How do we focus on women’s physical strength? – with Stronger author Poorna Bell

How do we focus on women’s physical strength? – with Stronger author Poorna Bell

by Suswati Basu

“Women are complex and muscles are not the monopoly of men.” The female body is one of the most scrutinized subjects in contemporary culture, so why are portrayals of physical strength so lacking? 

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Poorna Bell is an award-winning author and journalist, who previously worked as UK Executive Editor and Global Lifestyle Head for HuffPost. She is also a digital editorial consultant, has a weekly column in the i Paper, and freelances for The Times, Telegraph, Red and Stylist among others. Stronger: Changing Everything I Knew About Women’s Strength is her third book.

Ravneet Panesar, a Nutrition Coach at Neet Nutrition

Registered dietitian and life coach Christine Kenny

Here are some of the resources from the show:

For centuries, women were more or less excluded from organized athletics, relegated to more “feminine” tasks like being homemakers or taking care of children. Journalist Hayley Shapley says a lot has changed:

Books looked at this week:

Poorna Bell: Stronger: Changing Everything I Knew About Women’s Strength

Haley Shapley: Strong Like Her: A Celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers, and Unstoppable Athletes

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.


Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 48 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

We often talk about women’s resolve and resilience when it comes to strength, but for some reason we don’t think much about what women are physically capable of? I remember reading a BBC article in 2019 that talked about a study by Duke University, which revealed pregnant women were endurance specialists, living at nearly the limit of what the human body can cope with. Basically being pregnant is like running a 40 week marathon.

So can women be physically strong?

Here’s Ravneet Panesar, a Nutrition Coach who empowers women to change their food behaviours and reach their body goals.


On to our first book by award winning author and journalist Poorna Bell with the book Stronger: Changing Everything I Knew About Women’s Strength. Bell previously worked as UK Executive Editor and Global Lifestyle Head for HuffPost. She is also a digital editorial consultant, has a weekly column in the i Paper, and freelances for The Times, Telegraph, Red and Stylist among others.

Now a competitive amateur powerlifter who can lift over twice her own bodyweight, Bell is perfectly placed to start a crucial conversation about women’s strength and fitness, one that has nothing to do with weight loss. I was super excited to speak to her this week. Here’s a clip, but find the full interview on or on the YouTube channel.


Bell underlines the incredible strength that women possess and the importance of representation in Stronger. This follows on from her first book Chase The Rainbow, which outlined her deep grief after her husband Rob, who suffered with depression and addiction took his own life in 2015.

Off the back of becoming a competing powerlifter, she attempts to lay a roadmap for how girls and women could tap into their own physical and mental strength, and not be held back by societal conditioning.

She says being your strongest self has got nothing to do with how far you can run or how much weight you can lift. It’s about freeing yourself from any and every limitation you have silently ingested like poison over the years.

She starts off addressing negative experiences in childhood with exercise especially physical education. It apparently creates a major physical activity and sports gap for girls. Bell sent out a survey to more than 1,000 women and girls, where she found at least nine percent didn’t exercise at all, with almost half of that group not wanting to exercise because they felt self-conscious.

In 2019, Sport England ran a survey looking at 130,000 children and found that, from age five to seven, girls were far less likely to take part in team sports even though they said they loved being active. The biggest thing they cited that got in the way? Confidence.

What’s more, out of the group who did exercise, 63 percent did so in order to lose weight which is another issue altogether. Diet culture and fatphobia has limited women’s focus to getting smaller rather than stronger. However, exercise in general has been very beneficial to mental health. So why are some women reluctant to get into fitness?

Will Parry, who is a quantitative social scientist and data scientist, says there were three leading theories as to why someone might have psychological barriers around physical activity, which are: motivation theory, achievement goal theory and self-concept.

Motivation theory is split into two main parts – intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic, he says, is doing something because you want to do it, perhaps you enjoy it and find it rewarding. But extrinsic motivation is when you do it for an external reason, such as to lose weight or when you are obliged to take part. Intrinsic tends to be more stable than extrinsic because failing to reach a particular standard or being forced to participate might affect your future motivation.

Achievement theory is also split into two and is about how you structure your goals when you’re physically active. The first is task-orientated, and is where you’re competing against yourself or trying to master a skill. The second is ego-orientated, which is where your goal is to be successful against others. Extrinsic motivations and ego-orientated goals can undermine consistent participation in physical activity, because they tend to be less stable over time and depend on other people’s performance.

The third part is self-concept, which focuses on how you view yourself, something that is mainly developed in childhood. Apparently there is a strong social comparison element so it’s likely if you remember hearing negative comments during your physical education lessons, it may still be lingering in your subconscious.

