Book review: Stronger by Poorna Bell

If I were to say women weightlifters, what would your first reaction be? Because, if like many people, you instantly think ‘unattractive and unfeminine’  then you may want to take a look at Stronger by Poorna Bell. Within the 300 pages of Stronger, Poorna makes more salient, incisive points around female fitness than I’ve found in 30 years of reading women’s magazines.

But first, some background on the author of Stronger

Poorna Bell (pictured) was married to a man called Rob. He was handsome, sensitive, but also addicted to heroin. And in the spring of 2015, struggling with depression, shame and hopelessness he killed himself.

A year or so after the suicide, and immersed in grief, Poorna starts weightlifting and at first it helps her focus. And, just for the length of the session, allows her a little space from the, “Whistling vortex of sadness.”. It would be glib and reductionist to say it saved her life, but it did give her a very slight push towards enjoying it again.

Poorna examines her relationship between becoming physically stronger and mentally stronger. And, without her husband around she needs some physical strength to deal with the realities of living alone. Who now, except her, is going to flip the mattress, carry the suitcases and get the lid off jars?

From this vantage point, she explores why so many women are uncomfortable with the idea of female physical strength and intimidated by exercise.

It’s not you it’s the physical education system

Before reading Stronger by Poorna Bell, I had never given much thought to my lacklustre approach to exercising. I walk a lot, and do yoga a little. And for me that’s enough. But as Poorna writes about her early experiences of exercise, steeped in embarrassment, unpleasantness and anxiety, I found myself mentally yelling, “Yes, me too.”

Poorna slots the jigsaw pieces of why women are generally more inactive than men together. And the picture it creates is depressingly familiar. If you too had PE lessons that involved wearing the shortest of gym skirts with the smallest of knickers, while being asked to perform a new physical activity, in front of a class of 30 then you’re not alone.

And from this awful introduction into physical fitness, for women it often only gets worse. By the time teenage years are reached, mainstream media has convinced girls that thinness is the only metric that matters. So, out with moving your body for the pleasure of it and in with calorie counting, comparison and curating yourself for the male gaze.

But what happened to exercising for fun, because it feels good or because it helps with mental health? After I’d read Stronger and realised how much Poorna’s experience echoed my own, I suddenly felt sad. I can see, with clear eyes, the society I’ve grown up in. And it believes that women’s body are really only there to be admired by men. There is no space for women who dare to be strong, dare to challenge or dare to deviate from a narrow view of what’s considered beautiful.

Hope for the future, diversity is here

I fear I have made Stronger by Poorna Bell sound depressing, which I didn’t intend to because it’s actually the opposite. It left me with the feeling of wanting to do more exercise, rather than less. And it gave me hope that fitness will look very different in the future.

Poorna writes about gyms that are inclusive to all. Where you don’t have to be a skinny blonde women to feel you belong. Or a cis macho, muscular guy to enter the weights room. She also highlights the importance of the media showing a range of images to denote female strength and fitness. It doesn’t matter what you look like or your weight. If your goal is to get fitter, happier or have fun then you too belong in a gym. Lastly, she shares the stories of women who will inspire you to make your own physical fitness and mental health a priority.

It’s early days still, but this morning I danced round my kitchen and managed to do the running man. Not caring what I looked like but wanting to move my body, for the joy of it. This feels such an important book that I’m desperate to share it. Physical fitness doesn’t have to be punitive, and slim is not the only way. If you’d like my signed (but now slightly crumpled copy) then please just DM me on Twitter, and if you’re UK based I’ll happily send it your way.

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