace Prize laureate and journalist Maria Ressa have more in common than one might think. Both individuals represent a profound and impactful message: that someone who looks like us has managed to overcome racial and gender barriers, and made the seemingly impossible possible by being awarded the highest accolades in their fields.
Being the first to break glass ceilings is never easy. It takes grit and guts, two qualities that 31-year-old Farhanna Farid has in spades.
The record-breaking powerlifter never expected to venture down this path. A pharmacist by profession, she only started powerlifting a decade ago when her then-boyfriend, now-husband started pushing her to join his gym. What first started as a hobby turned into a full-fledged career when she attended a casual meet-up with the “boys” (her husband’s powerlifting friends) in 2017, and inadvertently ended up breaking the national record. It lit a spark in Farhanna, and in 2018, she decided to seriously consider powerlifting as a career.
Since making that decision six years ago, she has broken several world records, including the 200.5kg deadlift for the under-52kg category at the International Powerlifting Competition last year in South Africa.
However, the journey has not been easy: There were plenty of barriers to entry, including the lack of representation, lack of awareness, high costs of competing, and perceptions that this was a manly sport.
Back in 2018, Farhanna was one of a handful of women powerlifting in Singapore. When asked about numbers today, she can’t give us an exact figure, but makes an educated guess based on the amount of time a women’s competition takes: “Previously, a competition would probably take us half a day. Today, it will probably be a full day.”
And it’s not just women who have started taking notice of the sport. Farhanna adds that 10 years ago, gyms wouldn’t allow powerlifters to use their equipment. “They were under this impression that we would pick up a bar and throw it over our heads. The most we do is bench presses, and we mostly stay in one place. It’s less demanding than weightlifting. It was just a lack of awareness, you know,” she muses.
Another barrier is the cost of taking part in competitions, as athletes have to fork out their own money. She and her husband took out a loan for $8,000 to raise funds for her first international meet.
Today, Farhanna is on a mission to break down these barriers: For one, she’s part of the executive committee of Powerlifting Singapore, a non-profit volunteer-run organisation that seeks to promote the sport in Singapore and beyond. As the marketing and sponsorship head, she’s committed to finding financial support to help alleviate the financial burden.
“We have some incredibly talented young athletes who are capable of achieving great things, but unfortunately, they lack the financial support to compete at an international level. Currently, they can only compete locally. I believe that exposure to overseas competitions is crucial for improving the standards of the sport, as we can learn from athletes from bigger countries, such as America, France, and Britain, who have been in the sport for much longer than we have,” she says.
“My goal is to lower the barrier of entry and make powerlifting more accessible to most people, which I think is essential for the growth of the sport.”
It certainly helps that social media influencers have put the sport in the spotlight, but there’s no doubt that Farhanna’s record-breaking feats and her vocal advocacy for the sport have captured the attention of Singaporeans. Thanks to her and her fellow athletes’ efforts, the Powerlifting Singapore community is slated to grow beyond its 400 members this year, up from 170 in 2017.
Power to her
Doing something different comes with obstacles. As the oldest child on her dad’s extended family side, there were expectations – which were self-imposed at times – that she would follow a “conventional” career path, and be the yardstick for success for her younger sister and cousins.
“I used to be very straight-laced and, you know, the kind of person where everything has a schedule, everything has to go according to plan,” she says.
Opting for a career in powerlifting met with some resistance from her family. More crucially, Farhanna had to battle her own inner demons. This meant stepping out of her comfort zone and following an unconventional path that she had never envisioned before. She also had to contend with the perception that powerlifting was a “masculine sport”.
“The misconception back then was that women who go to the gym will start to look like men, and that having a bulky physique is unnatural for women. When I first started working out, I went through a transition period where I gained some muscle mass and looked a bit thicker than I was used to.
“It did not deter me, but it was a challenging time as I struggled with my self-image, and received some negative comments from family members,” she says.
