‘How sport helped me overcome my eating disorder’

Safiyyah Syeed, left, and Faizah Hashmi, right, both spoke to BBC Sport about dealing with eating disorders as part of South Asian Heritage Month
Safiyyah Syeed, left, and Faizah Hashmi, right, both spoke to BBC Sport about dealing with eating disorders as part of South Asian Heritage Month

WARNING: This article covers eating disorders and mental health issues.

As a teenager, Safiyyah Syeed was diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia.

The 20-year-old boxer from Bradford – who is aiming to compete at the Olympics in 2024external-link – had overcome a long-term unidentified illness which caused her to vomit regularly, when she began experiencing eating disorders.

The initial mystery illness has lasted two and a half years while Syeed was at school, often leaving her bedbound. It took its toll both physically and mentally.

After Syeed overcame that illness, she wrote a “bucket-list” of things she wanted to do. It included skydiving and places to visit. And boxing.

“I remember the first time I walked into the boxing gym,” she told BBC Sport.

“I hadn’t even punched the bag yet – I had never boxed in my life, but I just thought this is my thing.”

Once strong enough, Syeed started training – but at that point her eating habits began to suffer.

“I’d recovered from one illness and I got myself into another. It got really bad. I was in denial a lot at the start,” she says.

In July, a BBC investigation found that the number of under-20s admitted to hospital with eating disorders over the past year topped 3,200 – nearly 50% higher than in 2019-20. Hospitals are now warning they are running out of beds to care for these patients.

Syeed’s doctors were puzzled by this new weight loss, with the teenager in denial and trying to hide her eating disorder. She was then referred to a mental health clinic.

“I was taking it to a point where I was like ‘do I go down the boxing road or do I just go down a dark road that I’ve been down before?'” she says.

Eventually, she decided boxing gave her a sense of purpose.

“That is so important to have, especially when you’re going through an illness or something where you need to find your way in the darkest times. That’s the thing that’s going to make you shine and get you through it.”

‘In the Punjabi community there is no word for mental health’

Kam Gillar is a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) psychotherapist who specialises in compassion-focused therapy. She says there can be a mentality in South Asian communities that “thin is pretty”.

“That is blatantly said to young girls growing up, ‘you need to look thin,'” she told BBC Sport.

“There is also a huge stigma in the Asian community that mental health is taboo. A lot of families will say ‘pull yourself together and be grateful.’

“In the Punjabi community there is no word for mental health, the only word we have means ‘you’re crazy’ and there is so much stigma attached to that. There’s a lot of fear in the community, but one in three of us will struggle with a mental health issue.

“And then the second thing is a lack of education and awareness. A lot of the families I work with have never even heard of eating disorders.”

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Faizah Hashmi, 19, from Birmingham, who plays and coaches cricket, was diagnosed with anorexia. Like Syeed, sport has also played an important part in her story.

Her anxiety around food began towards the end of primary school after she was identified as being ‘overweight’ through the NHS National Child Measurement Programme. As a result, her family made lifestyle changes and her mum helped her to lose weight.

Gillar says compassion work with eating disorders is effective, and being surrounded by supportive people like family, who understand what eating disorders are, can massively aid recovery.

And when it comes to South Asian communities, that can sometimes mean educating families as well.

“I explain that if we were to break our arm, we would go and get it sorted at the hospital, and it’s the same with our mental health,” said Gillar.

“In our community, anything medical is gospel so if you explain that there’s this connection between what our brain does and what our body does, and that’s why we get high blood pressure and heart problems, for example, people start listening.”

Hashmi felt as though she was in a heathier place but around the age of 13, she received various passing comments about her weight.

“I was really confused because I thought I’d lost weight. And then it just kind of spiralled. I wanted to be extremely thin,” she told BBC Sport.

Hashmi’s heath got worse, and after three separate admissions – to Parkview Clinic, Newbridge House and the Priory – she says she realised she couldn’t keep living her life in and out of hospital.

How sport helped

After being discharged for a third time, Hashmi decided to start playing cricket again, after playing for Kingsheath Cricket Club since her introduction to the sport in primary school. Her coach recommended she try a street session ran by Asma Ajaz-Ali.

“It was really fun and I met people who were like me – not in any particular way – just age and culture and things like that,” she said.

“I didn’t have any friends at cricket before, but I still came and played. Now, it’s a completely different experience.”

Hashmi, who has also been diagnosed with Asperger’sexternal-link, says she has now become part of other social groups and the routine of training has encouraged her to maintain a healthy diet.

Recovery in a pandemic

The waiting list for treatment for young people with eating disorders has trebled since the pandemic began in March 2020, while those that are being seen are having to wait longer for care. This has led to increasing numbers of under-20s reaching crisis point and ending up in hospital.

Both Syeed and Hashmi say they struggled with recovery during lockdowns. For Syeed, it was the lack of routine and extra time alone with her thoughts that she found difficult.

“The first lockdown was hard. It felt like all the trauma and everything I went through in the past just came back for a moment, because since getting better, I haven’t stopped,” she says.

Hashmi said the lockdowns were “absolutely debilitating”, as they reminded her of being stuck in hospital, with limits on things like when she could see friends and family and what she could do.

“It just kind of sinks you into your mental illness,” she explained. “So the same kind of thing happened to me with my eating. It spiralled in different ways.”

Hashmi says she missed coaching in particular, as it played a big role in improving her confidence, but was still able to take positives from the situation.

“I thought, ‘well, I’m with my family – at least I can go for walks outside. Maybe I can’t see my friends or go to school, but I can still study at home,” she said.

‘Moving forward and breaking boundaries’

Following a decision from the International Boxing Association (AIBA) to lift a ban on religious clothing in 2019external-link, Syeed competed at an amateur boxing competition wearing her hijab and decided to use the nickname, ‘The Hijabi Boxer’.

Now, she is aiming to compete at the Paris 2024 Olympics. If she qualifies, she will become the first female Muslim boxer to represent Great Britain at the Olympics. As a step towards that goal, she is aiming to fight at the England Boxing National Amateur Championships later this year.

In November last year, Hashmi received the Chance to Shine Young Leader of the Year award, along with a personal message from England captain Heather Knight.

“Honestly, it was amazing. I wasn’t expecting to get it at all,” she said.

“When I think about the past, people would say ‘you’re going to get over it’, and ‘it’s going to get better’ and they were right.”

Hashmi has recently started playing hardball cricket competitively with a new team at Moseley CC, where she also volunteers as a coach alongside studying to become a teacher.

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