In Mini Mermaids, we explore different types of strength - mental, emotional, physical - and how at different times and places, we will need to call on one or all.
This month, Poorna Bell, author, columnist, competitive power-lifter and mental health advocate, speaks with us about her new book ‘Stronger: Changing Everything I Knew About Women’s Strength.’
Due out later this month, the book weaves the story of Poorna’s own journey, with those of other women who have found their own strength within physical activity.
1. Let's jump right in with the video you have pinned on Twitter. It shows you successfully deadlifting 130 kg . You say 'This is the only lift I failed... but it taught me to fight & never give up. It’s never too late.' Why is this such an important message?
Personally it's an important message for a couple of reasons. The first is that we have this idea that fitness or being strong is something that you can only achieve when you're young, and that the older you get, there is this sense of being able to do less or only ever diminish. And that's just not true. Aside from health reasons - which is something that affect anyone of
any age - there is no age limit on trying new things, or trying to fulfill your potential of seeing how fast you can run or how much weight you can lift.
The second, was to say that failure can still be an achievement, that even just the act of trying can be as impressive or praiseworthy, especially if you've had to overcome a lot to get there. No one feels great about failure, but what makes it worse is if that failure meant you just didn't try again, and what makes it better is getting back up and giving it a shot until you succeed.
2. Your book title specifically says 'Changing Everything I Knew…' (which is refreshing). Do you remember when your view of women’s strength began to change? What are the misconceptions that make you want to scream?
It wasn't a lightning bolt moment but it was during a specific time, when I went to compete in my first powerlifting competition. I remember still struggling with the push-pull concept of knowing that in order to get stronger I'd need to put on more muscle, which would mean my body would change, but at the same time, feeling so constrained by that societal pressure for women to remain as small and slim as possible.
That view is so pervasive - not just in media but in how every single person around you talks about their own body - which has only gotten worse during the pandemic. But then I went to a competition and I saw women of all shapes and sizes, and ages, and they were just super strong. Which taught me so much about this ill-informed preconception we have of what 'health' and 'strength' looks like.
After that competition, when I then went into the mainstream gym I used to belong to, and I realised how gendered certain sections of the gym were, and why women felt so intimidated in the weights section, it just seemed unacceptable to me.
Women are more likely to suffer with osteoporosis - something weight training helps prevent - and are more likely to deal with heart issues when they hit 50 - and weight training helps enormously with cardiovascular health - so these blockers to women getting physically stronger (if that's what they want) aren't just sexist, they are dangerous for our health.
3. After the 5km challenges, our Mini Mermaids tell us that their sense of accomplishment makes them braver and more willing to take on other challenges. How has your journey with strength training impacted other aspects of your life?
It has impacted it hugely. Many times, with strength training, I would think 'I can't possibly do this, this isn't physically or mentally possible' and then I'd do it, and that goes into this reservoir of self-belief, so that the next time you're confronted with that negative voice, you have the evidence that you've overcome things before.
It has positively impacted my career and my relationships with my loved ones, but also, it has given me more confidence in my own decision- making. It's not that I'm making the safest choice or the least riskiest, but rather, I'm building failure within that, so that even if it doesn't work out the way I thought it would, I can learn and adjust. With strength training, you have to make so many adjustments to what you do to make sure you lift safely, and do it as efficiently as possible. That creates a really good mental capacity then, for recreating that in other areas of your life.
4. In a recent column you wrote about writing a 'Covid Rage Diary.’ Rather than burying our anger, you stress the importance of acknowledging and releasing that anger, while tracing its origins. What are some suggestions to help people practice what almost seems like emotional strength training?
I would say it's exactly that. Journalling or keeping a diary or being able to literally write a list of everything that is irritating you or making you feel angry at the moment helps enormously. Not only does it act as a pressure valve, and therefore makes you kinder to your loved ones around you, it also highlights things in your life that you may need to actively tackle and confront. The latter is really necessary in order to have an emotionally healthy life because trust me, resentment can have a terrible effect on you not just mentally, but physically.
5. We're starting to emerge from the pandemic? What are your wishes for yourself, your family and friends in the coming months?
My wish is really simple, which is that we remain healthy for as long as possible, that we get to see each other and celebrate being in each other's lives, and to realise that we really don't know what's coming round the corner. So all those things you've been putting off, that you think there is endless time for - there isn't. With or without a pandemic. So take every opportunity you can to invite joy into your life, whatever shape or form that takes.
‘Stronger: Changing Everything I Knew About Women’s Strength’ is available at bookstores and online nationwide starting 29 April 2021, as well as her earlier books 'Chase the Rainbow' and 'In Search of Silence.' Poorna writes a weekly column for INews, and is a contributing writer for The Times, Grazia, The Guardian, Red Magazine, and Stylist.
Follow Poorna on Instagram and Twitter, and visit her Website