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100 kilos of inner strength

Essay | 12 minute read
Poorna Bell learned as a child that little girls should be petite and demure, and that sporting achievement was not for her. So, how did she become a powerlifter who can lift twice her own bodyweight, and what has she learned about women's strength?

When I was around eight, I remember being aware that my dad was a weightlifter. I must have overhead it, picking up snatches of conversation like a magpie, in the way that kids do.

At dinner parties, I remember some sort of terrible pectoral dance my mum asked him to do as a party trick.

My dad lifting weights was a source of pride to me. When the adults weren’t in earshot, I remember saying to the other kids: ‘My dad is a champion weightlifter, he can kick your dad’s ASS.’ (Turns out he wasn’t quite a champion – more like he came third in a university bodybuilding competition and there were only four contestants.)

Despite having a dad who could weightlift, I didn’t ever think it was something I’d be able to do. I was a little Indian girl. No one specifically sat me down and told me this, but I knew through the discourse of the world that slimness and smallness was the aspiration for girls, strength and power was for boys.

It wasn’t helped by the fact that being one of the shortest kids in my class, I was naturally terrible at any sports that required height. I also didn’t know it at the time, but I had an undiagnosed hole in the heart, which only got fixed when I was symptomatic at the age of thirty-one.

The only Indian female role model I remember in sport was PT Usha – the track athlete who came from a poor family and was big in the eighties and nineties. She put Indian female athletes on the map, and blazed a trail for brown women in sport, but we were not shown how to ignite our own flame.

Fast-forward to today, and I am now an amateur powerlifter. My hole in the heart was fixed seven years ago, and I can now deadlift over twice my own body weight. As a thirty-eight-year-old, five-foot-three woman, it is something I never dreamed I would ever do.

Poorna Bell deadlifts 90 kg; photo by Shani Kaplan www.shanicreates.com

Powerlifting essentially is the goal of trying to lift the heaviest possible weight in three types of lift: squat, bench and deadlift. It is a competitive sport where you compete in different weight categories, and you have three attempts for each three lifts. It gets confused a bit with bodybuilding, which is also a strength sport, but unlike powerlifting, you are judged on your aesthetics versus lifting capability.

Someone who I wish was around when I was growing up is Neha Prasad Ainsworth, who I met last year when I was training for my first competition. I saw her in the gym and remember thinking: ‘I have never seen a brown woman with that kind of physique before.’

Neha is twenty-six, and has the most incredible body – her quadriceps alone deserve a hallelujah. A full-time psychology student, she has held British records and is one of the top ten female UK powerlifters. She initially got into it nine years ago by going to the gym to lose weight, there she met her now-husband who showed her how to powerlift.

‘Initially I had people be very dismissive,’ she told me. ‘A female lifting weights? Why on earth would she do that? And, as a South Asian female lifter, it has been tricky. We don’t have so many role models as athletes, let alone as female strength athletes.

‘I’d get comments about how my small bone structure wouldn’t let me get far, or how South Asians aren’t built for strength. It also goes against the South Asian female ideal of being mild and meek.’

To me, she’s a walking, talking, inspirational poster for powerlifting. It makes me smile to think that at some family gathering a little brown girl thinks she can do weights when she’s older because Auntie Neha does it.

Neha is an elite athlete, but the thing is, give or take, at an amateur level, anyone can do it. When I tell people I powerlift, they look at me as if I’ve got some secret ability that they don’t.

I’m not exceptional. The only difference is that I have finally reunited my brain and my body, so that now, they are helping, rather than sabotaging, each other. That’s important to recognise because society does set up women to fail and to keep us permanently dissatisfied with our bodies, so that we don’t achieve our full strength potential.

That loss of dialogue we have within ourselves is one of the most regretful things I’ve experienced.

When you’re born, the conversation between your mind and body is absolute.

You trust it to tell you what it needs. But over time, this beautiful language you share is replaced with a discourse of diet and needing to be slim. It’s the reason why the biggest fear for women, regarding weightlifting, is the fear of ‘bulking up’. It is rarely a fear held by men.

For me, this endless pedalling towards the mirage of slimness created a disconnect between my mind and body. And I don’t know what this worry has ever gotten me, beyond fitting into a dress which has at best given me about sixty seconds of pleasure.

There is no comparison between that and, say, doing a deadlift.

When I deadlift, I’m not thinking of how much I weigh. Or whether I look slim.

I know that on a day I do deadlifts, I need to eat enough. I can’t cheat my body of food because the barbell will not go up. It teaches you a lesson about ability, and how food isn’t good or bad; it is simply fuel. There is something uncompromising about the mathematics of needing to fuel your body properly.

Just before a deadlift, I dip my hands in powdered chalk. The air briefly turns with plumes of white as I clap my palms together to get rid of the excess.

No matter how much weight is stacked on that bar, I approach it in the same way: with respect, care and reverence. I bend down. My hands grip the iron. My back is straight, my lats are tight. In the brief moment before I take a deep breath to brace, a waterfall of thoughts begin in the same order.

Can I do it? Am I strong enough? What if it doesn’t go up?

This will go up. You are strong enough. You are mighty. Now lift.

And in those brief seconds, between the bar leaving the ground, until I lock out at the top, there is no thought. My mind is clear, the silence fills every molecule of me and I feel the purest form of serenity.

I don’t know that in all of my years of going to the gym, I have ever felt anything close to this.

Photo by John Arano on Unsplash

‘How did you get into powerlifting?’ is the question I am commonly asked.

I understand how it must seem so strange, to willingly squeeze yourself into a singlet that looks like the world’s most unflattering baby-gro, and then lift weights that seem impossible to lift without injuring yourself.

