Body Politics: Poorna Bell is sick and tired of the fitness industry’s sexist stereotypes

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In Stylist’s Body Politics series, award-winning body confidence coach and @ScarredNotScared founder Michelle Elman sits down with women we love to discuss their journey to feeling comfortable in their own skin. Here, writer and weightlifter Poorna Bell takes aim at the stereotypes peddled by fitness magazines.

She may be famous for her work as an author and mental health advocate, but a quick look at Poorna Bell’s Instagram will leave you wowed by her impressive power-lifting skills, too. Indeed, Bell has long been open about the fact that strength-training has helped both her to process her grief after she lost her husband, Rob, to suicide a few years ago.

“A big reason is that it comes from a place of wanting to make myself, in the most literal sense of the word, as strong as I can be” she explains. “It’s an area of my life that I can control”. 

Through Rob’s death, Bell says that she has been forced to learn a new level of self-reliance. “I had a really good support network but I fundamentally understood I was alone in it,” she tells me. “I was the one that had to move my life forward and no one else was going to do that for me”. 

From a practical sense, Bell also decided to begin a strength-training regime in a bid to better ensure she had the ability to do things herself, whether that be lifting furniture or carrying a suitcase up the stairs unaided.

“I can’t live a life where I have to rely on other people, especially men, to help me live my life,” she says. “I want to be in a position where I can do this stuff myself”.

At this point in her life, Bell doesn’t worry about getting bigger or bulking up as a result of her weight-lifting. However, it is undeniably still one of the main concerns that many women have about strength-training exercises, so much so that many are nervous to even try it. 

“There is only one type of strength that is portrayed,” says Bell, “and there is only really one type of body standard that is portrayed in the fitness industry. If you struggle with body issues and everything around you is telling you that the main goal of fitness is to lose weight, and it doesn’t tell you anything about ability or strength, [then why would you feel compelled to try strength-training?].” 

In Search of Silence, Bell’s new book, sees her address the trauma that her husband’s death left behind and how this trauma manifested itself physically in her body.

“The biggest learning is that trauma is not something you go through mentally, it’s absolutely fused to the body and its sensations and how it expresses itself,” she tells me, emphasising the importance of giving trauma the attention it needs. 

“[Do what you need to do], whether that’s giving yourself space to feel sad or not being around certain people,” she says. “It will express itself in one way or another because it needs to be heard”.

Within her book, Bell also discusses the absence of conversation around mental health and the conversation around body image in South Asian culture, which has seen body shaming accepted as the norm. 

“You have this very abrupt and direct way of commenting on someone’s figure that is considered to be perfectly fine when actually it can be really damaging, especially for young girls growing up in that culture,” she says. However, Bell notes that a lot of this could be down to the ongoing body comparisons across cultures that have very different body types. 

“A lot of the body ideals in South Asia are actually based on Caucasian women’s bodies,” she says. “There is no acknowledgement that there is a separate set of beauty and body ideals and that is something we need to let go off but that’s a conversation that hasn’t really begun yet over there. How do you begin to get people to see that when popular culture is still so informed from what comes out of America and the UK?”

Somewhat surprisingly, Bell has found respite from toxic body narratives on Instagram. 

“It seems to be the only place where there is visibility of different types of strong women who come from a similar cultural background to me and have similarities in our bodies,” she tells me, pointing out that the social media site values different ways to train our bodies in a far more empowering fashion than mainstream fitness magazines.

“There are communities that exist there but you have to sniff them,” she says. All hail the #womenwholift movement, eh?

For far too long, the representation of women by both mainstream and social media has failed to reflect who we see in the mirror, and its impact on our mental health is worrying. Stylist’s Love Women initiative promises to change that. As well as the launch of our Body Politics series, we’ve partnered with Dove, whose latest project (in conjunction with photo library Getty Images) aims to increase the supply of diverse pictures of women which we will be using going forward. 

Our editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski has also made five pledges to Stylist readers:

  1. We will ensure the women you see on our pages represent all women – inclusive of ethnicity, body shape, sexuality, age and disability. When we create content and ideas, we will ensure that all women are represented at the table. We commit to featuring one fashion or beauty photoshoot a month that uses real, diverse women.
  2. We will ensure that we never sell an impossible dream. We believe in aspiration, but not in selling a lie. We will work with influencers, celebrities and other partners to encourage them to reveal their truths, too.
  3. We will celebrate the so-called flaws of women to prove the normality in all of our bodies. We will run videos, photoshoots and honest accounts of our bodies and how they behave.
  4. We will hold regular huddles with our advertisers and brand partners to challenge the way they portray and reflect women in their branding and advertising. We will call out and challenge brands, media and people who refuse to represent women with respect and truth. We will call on the government to support our goals.
  5. Through insight and anecdote, we will teach everyone about the issues facing women, what needs to be done and how we can all work together to resolve this self-esteem crisis.

Find out more about Stylist’s Love Women initiative here.

Image: Getty

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Michelle Elman

Michelle Elman is a five-board accredited body confidence coach and an award-winning body positive activist. Best known for her campaign @ScarredNotScared, she has over 190k followers across Instagram accounts and released her debut memoir "Am I Ugly?" in 2018.

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