The second in our feature of women empowering women and change within the region, we sat down with the fitness entrepreneur and inspirational Maryam Fattahi Salam for International Women's Day. Maryam is a Dubai-based entrepreneur, lawyer and founder of cult studio Physique57, and an integral part of women's community in Dubai. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do...
I am a fitness enthusiast, Berkeley graduate and attorney, and my most cherished role, mom of 3 boys. I was born to Iranian parents in the United Arab Emirates and left to United States at the age of 17. It was during my years in New York City that I was exposed to the wonders of Physique 57, an internationally renowned fitness company that encourages health and wellbeing with a signature blend of fun and empowerment at its core. Walking out of my first class, I felt a sense of obligation to bring the life-changing workout to Dubai. When I moved back to Dubai in 2010, I saw there was a need that wasn’t being met in the Dubai fitness market, so I had to create what I was looking for. It was fun, safe, effective, and dynamic. And to me, women in this country needed access.

Physique57 was one of the pioneering studios that kickstarted women's fitness in Dubai. How transformational has it been for the Dubai women's community over the years
When I launched Physique 57 Dubai in the summer of 2013, boutique fitness wasn’t even a thing in the Middle East. There were the big-box gyms and postage-stamp-sized yoga and pilates studios. But the in-between was missing. Fitness and fun didn't exist hand-in-hand, and we definitely changed that.

With the Covid restrictions implemented in 2020, how did you adapt the business to keep it going? 
2020 forced everyone, at some point or another, to deal with some pretty heavy stuff. The boiling points came in at different stages for everyone. On a personal level, the first thing that came through was the value of stillness. On a professional level, we had to evolve and protect our success by getting creative about ways to generate revenue and keep clients engaged. 2020 for every business—no matter where and no matter what the offering—I was the year of the pivot. It was a year of open-mindedness and trying new things. We launched a daily schedule of live-stream classes that saw women maximising their self-care time from home via our virtual Zoom studio. Ultimately, every business will go through vulnerable and fragile times. Having a solid product or service that people love, in and of itself, will never be enough. At Physique 57, we stuck together to keep unleashing the unlimited potential of our bodies knowing that in doing so, we would unleash the unlimited potential of our lives, too.

It sounds like it was challenging yet it flourished, what gave you the motivation to persevere?
My sister Negin was the epitome of strength, courage, and beauty.  Throughout her thirteen year battle with breast cancer - while raising four children and running a business empire (Negin is the visionary and pioneer who founded N.Bar, 1847, and JetSet) - she remained a vision for how strange and amazing the journey of life is. Infinite beauty and joy, immeasurable painful experiences. Negin never ran away from the challenges of life, hers being a rollercoaster journey. My sister was initially given a prognosis of six months to live, and she defied all odds. She taught me to fall apart, make mistakes, fail, and be disappointed, albeit only for a short period of time.  She fought the fiercest battle, and she will be my motivator in life and business forever and a day.

Would you say you've had a strong community of women behind you? 
I have, without a single doubt, the most incredible community of awe-inspiring women behind me and behind Physique 57. Women who believe in self-love and in feeling strong, seen, and worthwhile. Women who believe that giving ourselves 57 minutes can change the course of our day and our lives. There’s nothing that is as gratifying as knowing we are a collective group of women who believe we have the power to make each day extraordinary.

What's your take on how a woman's physical health can greatly affect her overall health?
The idea of bringing Physique 57 to the UAE stemmed from my genuine experiences as a new mom at the age of 25 while digesting the news that my 31 year old sister had been diagnosed with Stage 4 BC. Making a happy, healthy home for my loved ones became a priority and nothing came close to how the classes made me feel. I credit the technique with getting my mental and physical strength to their very best. I often tell clients that if you don’t make time for your wellness, you will be forced to make time for your illness. Setting aside mini physical and mental breaks throughout the day are essentials in my calendar. If I am not fiercely protective of my alone time, I burn out. It’s happened more than once, and my family and I didn’t like what happened. I’ve since made a promise to us all that I will never forgo my me-time. A healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to be fancy or cost a lot. Slow down, swim in the sea, get on a yoga mat and follow YouTube videos. Connect to nature, soak up the sun, feel the earth beneath your feet. Spend time alone, journal, get to know yourself. Selfish would be burning myself out and being unable to be there for my family. Self-care is selfless.

What is your perspective on clean conscious beauty and how does it fit in with general health and wellbeing? 
I’ve always strived for a healthy lifestyle, though it wasn’t until about 6 years ago when I really dove into the world of conscious beauty. Our skin is our largest organ and we absorb about 60% of what we put on it, so it is just as important as eating well and staying active. I take a common sense approach to beauty. Sustainability is very important to me, and I find testing on animals unnecessary. Bottom line - it’s as much about companies doing “good” for the planet as it is about the elimination of “bad” ingredients.  

How do you juggle being a mother, a wife, running a household and an independent business with multiple locations?
Being a mom, businesswoman and taking care of myself is a never-ending juggling act. I don’t believe I manage my time perfectly, nor do I have an ideal work-life balance. A decade and a half later (my eldest turns 14 in June), I am still learning the art of disconnecting and being present. When I am with my boys, I try not to think about work. When I am at work, I stay focused on what’s going on right there. When I am with my husband, he is my priority. It is difficult not to think of all the things you could do better at - work, home, friends, family - when you’re on call 100% of the time. Know what you are good at, and know what you aren't good at. Delegate where you can… that would be cooking for me!

Taking into account all the challenges you've faced, what is your take on what it is to be a modern woman in today's world and what is your take on how to create positive change? 
Being a woman in today’s world is magical. Every single one of us has a story and a journey. My late sister, Negin, would always tell me we have choices about creating joy. Not in the absence of struggle, but to gain the strength to deal with it. In her words, she had been dealt the cards she had and she would play the heck out of them. And those words are enough to carry me through this life…

Lastly, what's your golden nugget advice to anyone going through the motions of uncertainty in starting and growing their own business?I would tell them to stop looking for motivation. This moment is all we have. Life is short. If you still have breath in your lungs, you can hit the refresh button and start again, and again, and again. Fear kills hope, it paralyses you. Make decisions that nobody but you might ever understand, and don’t look back.

You can find more information on Maryam on her personal IG @mfsmaryam & the amazing Physique57 Studio Dubai @physique57dubai

March 15, 2022 — Nadja Iman