A few years ago, Poorna Bell turned up to a boxing class to find she was the only woman there.
The instructor singled her out, first by mock sparring with her, and then — shocked at her strength — heckled the men that they were being beaten by a woman.
Bell reprimanded him for being sexist and has not stepped back into a boxing ring since.
‘Now I gravitate towards spaces and gyms that are gender-neutral,’ says Bell, 40, a journalist and amateur weightlifter who has written a new book, Stronger: Changing Everything I Knew About Women’s Strength. ‘If I feel there’s an environment where people aren’t treated equally, then I just don’t work out there.’
Part memoir, part manifesto, Bell explores society’s pressures and expectations where women’s fitness is concerned. She tackles everything from toxic environments and self-esteem to ageism, sexism, desirability and why choosing between your potential and social acceptance can be limiting.
Bell’s fitness journey began following the death of her husband, Rob, who took his own life in 2015 after battling depression. Months after his passing, she was in their flat attempting to flip a mattress.
‘It was a shambles,’ she recalls and a reminder of how she had ‘relied on Rob’s strength to get things done’, so she took herself off to a gym with one intention: to get strong.
‘Strength training offered a measure of control at a time when I didn’t feel like I had much control over anything,’ she says. ‘I’ve got physically stronger but sometimes I’ll go into a session thinking, “I can’t possibly lift that weight”, and then I’ll do it. It’s created a self-sustaining belief that I probably can achieve a lot more than I think I’m capable of.’
While Bell’s story is the backbone of the book, she also interviewed women, highlighting the absence of role models.
‘It’s such a minority that’s represented in fitness magazines and social media,’ says Bell, who runs a fitness diversity platform on Instagram called See My Strong. ‘All you can see is what you aren’t, rather than tap into what you are, and I believe that to be such a massive blocker for girls and women.
‘I feel very strongly about role models within your own community and also about empowering women. I want role models to represent the reality of fitness versus the aspirational version.’
What Bell is championing has nothing to do with toning physique or weight loss, or in other words, being ‘beach body-ready’.
She says: ‘Physical fitness should be about joy and capability rather than weight loss. Ask yourself what fitness means to you. How do you like to move? It has to be keyed into what makes you feel happy when you do it.’
Stronger by Poorna Bell is out now
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