Poorna Bell is a talented journalist, writer, competitive amateur powerlifter, and all-around brilliant human being. I can’t quite remember how our paths first crossed, whether it was through a work email, or if our mutual life experiences meant we ended up sharing messages via Widowed and Young, or if I spotted an article she wrote and it resonated so much that I enthusiastically liked every single one of her Tweets until we became mutuals (the latter is most likely – I’m an accidental creep sometimes).
When I saw that Poorna was due to publish her new book this year, Stronger: Changing Everything I Knew About Women’s Strength, I had my pre-order in straight away. Poorna uses snippets of her own memoirs, tied in with statistics, interviews, and case studies to explore the fitness industry, including body image, accessibility, social conditioning, inclusivity, mental health, physical health, unconscious bais, empowerment, privilege, ageism, and so much more.
Early in the book, Poorna shares a memory of how, after her husband Rob’s death, she was attempting to flip a heavy mattress while alone in their home and found herself struggling. After realising that she’d previously relied on Rob to carry out these types of tasks, she made a pact with herself to get strong, for her own wellbeing, future, and independence. This is just one reason why Poorna decided to embark on her powerlifting journey.
Like many of us, her respective early experiences of exercise and fitness were less than inspiring. While I dabbled in hockey and netball and enjoyed competing as a teen, my weekly high school P.E classes were something I utterly dreaded, from cross country running through muddy tracks on bitter January mornings to being forced to shower nude with 20+ other pupils in dirty communal cubicles, shamefully trying to hide my newly-pubescent body as the teacher looked on, it was a pretty damaging experience.
When a broken ankle in Year 9 meant I couldn’t do much physical activity for a few months, I was glad of the excuse and ultimately, stopped partaking in sports altogether. Somehow, I managed to carry on using that one for two more years and never did a class again until I left school – my teacher had clearly given up trying to get me to engage by that point.
While growing up in the nineties brought its challenges when it came to the societal expectation of what our bodies should look like on the outside, I was fortunate to have been raised in a body-positive household free from diet culture, and have created the same environment for my own daughters. I tried hard to shield them from chatter about weight loss surgery and slimming clubs and nonsense narratives from others, alongside pressure via social media filters creating a new level of unattainable beauty standards.
Poorna shares similar tales of early memories of uninspired P.E lessons, alongside things I have never experienced in quite the same way. This includes cultural pressures. In her South Asian community, academic and career success were generally deemed a higher priority than sports. There was also a lack of relatable role models, and an expectation for women to behave in a hyper-feminine way, including staying out of the sun for fear of darkening their skin and becoming ‘less desirable’, creating an additional barrier to outdoor activities.
While acknowledging the topic of physical privilege, this book still feels incredibly inclusive, putting the spotlight on people from a wide variety of backgrounds, abilities, and communities, including older women, new parents, and those with minimal previous fitness experience. Strength is subjective and can manifest in so many different forms too. There’s a powerful link between mental and physical health, and along with appropriate treatment and/or therapy, it can be highly beneficial, Poorna reminds us not to oversimplify this and that exercise is not always a magical quick fix to erase trauma and grief.
While I’m mentally and emotionally strong, my attitude toward exercise in adulthood has been somewhat lacklustre. I’ve previously dabbled in gym memberships and PT sessions but found myself feeling self-conscious and way out of my depth, resulting in me shying away from any particular form of structured exercise, bar the occasional jog or long walk.
The book has been an education for me. It brought to light that I had been subconsciously spending those days in the gym trying to shink and mould my body into an ‘acceptable’ shape, something I thought hadn’t impacted me at all, yet apparently was subtly ingrained into my mind all along. By reclaiming the primal joy that comes with moving my body and taking ownership of how I perceived it, I’ve started to enjoy challenging myself physically.
I began to make this a priority and found small, achievable ways to be more flexible with my time and incorporate exercise into my life. Instead of doom scrolling on Twitter or getting lost on TikTok, I make a deliberate choice to put my phone away and do a free yoga video on YouTube, or a fifteen-minute beginner’s arm workout with 5kg weights I picked up for a tenner in TK Maxx, or do ten minutes of weighted hula hooping in my living room (a skill I acquired during peak lockdown boredom).
I worked from home when restrictions in the UK dictated it necessary and used the time I’d have spent commuting to go for a walk in the mornings. It’s something that I don’t want to lose, yet am reluctant to get up much earlier than I already do, so going back to being office-based means I use my lunch breaks to go for a brisk walk instead.
The epilogue of this book emotionally sucker-punched me. The words on those few pages resonated with me so intensely that I found myself unexpectedly shedding a few tears of solidarity and determination. If you’re looking for an authentic, inspiring read, or are looking for a little motivation to get yourself moving, then I’d highly recommend giving this book a go.