#SheEmpowers Series | To celebrate International Women's Day, we speak to four trailblazing women on how they are helping women find self-empowerment in various aspects of their lives.
Sexual health has long been a taboo topic in Asia. But more and more women are fighting to open up a shame-free conversation around exploring one's sexual journey. We speak to Emily Lola Tan, a health and fitness professional who wears many hats, among them the founder of a pole dance and aerial studio in Malaysia, an ambassador for pleasure brand Womanizer and a cancer fighter who used sexual wellness as a way to fight for her womanhood, on how she uses health and fitness arts to help people explore their sexual journey.
Can you talk about your journey in becoming a sexual and mental health advocate?
While advocacy for sexual and mental health sounds completely new externally, it hasn’t been foreign to the internal state. I’ve been in the health and fitness industry since 2004 wearing almost every hat that businesses need, what made the journey most rewarding though, is the positive psychological influence we have on clients. Coaching a client who is fighting cancer at the same time does require skills beyond a weekend PT certification, teaching a student how to overcome phobias during a pole dance class does require skills beyond self-taught pole tricks—what I’m trying to say here is that coaching someone else requires a deep understanding of our own journeys. Taking responsibility for our own emotional education is what I advocate and coach, from professionals to non-professionals.
Personally, it’s been a privilege to be a part of this evolution in a societal context and it’s been an incredibly powerful way to cope with my own sexual trauma and demons. It was the start of an awakened state of erotic intelligence since I started seeing clinical psychologists, inspired by a cancer diagnosis in 2018 that launched me in the direction of passionate purpose that now includes my podcast, my journey to study sex & intimacy and Mental Muscle (an upcoming movement to unlock our emotional strength). From coaching personal trainers who are empowered to coach their clients beyond counting reps, to developing pole instructors who are inspired to invest in their students blossoming confidence transformation, I realised that I HAD been coaching sexual & mental health all these years, using health, fitness and physical arts as the conduits. What’s different now is labelling the work and diving deeper into that aspect of "whole-listic" health, and extending my hope to help those living with cancer. Advocating is lovely—it’s a whole other thing putting in the work.
You co-founded Viva Vertical, the first and largest pole dance and aerial arts studio in Malaysia, how have you found pole dancing to be a great expression of womanhood?
LIBERATING ACCEPTANCE—two words that weren’t in my vocabulary when I first starting teaching pole but are now my core code when influencing women of all kinds through pole. It’s a common misconception that women who take pole classes must all be sexual attention-seekers who just want to show off of their bodies in skimpy outfits on social media, and sadly, many of these thinkers are other women. Expression of womanhood is beautifully unique to every woman, whether it is through the art of painting, the art of fashion, the art of dance…down to the art of trauma coping skills. The first person a woman dances for in pole class, is herself. [In] an environment that promotes body acceptance, physical skills development and artistic expression, all one needs is a pole teacher who embodies these values and models the example of healthy sisterhood, and voilà, you have a beautiful space where women lift each other up (often literally) with intrinsic and extrinsic empowerment. A woman who lives in her truth is then capable of supporting another in the search for theirs.
What made you decide to become a brand ambassador for Womanizer?
ETHICAL PURPOSE is a value I hold on to strongly, and behind the brand Womanizer is a team who has evolved this value and what the company stand for. From making their products and packaging more sustainable to planting trees with the non-profit One Tree Planted to creating the Pleasure Fund that aims to help narrow the “Gender Health Gap,—which has widened as a result of lower priority status given to medical research for women— this goes beyond being associated with a brand from the world’s largest pleasure product makers, this is us going further together in the name of women’s health. I feel humbled and honoured to be able to share what sexual wellness and empowerment means to me with Womanizer.
In your podcast Tackling Minds you have raw conversations with everyone from practitioners to CEOs in the health and fitness industry about mental and sexual health and how to find power in struggle. What are some of the biggest revelations or powerful statements that came out of your discussions in relations to sexual health?
The biggest revelation is that we have done an excellent job in making it uncomfortable, sometimes down right shameful, to talk about sexual health. We are the stories we tell ourselves and when we do not seek the power in our struggles, we let them rob us of our vitality. I’m a big believer that when we give ourselves permission to care for our mental health, we keep the door open to develop emotional education and sexual literacy that results in looping right back to upkeep our mental muscle. Every one of us carry traumas of all kinds, oftentimes, it doesn’t have to be a sexual trauma that leads to having difficulties with sex and intimacy. Every one of us has fought battles others know nothing about, some are still fighting for our livelihood today where others will never fully comprehend; that doesn’t mean we can’t take a collective pause and offer a helping hand and a caring ear to each other. A personal prompt: "What’s the point of exercising mental muscle if I’m not ready to be there for someone else’s heaviness when they need it?”
Sexual health has long been a taboo topic, what is the message you want to send to women to help destigmatise this subject?
My ideals are simple: comprehensive and effective sex education from a young age.
Our society has become obsessed with labels where we pursue “understanding” someone through the labels we assign them to, instead of understanding humans through empathy. Now, society is made up of real life people, while it seems ridiculous to keep strangers out forever, we can choose to keep those around us the kind of people who are worthy of our energy exchange. A friend jokingly said I am “that friend who always talks about sex”, what a delight! - that means I am on the path of change I want to see.
So, BE that friend too?