I got my first gym membership at twenty-five. While my male friends goofed around in the weights section, I wore baggy clothes to be as invisible as I possibly could, and half-heartedly drifted from the treadmill to the cross trainer.

I continued in this way more or less for about ten years. But four years ago, my husband Rob passed away unexpectedly, and I realised that there was actually a practicality to being physically strong.

Before, using the template of what my father’s strength represented to my mother, I relied on Rob to do a lot of the heavy lifting – literally. He moved furniture, did the grunt work in the garden, flipped our mattress – anything that required strength. And, if I’m being honest, I loved his solidness and physicality – from his broad shoulders to his big, calloused hands.

Sitting alone, in my flat, the loss of him all around me, with things needing to be moved around, I realised this just wouldn’t do. I couldn’t rely on other people to do things for me. More than that: I didn’t want to depend on anyone.

I tentatively hired a personal trainer named Tyrone, certain I was going to hate him on sight. But he was wonderful and exactly what I needed at that point in time. He was a strength trainer, and he also became this reassuring, safe, male figure that I came to rely on.

When he suggested doing deadlifts, I thought he was mad. Even more so when he brought me into the free weights training section. But with him, I learned how to do certain lifts, and my confidence grew.

‘We’ll get to that one hundred mark one day,’ he said, referring to 100 kg deadlift, and I laughed. It seemed impossible and scary – a pipe dream.

Our lives moved in different directions – Tyrone moved to a different city, and I quit my job to go travelling for eight months. When I came back, I felt rudderless around the gym, so I hired another personal trainer. This time, it was a recommendation from my friend Hasiba, who referred me to Jack, he co-owns a gym called Richmond Fitness Club.

At first I gave him the same old goals. ‘I’d like to get strong, but also not get too bulky.’

Bulky. If I knew then, how hard it actually is for women to bulk up, how it requires such a precise way of eating and training, I would’ve saved myself a lot of hours worrying about nothing.

Over the course of our sessions, I got to know Jack better. Jack confounds the stereotypes: he looks like a man mountain, but he is one of the most intelligent, softest people I have ever met. He is an ex-Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and cage fighter, after Jack retired, he switched to powerlifting.

Powerlifting to me, then, was still this vague, alien concept.

But coinciding with taking Jack on as a trainer, I was working out one day in the gym when a PT and fellow powerlifter named Aleem approached me. At first I glared at him for interrupting my workout.

Despite this he patiently explained that the gym was running an unofficial powerlifting competition. Would I consider signing up, he asked, as it would not only help me, but might encourage other women to do the same?

The last part really is what finally made me add my name to the list.

Photo by Luis Reyes on Unsplash

I told Jack, expecting him to laugh, but he takes powerlifting, especially for women, seriously. He encouraged me to sign up as a way of focusing my training.

What I discovered was that every week, I saw my body get quantifiably stronger, and that was far more enjoyable and rewarding than any amount of cardio. It’s something that acts as an antidote to panicking about doing weights and getting bulky.

When I asked Jack about this, he said it’s about two things. ‘The most common theme, in terms of what’s so appealing about strength training with the women I train, seems to be sense of accomplishment that comes from hitting set goals and then pushing past them.’

But the second thing, he says, is that progress has to be earned, it can’t be given to you. On competition day, you might go in with the intention to break records or be the best lifter in your weight category, but really, you’re competing with yourself.

You’re going in there to lift the most amount of weight you can possibly handle. ‘Only you can make it happen,’ says Jack, ‘and when you do, it’s very rewarding.’

When you use that as a motivator as opposed to weight loss, it reconfigures the entire foundation you operate from.

Once that is locked in, you start to realise the transferable power of physicality. Men don’t have to think about it as they are naturally bigger and stronger, and the world is moulded around them. But once a woman can draw from that same well of strength, you realise how much that translates into other areas of your life.

You hold your back straighter. Groups of men don’t intimidate you in quite the same way as they did before. But above all, you carry this sense of achievement and grounding into your work and other areas of your life.

It’s something Jack sees on a regular basis. ‘Charlie, a female lifter on my team, hit her first ever 100 kg deadlift a day before a very important job interview.

‘After the interview she said it had been her best one ever. She walked in there more confident than ever and she felt unstoppable. She credits the feeling to hitting that big deadlift the day before.’

In March, I did my first official powerlifting competition with ABPU, the federation I’ve just joined. The goal was to qualify me for the Euros in June. I’d been told that the atmosphere was incredible, but nothing prepares you for when you’re actually there.

You walk into that room filled with iron and chalk, and you see more female weightlifters than you have seen in your entire life. You are all different shapes and sizes, and you have all worked so hard for this one day.

For a moment, your throat tightens and your eyes prickle because you wish every single woman in your life knew what it was like to feel the hum of this kind of strength. And how it has been denied to most of us, for most of our lives.

If you’re lucky, like me, you’ll have someone like Jack, who is no longer just my trainer. He has become one of my dearest friends, and is an anchor to safety, strength, loyalty and love. You may be lucky to have a team – something I never thought was possible until I became part of one – who have given up a Saturday to see you lift. Their presence and cheers ground you to everything you have done so far.

When your name is called, you’ll worry you can’t do it. And in that walk to the bar, you feel the dryness of chalk on your palms. You place your hands on the bar. You have worked for this.

Every part of you moves into alignment, from the tough things you have overcome to the joy that exists in your life. You are grounded, you are earthed, you are here.

This is you, in absolute serenity. You surrender to it. And up that bar goes.