Hence poor mental health in girls starts becoming more prevalent when they become teenagers and affects them more than boys seen in a number of studies. Girls also start to become hyper-aware of their weight and appearance. Doing sport and exercise can help instil a sense of confidence.

Another key aspect of women and girls not necessarily exercising is a lack of role models. Bell highlights the fact that as South Asian women, we are the least active demographic in the UK. Shocking, yet not actually that surprising.

According to behavioural scientist Dr Pragya Agarwal, there has never been a British Asian female footballer in the England team and very few at club level, despite the fact that British Asians form 7.5 per cent of the UK population. So Bend It Like Beckham is a fantasy.

She says that the general consensus from women she spoke to was that ‘football wasn’t for people like us’. ‘The lack of any role models,’ she wrote, ‘creates a self-fulfilling cycle where the absence of similar others in a domain is itself a signal that one does not belong or would not be welcome.’

Similarly, black women, for instance, only make up 10 to 15 per cent of the Women’s Super League in comparison to Black men who make up a third of the Premier League. Hence marketing and advertising must show women of all sizes, ethnicities, cultures and ability. This means we need more representation.

Next is the issue of diet culture. Diet culture, according to anti-diet author, dietitian and counsellor Christy Harrison, is ‘a system of beliefs that: worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal”.’

So now there are alternative recommendations including intuitive eating, which is described as a ‘self-care eating framework’ that invites people to reject diet culture completely, identify their emotional relationship with food, do away with rules and instead listen to their hunger cues.

This is similar to mindful eating, which is essentially about being mindful and aware of the food you are eating while you’re eating it, and how it makes you feel. The idea being that when you’re consciously aware of what you’re eating and listening to your hunger cues, you self-regulate better. Basically we definitely need to see more plus-size bodies in the fitness space. And the diet industry has a lot to answer for, for constantly fatshaming, and putting the idea of skin on a pedestal. After all, strong is not a size.

The problem is that BMI – body mass index – continues to be the main measure by which we class someone as overweight, despite the many reasons as to why it’s an incorrect method of assessment. BMI was apparently invented by a mathematician, not a doctor, and is notorious for wrongly classing weightlifters, rugby players and other athletes as unhealthy because it only takes weight, not muscle mass, into account.

Another issue is that government obesity campaigns, such as the one from 2020, suggests that it’s something that you bring on to yourself which is an incredibly harmful notion. It doesn’t factor any reason behind weight gain such as trauma and abuse, and it instead focuses heavily on dieting and restricting, which actually ends up causing more stress, and a greater chance for you to swing back to old ways.

When you’re stressed, your stress hormone – cortisol – might increase, and also increases your fat and carbohydrate metabolism, which makes your appetite spike, and it might also affect where you put this weight on – for instance, if you’re pre-disposed to collecting fat around your tummy or hips.

At the end of the day, slim or skinny people do not have a monopoly on movement so everyone is free to be physical without worrying about appearance. Those suffering from eating disorders obviously need to be mindful and receive the right support when exercising.

However a major part of women’s strength is her / their power. Societally, women are raised in a world designed to reduce their power at every level, whether that’s issues around maternity leave, pay, representation on boards, laws that censor basic civil rights around abortion and freedom of movement.
Therefore, the first thing to do is actually work towards dismantling these structures by normalising women in power.

For example, in launching its women’s strategy in 2013, British Cycling set out its vision to ‘inspire one million more women to ride, race and be part of British Cycling by 2020’. Then, according to British Cycling’s market data, 550,000 women cycled on a regular basis. Since then, a million more women have been influenced to ride a bike.

Another aspect is being part of a team which can help you believe in yourself. Bell says feeling strong is first and foremost a mindset and it’s something that everyone has a right to because it is powerful, transformative stuff. And really importantly, she adds that no one has a monopoly on strength either.

Similar to physical education in schools, in her survey, at least four in ten women said the environment of gyms made them want to get in and out as quickly as possible. There seems to be a narrative around plus-size people being too lazy to stick to fitness. No one is properly considering whether the environment staff and members create has anything to do with it. Health is not an appearance and it looks different on everybody.

Nottingham University assistant professor Dr Stephanie Coen ran a study which looked at just how gendered spaces were in gyms. Dr Coen says that the gym perpetuates very narrow and rigid versions of masculinity and femininity, with areas sectioned off for apparently feminine and masculine exercise. It doesn’t account for non-binary or trans people. So it’s time for more spaces that are inclusive and more open to helping people’s mental wellbeing. Don’t even get me started on accessible spaces for people with disabilities.

