Hong Kong's Sophia Khan overcomes anorexia, eating disorder and depression to become a top-10 powerlifter

female beauty and strength

Hong Kong powerlifter Sophia Khan understands her greatest strength is also one of her liabilities.

“I’ve always been on the extreme end of things,” said the 24-year-old, who is the ninth-ranked female powerlifter in Hong Kong. “Which is good, but it can also be bad. I don’t have an in-between. I’m still trying to find that.”

Growing up in Hong Kong in a Pakistani household was not easy. Khan’s father died when she was young, leaving her mother to care for herself and her infant brother. Anxiety was the norm at home and with a number of pressures – from relationships to the stress of getting into university. She developed an eating disorder and was diagnosed with anorexia and mild depression.

At one point in her teens in 2014, at 158cm, she weighed 30kgs. Khan’s mother, whom she said was the origin of her strength, tried desperately to help her daughter eat by putting food out all the time. But Khan spent most of her time sleeping, barely able to move around and causing her mother to cry. She saw how much pain and stress she was causing her but was still unable to break from the shackles of a crippling eating disorder.

female beauty and strength

Sophia Khan said powerlifting has helped her mentally and physically. Photo: Handout

“I looked like a skeleton and it was really bad,” said Khan. “The thing that got me though was the doctor said if I messed around with my hormones too much I wouldn’t be able to have babies. I always wanted to have kids so I knew I needed to do something to fix myself,” she said.

Once Khan entered the University of Hong Kong in 2015 she knew she had to change and become healthy, but had no idea where to start.

“I started reading and it said that if you train it increases your appetite because you need more fuel to workout,” said Khan. “So I decided to go to the gym with one of my friends, and I thought lifting was just so cool. Everyone who went to the gym was so strong and healthy. I just felt so fragile and weak and I didn’t like that.”

Khan admitted it was a slow process, but with regular trips to the gym healthy eating habits returned. In 2018 she got the chance to study abroad, in California and Spain, where she first got into powerlifting. She said witnessing different cultures first-hand, where people were fit and sporty, flipped a switch in her head and she knew she needed to change for herself, not for anyone around her.

“I realised that people care about themselves a lot and they prioritise themselves, so I should start caring about myself,” she said.

Khan came to realise she had a natural talent for the sport and was able to lift more than regular women her size and weight. Her first competition was in 2019 in September after volunteering for the Hong Kong Powerlifting Federation, where she fell in love with the atmosphere. Powerlifting competitions feature three categories where entrants try to lift the heaviest weights possible over three attempts – squats, bench press and dead lifts.

Khan has since competed in four competitions and is set for the Hong Kong Championships this December in the 53kg weight class. Her PBs are a 98kg squat, a 52kg bench press and a 140kg dead lift and Khan said her gratitude to the sport lies in its ability to be a universal equaliser.

“It’s all about one number, you’re only judged on that one number. It doesn’t matter how you look, where you’re from, if you lift that number that’s all that matters and I love that,” said Khan.

Her coach Sebastian Mok describes Khan as fiercely competitive, driven and someone with the mental and physical traits to be a great powerlifter.

“She really puts in a lot to her competition preparation as shown when she is overjoyed at breaking previous records,” Mok said. “There’s still lots of potential with her as an athlete and she’s also got a good work life balance, which is not easy to find in Hong Kong.”

female beauty and strength

Hong Kong powerlifter Sophia Khan said the goal is always to be better than yesterday. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

With the help of Mok, Khan also overcame knee surgery that kept her out of the sport for about a year. Looking back, she has used powerlifting as a way to recast her relationship with food as well. Having overcome personal and cultural road blocks, Khan said she has advice for girls who want to lift and help change traditional norms when it comes to female beauty and strength.

“First of all is to just simply start, just do it. Because when I first started I had no support, not even my mother because of the culture,” she said. “So you need to start yourself because no one else is going to do it for you, and you need to have that mental capacity that there will be a lot of obstacles, a lot of ups and downs and it won’t be easy. It’s a very generic thing to say, but it’s true, you need to do things to go somewhere in life.”

Khan, who works in marketing for a digital technology company, said looking back on her journey from being frail and so weak she could barely stand, to being able to bench press close to her own body weight was long, but worth every second and all the effort. Now focused on building her mind and her body, she hopes her story can inspire other young women who may find themselves in similar situations.

“For me what drives me daily is to be better than yesterday,” she said. “You should always compete with yourself before others. Why would you want to be better than others when you can be a better version of yourself?”

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