National Eating Disorders Association
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Olympic Fencer Ibtihaj​ ​Muhammad Gets a Barbie

Here's Why That's So Important for Women Like Me

Yusra Iftikhar

My​ ​body​ ​began​ ​to​ ​shake.​ ​It​ ​started​ ​at​ ​my​ ​core​ ​and​ ​radiated​ ​slowly​ ​outwards,​ ​like​ ​those concentric​ ​circles​ ​you​ ​might​ ​see​ ​in​ ​a​ ​tree​ ​stump.​ ​Or​ ​as​ ​a​ ​rock​ ​falls​ ​into​ ​a​ ​lake,​ ​the​ ​way​ ​each smaller​ ​ring​ ​chases​ ​the​ ​one​ ​just​ ​bigger​ ​than​ ​it.  

I’d​ ​had​ ​many​ ​public​ ​speaking​ ​roles​ ​and​ ​had​ ​never​ ​been​ ​afraid​ ​of​ ​hearing​ ​my​ ​voice​ ​amplified​ ​for a​ ​large​ ​crowd—but​ ​I​ ​was​ ​not​ ​prepared​ ​for​ ​this. There,​ ​on​ ​the​ ​stage,​ ​just​ ​a​ ​few​ ​round​ ​tables​ ​ahead​ ​of​ ​me​ ​sat​ ​my​ ​role​ ​model.​ ​The​ ​first hijab-donning​ ​American​ ​to​ ​compete​ ​(and​ ​win,​ ​I​ ​might​ ​add)​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Olympics.​ ​A​ ​fashionista​ ​with her​ ​own​ ​clothing​ ​line.​ ​A​ ​badass​ ​fencer.​ ​A​ ​voice​ ​for​ ​young​ ​girls,​ ​Muslim​ ​and​ ​otherwise.

Ibtihaj​ ​Muhammad.  

And​ ​I​ ​was​ ​about​ ​to​ ​stand​ ​up​ ​in​ ​front​ ​of​ ​a​ ​room​ ​of​ ​300​ ​and​ ​ask​ ​her​ ​a​ ​question​ ​during​ ​the​ ​Q&A portion​ ​of​ ​her​ ​talk. I’ll​ ​spare​ ​you​ ​the​ ​humiliating​ ​details​ ​of​ ​how​ ​I​ ​asked​ ​about​ ​her​ ​experience​ ​with​ ​fatigue​ ​in​ ​a​ ​way that​ ​made​ ​her​ ​go,​ ​“Well,​ ​I​ ​never​ ​thought​ ​about​ ​that​ ​as​ ​a​ ​​mental health ​issue, but​ ​I​ ​guess…” About​ ​how​ ​I​ ​nearly​ ​missed​ ​my​ ​seat​ ​as​ ​I​ ​paused​ ​halfway​ ​through​ ​sitting​ ​down,​ ​shooting​ ​a sarcastic​ ​wave​ ​to​ ​my​ ​friends​ ​who​ ​bust​ ​out​ ​laughing​ ​at​ ​the​ ​way​ ​I​ ​had​ ​confused​ ​my​ ​idol​ ​in​ ​front​ ​of all​ ​those​ ​people.  

Note:​ ​in no way​ ​am​ ​I​ ​saying​ ​there​ ​is​ ​anything​ ​wrong​ ​with​ ​having​ ​a​ ​mental​ ​illness!​ ​Rather,​ ​it was​ ​my​ ​phrasing​ ​of​ ​the​ ​question​ ​that​ ​gave​ ​her​ ​pause.

Of​ ​course,​ ​despite​ ​the​ ​way​ ​I​ ​had​ ​rambled​ ​with​ ​my​ ​question,​ ​she​ ​answered​ ​with​ ​perfect​ ​poise and​ ​quickly​ ​identified​ ​the​ ​need​ ​to​ ​smash​ ​mental​ ​illness​ ​stigma​ ​with​ ​such​ ​precision,​ ​you​ ​would have​ ​thought​ ​she​ ​was​ ​wielding​ ​her​ ​sabre​ ​as​ ​she​ ​did​ ​it. Her​ ​answer​ ​was​ ​comforting​ ​and​ ​very​ ​much​ ​in​ ​line​ ​with​ ​her​ ​refusal​ ​to fear​ ​speaking​ ​her​ ​mind.​ ​She was​ ​so​ ​honest​ ​and​ ​real​ ​that​ ​night​ ​and​ ​my​ ​respect​ ​for​ ​her​ ​grew​ ​with​ ​every​ ​new​ ​experience​ ​she shared.​ ​During​ ​her​ ​speech,​ ​Ibtihaj​ ​Muhammad​ ​identified​ ​the​ ​many​ ​ways​ ​in​ ​which​ ​she​ ​has​ ​been dissed,​ ​discriminated​ ​against,​ ​bet​ ​against,​ ​and​ ​hated​ ​on​ ​during​ ​her​ ​journey​ ​to​ ​becoming​ ​one​ ​of the​ ​top​ ​fencers​ ​in​ ​the​ ​world.​ ​However,​ ​she​ ​also​ ​spoke​ ​about​ ​the​ ​immense​ ​support​ ​she​ ​got​ ​and continues​ ​to​ ​receive​ ​from​ ​her​ ​family​ ​and​ ​friends​ ​to​ ​keep​ ​her​ ​strong​ ​and​ ​focused.  