And I agree with Bell in terms of recovery from anything, including physical illness, mental illness, trauma, addiction, whatever it might be, working from a place that makes us feel internally strong is critical to the healing process. Physical strength and power isn’t the simple fix, but rather a powerful weapon in our armoury.

In 2018, there was a huge study in The Lancet of 1.2 million people in the US, which found that people who exercised had fewer bad mental health days per month than those who didn’t exercise at all. This doesn’t mean over-exercise, just 45 minutes on average for five days a week.

Periods are also a major blocker to physical strength for girls and women because of the significant pain some experience but also because of the shame we have around periods. As someone with a Chelsea Football Club membership, I was encouraged to hear that it is the first football club in the world to tailor training to menstrual cycles for female football players to maximise performance and reduce injuries. We definitely need more education around how significant this is to our bodies.

And there are similarities to motherhood and returning from a pregnancy. There’s diet culture shaming mothers into returning to their original physique, as if giving birth is a piece of cake. Seeking the help of the right experts is critical to being able to connect to physical activity in a way that is safe and right for you. Bell is right in saying a mother who takes time for herself teaches that it’s OK to take time for yourself.

And the lack of representation and support for women going through peri-menopause and menopause is stark. Power seems to be stripped away from women at this time. Menopause specialist Dr Shahzadi Harper explains that exercise is vital for maintaining muscle mass, bone density, cardiovascular and mental health at this age or at any age to be fair. Either way, having an exercise community throughout your journey goes a long way.

Our next book is from journalist Haley Shapley, with the book Strong Like Her: A Celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers, and Unstoppable Athletes, which is part biography and part history looking at women in sport. Here she is


Shapley reiterates Bell’s point that it can take time to deprogram a lifetime’s worth of messaging. But in actual fact, women have been depicted in sports for centuries. Looking at Western history, Shapley starts off in the ancient Mediterranean, where foot races were offered to unmarried women during the Heraean Games in the sixth century BCE.

Even though sports for girls were no way near as close to boys, there were some who tried to buck the system including in fifth century BCE, Callipateira, mother of boxer Peisirodus, disguised herself as a male trainer in order to get into the Games. She had coached her son, and he won. When she was exposed, she was almost dumped in the river, but because she was the mother, wife, and daughter of Olympic champions, she was saved.

The wealthy Princess Cynisca entered the tethrippon, a four-horse chariot race, in 396 BCE. She won, then repeated the feat four years later. And let’s not forget the Amazons who have recently been given airtime thanks to the film Wonder Woman.

Every Greek hero, from Heracles to Achilles, had to prove himself against these exotic warrior women. Described as equal to men in their fighting abilities, Amazons were said to live in female-only societies, finding men to mate with just once a year, and leaving behind any newborn boys.

They were depicted in Greek art as brave warriors, women to be both feared and respected. And Greek mythology even had an Amazon-like heroine of its own in Atalanta. She was nursed back to health by a mama bear as a baby after being abandoned for being a girl. Her name comes from the Greek word atalantos, which means “equal in weight,” presumably a high compliment that she was considered on par with men, as she was an incredible warrior.

Even though Plato thought that sport and exercise were acceptable pursuits for women, for Socrates, women exercising along men was “ridiculous […], especially when they are no longer young; they certainly will not be a vision of beauty”. Shapley writes that “while we don’t have all the artifacts from ancient times to know everything that went on, what does survive shows that women’s efforts to pursue strength—and society’s attempt to prevent such efforts—go way back to the dawn of Western Civilization”.

Shapley then fast-forwards the story of strong women to the 19th century and the sport of pedestrianism. As the name suggests, athletes would walk around a track for a certain amount of time or until a particular mileage was achieved. She focuses on the achievements of the British racewalker Ada Anderson, who was described as “slightly masculine” yet was highly popular with pedestrianism crowds across the Atlantic.

While basketball had been developed for men, it was quickly adapted for women. It was April 1896, when two women’s college teams would officially go head-to-head in the emerging sport.

And prominent writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman called the 1879 muscle-building manual How to Get Strong and How to Stay So by American athlete William Blaikie her “Atalanta guidebook.” Blaikie believed women who were fit could “spend life with an appreciation and zest too often unknown by the weak woman” and urged them not to be afraid of the shape muscles bring. Gilman was an avid follower, attempting to use the gym regularly in the 1800s.

As much as Victorian notions regarding the inherent weakness of the female body were being challenged by the turn of the century, gender norms were reinforced through debates regarding athletic clothing. For example, “When women performing in a gymnastics exhibition at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics dared to wear knee-length skirts, they were chastised for being unladylike”.