It was daunting to go from being a petite woman who weighed about 46-48kg to going beyond 50kg. However, she says that she was lucky to have a partner “who valued my physical and mental well-being above all else”.
She adds: “Despite how unnerved I was about how I looked, I felt good and strong, and that was what mattered most. It took some time to adjust to my new body, but the benefits of feeling healthy and confident far outweighed any negatives.”
This powerful lesson is something that she wants to impart to others, she shares. “There was that mental aspect that I never thought I was capable of. If you had asked me five years ago if I thought I could deadlift a 200kg weight, I would have said, ‘You’re nuts.’ So I think that discovering small milestones, and pushing against [the norm] showed me what I am capable of and, you know, it almost feels endless.”
Lifting half the sky
Farhanna left her pharmaceutical job in 2021, and is now fully committed to her powerlifting career. Apart from competing nationally and internationally, she also trains budding powerlifters, the majority of whom are women.
She’s seen first-hand how pushing your body beyond its limits can impact your mental and emotional well-being, and unlock your inner confidence.
“As women, we tend to underestimate ourselves. It took my husband pushing me in the right direction to realise my potential. I want to inspire other women to push their physical limits and gain confidence. Through powerlifting, I have gained so much knowledge and experience that I want to pass on to others,” she says.
“Seeing others gain confidence and self-empowerment through my coaching is more satisfying than my own achievements. I want to scale this up to anyone who wants to improve their physical and mental well-being. Powerlifting is a sport for all, regardless of age or physical ability. Discovering your strength can empower you in ways you never thought possible.”
Through her insights, she has also altered the way that training is conducted. She encourages women to listen to their bodies, and is mindful that as women, our bodies have different requirements than men’s, and our hormonal cycles are different.
She shares: “I tailor my training programmes to my athletes based on how they feel. I use something called RPE (Rated Perceived Exertion) scale, where I give them an RPE cap for the day, and they choose their own weights within a given range. This allows for flexibility based on how they feel, especially during their menstrual cycle, when energy levels can vary. It empowers them to take control of their training and push themselves when they feel good.”
She hopes to inspire more women and break perceptions about what we can – and cannot – do.
“I chose to participate in a male-dominated sport not only because it interested me, but also because I wanted to feel comfortable in my own skin. I wanted to show others that being a girl and being feminine doesn’t make me a weaker athlete. I believe that I can be both strong and elegant in my sport. It’s not necessary to put on a tough exterior just because I’m a female athlete.
“I want to break the stereotype that doing something ‘like a girl’ is not an insult or makes me less competent. I can lift with poise and grace, and still achieve my goals. It’s not about showing others, but rather about doing what feels right for me and being comfortable with who I am,” she says.
In fact, Farhanna has gained attention for her style. She’s always perfectly put together, whether she’s posing for her social media in her colourful outfits, or competing with her lippy and cat-eye liner.
“I used to worry about what others thought of me when I dressed up and wore makeup to the gym. However, I realised that as long as it made me feel good and didn’t harm anyone else, there was nothing wrong with it. It’s important for people to feel comfortable in their own skin and not conform to societal norms,” she says.
Breaking records and norms
Today, powerlifting has become an “itch that I can’t stop scratching”, she says with a laugh. “It’s addictive. Once you catch that competing bug, it’s the most exhilarating and scariest feeling ever.”
She’s currently training for the next international powerlifting competition in June, which will be held in Malta. In the past few months, her records have been broken by other athletes, and she’s hoping to reclaim her title at the next competition.
More importantly, Farhanna hopes to be a beacon for women who are fearful of breaking boundaries, and are limited by their own beliefs. She also hopes that her story will help women be inspired to take that plunge to pursue their passions.
“I believe that it’s important for everyone to explore their full potential and find fulfilment in what they do. For me, I worked in frontline healthcare for a long time, but I always felt restless and had a desire to do something more. Breaking out of my comfort zone was scary, but it helped me discover a new side of myself that I never knew existed.”
Text: Karishma Tulsidas/HerWorld