She​ ​told​ ​us​ ​about​ ​the​ ​“this-is-fate”​ ​way​ ​in​ ​which​ ​she​ ​first​ ​discovered​ ​fencing;​ ​through​ ​the window,​ ​she​ ​spotted​ ​her​ ​school’s​ ​team​ ​practicing​ ​in​ ​the​ ​cafeteria​ ​and​ ​noted​ ​that​ ​their​ ​uniforms allowed​ ​for​ ​full​ ​coverage,​ ​something​ ​she​ ​sought​ ​as​ ​a​ ​young​ ​Muslim​ ​athlete.​ ​She​ ​related​ ​tales​ ​of recognizing​ ​and​ ​overcoming​ ​internal​ ​and​ ​external​ ​obstacles​ ​and​ ​I​ ​was​ ​so​ ​inspired​ ​by​ ​her​ ​that​ ​I began​ ​to​ ​plan​ ​out​ ​my​ ​next​ ​career​ ​steps​ ​right​ ​then​ ​and​ ​there.​ ​The​ ​calm​ ​but​ ​powerful​ ​manner​ ​of her​ ​speech​ ​made​ ​me​ ​feel​ ​like​ ​I​ ​could​ ​take​ ​on​ ​anything​ ​life​ ​threw​ ​at​ ​me.  

And​ ​I’m​ ​not​ ​the​ ​only​ ​one​ ​who​ ​looks​ ​up​ ​to​ ​Ms.​ ​Muhammad.

To​ ​celebrate​ ​Muhammad’s​ ​excellency,​ ​Barbie​ ​has​ ​come​ ​out​ ​with​ ​its​ ​first​ ​doll​ ​with​ ​a​ ​hijab,​ ​the traditional​ ​head-covering​ ​for​ ​many​ ​Muslim​ ​women.​ ​The​ ​doll​ ​is​ ​part​ ​of​ ​Barbie’s​ ​“Sheroes” collection​ ​and​ ​Ms.​ ​Muhammad​ ​joins​ ​the​ ​likes​ ​of​ ​Ashley​ ​Graham​ ​and​ ​Misty​ ​Copeland,​ ​women who​ ​have​ ​noted​ ​struggles​ ​with​ ​their​ ​own​ ​body​ ​image​ ​and​ ​are​ ​now​ ​a​ ​voice​ ​for​ ​health​ ​and self-love.   

Now,​ ​I​ ​know​ ​that​ ​Barbie​ ​as​ ​a​ ​brand​ ​and​ ​as​ ​a​ ​toy​ ​has​ ​had​ ​its​ ​controversies.​ ​Should​ ​we​ ​be allowing​ ​our​ ​youth​ ​to​ ​play​ ​with​ ​dolls​ ​that​ ​represent​ ​such​ ​an​ ​unattainable​ ​ideal?​ ​Where’s​ ​the diversity?​ ​Are​ ​dolls​ ​just​ ​setting​ ​us​ ​up​ ​for​ ​body​ ​image​ ​issues​ ​and​ ​eating​ ​disorders​ ​down​ ​the​ ​line?  

This​ ​time,​ ​I​ ​think​ ​they​ ​got​ ​it​ ​right.  

As​ ​a​ ​kid,​ ​Barbies​ ​were​ ​my​ ​life​ ​(sorry​ ​Beanie​ ​Babies,​ ​but​ ​you​ ​come​ ​in​ ​a​ ​close​ ​second).​ ​They were​ ​the​ ​only​ ​birthday​ ​present​ ​I​ ​ever​ ​wanted.​ ​I​ ​had​ ​boxes​ ​upon​ ​boxes​ ​of​ ​the​ ​dolls,​ ​the​ ​toy mansion​ ​with​ ​a​ ​working​ ​elevator,​ ​and​ ​a​ ​computer​ ​game​ ​where​ ​Detective​ ​Barbie​ ​and​ ​I​ ​had​ ​to solve​ ​a​ ​mystery​ ​at​ ​an​ ​amusement​ ​park​ ​(I​ ​never​ ​did​ ​finish​ ​that​ ​game. Admittedly,​ ​it​ ​still​ ​gives​ ​me the​ ​creeps).  