According to Shapley, such historical indignities cast long shadows and continue to hinder the acceptance of females as real athletes. This was seen recently when Norway’s beach handball players were each fined 150 euros for wearing shorts rather than the required bikini bottoms.

In response to restrictive clothing, Australia’s Annette Kellermann challenged the restrictive clothing that Western women were required to wear in the water and became a popular entertainer and fitness guru in the early twentieth century. Especially after The General Slocum disaster in June 1904, where a steamboat sank with 1,350 passengers. Only 321 survived because many of the women couldn’t swim even though it was in relatively shallow water. Kellerman sewed a pair of black tights to her one piece bodysuit hence modern swimwear was born.

Unfortunately globally, men are still more likely to know how to swim more than women. In recent tsunamis, such as those in Bangladesh and Indonesia, women died at far higher rates, at least partly attributable to cultural norms around girls learning to swim. Shapley says freedom of movement and being in control of one’s body are not privileges, they’re fundamental human rights.

Shapley then focuses on early strongwoman such as Katie Sandwina, the “Lady Hercules” who broke chains, lifted men, and performed other strength feats for circus audiences in the first decades of the 1900s. Observers were amazed by her abilities but content that her figure was “not married by a display of muscles,” and her domestic pursuits and parenting skills were often emphasized. Hence although she presented strength, it
was neatly packaged in a way it was more palatable. However, the circus was apparently a natural home for the suffrage movement as they were able to make their own money, travel the world, and share the same spotlight as men.

Bicycles were also a symbol of suffrage as Anna de Koven wrote in Cosmopolitan magazine’s August 1895 issue, “To men, rich and poor, the bicycle is an unmixed blessing, but to women it is deliverance, revolution, salvation.” Campaigners used them to travel to spread their message and hung banners off the handlebars, and in at least one instance in England, suffragists blocked Winston Churchill’s motorcade with their bicycles to make a point.

Mid-20th century Muscle Beach icon Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton’s weightlifting abilities and good looks inspired the nation through trying times and proved a powerful combination for visitors to the beach.

At just under five-foot-two and 115 pounds, Pudgy was seen as the girl next door and many more women were able to identify with her. And when World War II came around, men left for battle, women’s roles were changing, and Pudgy was just the kind of girl who represented the new normal and she wrote a column showcasing an array of different women who were able to lift weights. And instead of keeping their secrets close to their chest, this new wave of athletes happily shared tips with their community.

Unlike Sandwina and Pudgy, Babe Didrikson’s angular looks and apparent indifference to men welcomed scorn and suspicion, the kind of assumptions regarding sexuality that haunt contemporary female athletes. When she married in 1938, Life magazine declared “Babe Is A Lady Now.”

This is similar to the South African runner Caster Semenya and recent controversies regarding sex tests in sports. While Semenya’s extra testosterone and hyperandrogenism (detected by testing that revealed she has a rare abnormality resulting in internal testes) likely offers her an advantage, frequent accusations of “a woman not really being a woman is often a way to detract from her talents, to try and make her feel ashamed and inconsequential, as critics attempted to do with Babe”.

Katherine Switzer was the first woman to officially run in the Boston Marathon in 1967. Switzer’s treatment at the hands of race director Jock Semple and the aftermath of her being in a marathon with men helped to question the emphasis placed in sports on greater male speed and strength at the expense of endurance and stamina.

For Shapley, both Switzer’s trailblazing efforts and Billie Jean King’s 1973 tennis victory in the “Battle of the Sexes” suggest “a difference between wanting to be the victor and being so tied to the idea that men are physically superior to women that it causes a crisis of masculinity if that deeply held belief is challenged”.

History books may gloss over the role that physical strength plays in a woman’s life, but it’s clear that we’d be in a very different place without it, a place of less confidence, more fragility.

So to sum up:

Bell says in Stronger that you have been strong in ways you never imagined. You have probably survived things you didn’t believe you could, until it happened. All of this is evidence of what your potential is, and what you’re capable of doing. We have to free ourselves from limitations that we have ingested, create new role models so that everyone is represented, talk more openly about the menopause, pensions, pregnancy, trauma, and aging. And importantly, reverse our focus on diet culture and look more at fitness.

Shapley says in Strong Like Her that strong women are here to stay, They exist everywhere you turn, from television to social media to your own community. They are more sure of themselves than ever before, less willing to let society’s standards for how they should look and talk and act detract from the way they harness their power.

It was fantastic speaking to lots of women this week on physical strength and the need to find more positive role models on social media. I’ve lived through the harmful effects of diet culture, and trying hard to find fitness that works around my chronic illness has been a challenge.

To end, here is registered dietitian and life coach Christine Kenny on physical strength. As if you enjoyed this, please hit subscribe!


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