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A Woman’s Journey Lifting Her Way Through Grief and What She Wants Us All to Know About Strength: A Review of ‘Stronger’ by Poorna Bell

Stronger by Poorna Bell Photo credits: Dania Quadri

Roar writer Dania Quadri reviews “Stronger” by Poorna Bell.

It is the year 1986. Poorna Bell is a six year old running in her school playground. In her latest book, “Stronger”, she encapsulates this memory in the lines: “I don’t know it yet, but this is the most free I will feel in my body in a long time. It will take a lot of loss and a lot of healing to return to this place of wildness and joy.”

Thirty years have passed, it is now January 2016. Bell is grieving the loss of her husband who died by suicide barely a year ago. She writes a letter to herself in her diary about what has happened and includes a ten-point list of what wants to achieve in the year ahead. The list foreshadows her memoir brilliantly.

Bell says the “entire book is about point number nine” which states that she is “going to be strong in mind, body and spirit”, but as you follow Bell on her journey in finding strength, you realise that this journey catalyses her to fulfil and further the other achievements set out on her list.

Consider her goal to “become the fittest we have ever been”, in a deadlift competition in North Devon, she squats a breath-taking 130kg. The moment is poignant, she had missed this target in an earlier competition which she describes as devastating: “it wasn’t just a failed lift, it felt like a failure to push through and be bigger than my grief”.

Another goal is to spend more time with loved ones and to be open to new possibilities of love. Bell beautifully describes grief as “untethered love…that has no home”, but through her journey of lifting she finds a new home for this love. She describes tethering this love to her trainer and friend Jack, her friends Aga, Lindsay and others, her niece Leela, her teammates at Barfight, and to everyone who supports her on her journey to becoming stronger.

But as Bell finds freedom in lifting and building strength, she realises that the last time she felt freest was way back on the playground in 1986. While loss may have propelled her forward to finding her mental and physical strength, what had played a part in relinquishing it in the first place?

Her approach to investigating this is methodological as it is exciting. She first dives deep within identifying times when her strength seemed to chip away, little by little. She then reaches out to other womxn to determine whether they faced similar instances elucidating how race, class, body type, gender identity, religion and disability intersect to shape womxn’s experiences of being active.

In a hilariously named chapter, “Death to Gym Knickers”, Bell speaks to former schoolmates about PE sessions. Discussions ensue around awkward gym knickers and PE lessons that made Bell feel “powerless”. As a consequence of having spaces that are not created with young girls in mind, “40% of women decrease their physical activity during puberty or stop altogether”.

The implications of inactivity amongst girls and young adolescents are well-documented. These include poorer mental health outcomes during a period in which they are already at “a high-risk of having low esteem'”, alongside increasing the risk of diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.

And as girls enter the adult world, they are forced to interact with the mainstream fitness industry that has capitalised on something innate to all of us: movement.

A line in the book that struck me was from a conversation Bell has with body positivity coach Michelle Elman: “…there was a time you liked to ride your bike before it was called spinning and…dance in your kitchen before you called it Zumba”.

At school, movement was a source of shame. Now, it is something to be done to “lose-weight”, and if as a result of joining the gym you have not lost any weight, then you are a failure. This is precisely what keeps the fitness industry running, the image it sells is unattainable. No matter what your age, ability, ethnicity, body shape and stage in menstrual cycle, if you are working out, you must be thin. Human variation? That’s passé.

We are left with womxn whose inner strength has been diminished, who are constantly told to shrink themselves to become acceptable. In fact, the older you are, the more invisible you must be.

Here is where Bell provides us with a refreshing alternative: Why not refocus the use of fitness to nurture our strongest selves, instead of our thinnest selves? Why not rekindle our inner child who enjoys running on the playground for just that: the enjoyment of it?

Bell leads by example; she lifts because she wants to be strong. She enjoys it. She has pushed back against all the impediments that arise from being a South Asian woman engaging in a ‘manly’ sport. Through her vivid descriptions, the accomplishment Bell feels when she raises iron is palpable.

“Stronger” is a compelling read that uncovers how patriarchal capitalist structures hold us back from unleashing our strongest selves. Paradoxically, as Bell’s biceps grow, so does her confidence. Her book reminds us that we were never meant to shrink after all.

‘Stronger’ releases on 29.04.21. Support local bookshops and order your copy here.

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