Perhaps​ ​unrelated,​ ​but​ ​as​ ​a​ ​kid​ ​I​ ​also​ ​found​ ​myself​ ​constantly​ ​wishing​ ​my​ ​hair​ ​was​ ​a​ ​lighter color,​ ​that​ ​my​ ​skin​ ​was​ ​fair,​ ​and​ ​that​ ​I​ ​was​ ​thinner.​ ​I​ ​was​ ​both​ ​the​ ​only​ ​Muslim​ ​and​ ​the only​ ​South​ ​Asian​ ​girl​ ​at​ ​my​ ​school​ ​and​ ​I​ ​thought​ ​that​ ​maybe​ ​if​ ​I​ ​looked​ ​like​ ​the​ ​other​ ​girls,​ ​I would​ ​fit​ ​in​ ​with​ ​them​ ​better.​ ​I​ ​felt​ ​that​ ​if​ ​my​ ​hair​ ​flowed​ ​like​ ​theirs​ ​did​ ​or​ ​if​ ​I​ ​looked​ ​cute​ ​in​ ​an Aeropostale​ ​polo​ ​like​ ​they​ ​could,​ ​I​ ​would​ ​be​ ​more​ ​worthy​ ​of​ ​love.  

I​ ​was​ ​eight years old. 

I​ ​won’t​ ​lie,​ ​as​ ​a​ ​young​ ​woman​ ​in​ ​recovery​ ​from​ ​an​ ​eating​ ​disorder,​ ​I​ ​still​ ​feel​ ​that​ ​way sometimes.​ ​That’s​ ​why​ ​I​ ​was​ ​so​ ​moved​ ​when​ ​I​ ​found​ ​out​ ​that​ ​Barbie​ ​would​ ​be​ ​coming​ ​out​ ​with this​ ​doll.​ ​And​ ​I​ ​am​ ​willing​ ​to​ ​bet​ ​money​ ​that​ ​my​ ​perception​ ​of​ ​beauty​ ​would​ ​have​ ​been​ ​much more​ ​forgiving​ ​and​ ​all-encompassing​ ​as​ ​a​ ​kid​ ​had​ ​Ibtihaj​ ​Muhammad-Barbie​ ​existed​ ​back​ ​then.

There​ ​will​ ​be​ ​opposition​ ​to​ ​the​ ​doll.​ ​There​ ​always​ ​seems​ ​to​ ​be​ ​in​ ​cases​ ​like​ ​this.​ ​In​ ​fact,​ ​even​ ​I was​ ​tempted​ ​to​ ​begin​ ​picking​ ​away​ ​at​ ​how​ ​we​ ​talk​ ​about​ ​the​ ​doll’s​ ​physique.​ ​I​ ​do​ ​think​ ​that​ ​we should​ ​be​ ​careful​ ​about​ ​the​ ​ways​ ​in​ ​which​ ​we​ ​praise​ ​the​ ​Barbie’s​ ​“large​ ​athletic​ ​build”​ ​so​ ​as​ ​not to​ ​shift​ ​our​ ​#bodygoals​ ​to​ ​this​ ​Barbie​ ​rather​ ​than​ ​allowing​ ​it​ ​to​ ​free​ ​us​ ​of​ ​our​ ​need​ ​to​ ​subscribe​ ​to a​ ​body​ ​ideal​ ​at​ ​all.​ ​However,​ ​compared​ ​to​ ​the​ ​arguably​ ​unhealthy​ ​proportions​ ​of​ ​dolls​ ​past,​ ​it​ ​is very​ ​exciting​ ​to​ ​see​ ​representation​ ​of​ ​other​ ​body​ ​types.​ ​To​ ​value​ ​all​ ​that​ ​our​ ​bodies​ ​allow​ ​us​ ​to do.​ ​Like​ ​win​ ​Olympic​ ​medals.  

Overall,​ ​I believe that this doll is a major step in the right direction for ​Barbie.​ ​I’m​ ​tempted​ ​to​ ​get​ ​one​ ​for​ ​myself.​ ​I​ ​may​ ​be​ ​25​ ​years​ ​old,​ ​but​ ​are you​ ​really​ ​ever​ ​too​ ​old​ ​for​ ​something​ ​like​ ​this?  

I​ ​believe​ ​that​ ​despite​ ​whatever​ ​negative​ ​messages​ ​arise​ ​and​ ​whatever​ ​opposition​ ​presents itself,​ ​for​ ​the​ ​most​ ​part​ ​we​ ​can​ ​all​ ​look​ ​at​ ​this​ ​and​ ​say,​ ​“We​ ​needed​ ​this.”  

I​ ​know​ ​I​ ​did.

Yusra is a writer, blogger, and fierce mental health advocate currently in her first year as a Doctor of Physical Therapy student. Yusra hopes that through her work as a physical therapist, she will be able to value mental health and the role it plays in physical wellness. Yusra is an avid writer and her pieces on mental illness and recovery have been featured on The Mighty and Recovery Warriors. She channels her passions through her blog, The DPT Diaries and Instagram pages [@thedptdiaries, @yiftikhar] to spread mental health awareness and provide information to pre-health students as they apply to graduate school. Check out her pages to stay up-to-date on all of her recovery and grad school adventures!

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