Poorna Bell Masala Podcast - Soul Sutras

Poorna Bell Masala Podcast

Strong South Asian womxn

Poorna Bell is on Masala Podcast, the top feminist podcast talking about cultural taboos

The first time I’d heard of Poorna Bell was when I read her book Chase the Rainbow all those years ago, I remember how moved I was by the honesty and vulnerability in that book.

Chatting with Poorna for Masala Podcast was a wonderful nurturing experience.

I loved exploring with Poorna the concept of strong woman, a strong South Asian woman and what that means.

Poorna is an award-winning freelance journalist of 19 years and a digital editorial expert, having previously worked as UK Executive Editor and Global Lifestyle Head for HuffPost. She has written for The Times, Grazia, The Guardian, Red magazine, and has a regular column in The I Paper. She’s also the author of three non-fiction books – her latest book Stronger, won the 2022 Sunday Times Sports Performance Book award. 

Poorna is an experienced public speaker across ministerial health summits, corporate and consumer events, including Twitter, Ad Week, NHS and Oath. She’s also spoken on Channel 5, ITV and BBC News, as well as regularly on TalkRadio and BBC 5 Live

I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did.

Poorna Bell on Masala Podcast: Transcript

Sangeeta Pillai 0:17
I’m Sangeeta Pillai. And this is the Masala podcast, a Spotify original. This award-winning feminist podcast for and by South Asian women is all about cultural taboos, sex, sexuality, periods, mental health, menopause, nipple hair, shame, and many more taboos. Join me around my virtual kitchen table, as I talk with some inspiring women from around the world, exploring what it means to be a South Asian feminist today. The first time I’d heard of Poorna Bell was when I read her book, Chase the Rainbow, all those years ago. I remember how moved I was by the honesty and vulnerability of her book. Chatting with Pune from a solid podcast was a wonderful nurturing experience, who now is, of course, a brilliant journalist of 19 years, having written for the times, writes here, The Guardian, read magazine, and the eye paper. She’s also the author of three nonfiction books. And her latest book Stronger, won the 2020 to Sunday Times sports performance Book Award. I love exploring with Poorna, the concept of a strong woman, a strong South Asian woman. And what that means, I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did.

Poorna Bell 2:18
So a little bit about me is that I’m an author and a journalist. And also, I know we’ll get to this, but I’m also an amateur powerlifter, which is my favorite hobby, and probably one of the only hobbies that has stuck consistently throughout my life. I’ve published three nonfiction books, and I am coming out with my debut fiction in a couple of months, which I’m very, very excited about. Because given the theme of the podcast, you know, it features a South Asian female protagonist. And it was really important for me to write a woman who reflects the people that I know versus sometimes in the past when I’ve seen caricatures, let’s say, of South Asian women depicted. And I would say that my background, I’m Indian, specifically South Indian, which for me is a really important thing to say. And I have lived both in India and in England. So I was born in England. And then when I was about seven years old, my parents decided that it would be a really good idea to relocate back to India, and we weren’t supposed to come back. But I think after about five years of this, my dad just realized that he couldn’t really deal with working there, because he is a retired doctor. And so we all came back. So I spent a lot of my formative years in India, and then my entire secondary education in England.

Sangeeta Pillai 3:41
That’s such an interesting combination, isn’t it? So seven how old were you when you came back?

Poorna Bell 3:46
I was 12 when we came back.

Sangeeta Pillai 3:47
Twelve? Wow. So that’s like a really crucial time, isn’t it? Because thinking back to when I was at age, you’re kind of almost forming your identity. So then if you’re kind of going between these two dramatically different places, let’s face it, that must have been quite something. Was it easy to adjust when you came back?

Poorna Bell 4:02
No, not at all. I think that it was easy to go there. Because I was seven when we went there. And the experience was predominantly positive, you know, because it was positive reinforcement in terms of, oh my gosh, I go to school, and everyone looks like me, and I don’t feel like I stick out or that there’s a part of my identity that just doesn’t quite fit in with everyone else. And also, you know, I got the sort of wonderful opportunity to grow up with my cousins, which I don’t think we would have had a chance to do had we decided to stay here. And those are relationships, you know, that have withstood a lot of years. And I think that coming back, however, was very different. You know, you’re coming into secondary school, which is a difficult age anyway.
A lot of the people in secondary school might have known each other previously from having gone to primary school together, and I didn’t have that. But also, I think for me and definitely this is the case for others is that that’s when definitions around your identity become really heightened, and anything that is viewed as being different, especially back then, you know, I think it’s easy to forget this. Now when we, for example, my background is my parents are Hindu. And I think it’s very difficult to imagine that we don’t celebrate Diwali.
But back then we didn’t, it was just something we did behind closed doors, you know, or with community members. And we had no community here, basically. So that was a really odd experience, because I personally just felt like I didn’t really fit in anywhere. And because my sister and I had had this different upbringing to other British born South Asians, we didn’t fit in with them here either. And my sister very interestingly, her name is Priya Joy, she is writing a book about motherhood and around this entire period of our lives. So I’m so interested to see this massive part of my identity reflected in her writing, because I’ve never really articulated that part of it before.

Sangeeta Pillai 6:04
Yeah, it’s really interesting hearing you speak because what you say about never quite fits in. I never felt that either. So I grew up in India, I spent most of my adult life in India moved here when I was about 30, something early 30s. But this feeling of not belonging. When I grew up in India, I was, you know, that is the main mainstream kind of, I looked like pretty much everybody else. And I wonder often, if that’s to do with an internal thing, as well. So one is external. Obviously, if people don’t look like you, you feel like you don’t fit. I’m going to move to the UK as well. I don’t feel like I belong. And I’ve always felt like I am disconnected from the place I’m in.
So it’s just thinking out loud, you know, something that I thought about? Tell me I mean, that’s so interesting that you grew up, or you spent those years seven to 12. In India, was that in Bangalore, for some reason? Bangalore? Yeah, I think one of your posts says, Bangalore. And that’s where I lived for many, many years. I know Bangalore really well. And then coming back to the UK, where was it that you came back to?

Poorna Bell 7:04
So my family are based in Kent, and they’ve been in Kent for pretty much the entire time that they’ve lived in?

Sangeeta Pillai 7:12
What changed? What things are changing on a daily basis from your life and Mangalore to your life in Kent?

Poorna Bell 7:20
Well, one of the biggest things, which is the case at that age of school, so you know, coming from an environment in India, where intelligence is something that’s respected, where if you do well in school, you know, that’s something that other people look up to you for. And then you come to England, and you realize, oh, no, those are the people whose heads are getting flushed down the toilet, like you can’t, you can’t really display any sort of skill, or achievement or signs of intelligent, because those are the people that get picked on or bullied, which is, was a horrendous kind of adjustment, because you are literally having to dim your own light to be able to fit in with the rest of your school friends. And so that was one of the significant differences, you know, food obviously, being another one. I mean, I completely agree with you.
And I take your point in terms of, even if you are living in a country where everyone looks like you may not fit in. And I think that, you know, for me, that’s why it’s, it’s really important to connect with people who share the same ethics as you and you know, who just resonate your line of thinking not to suggest that people should be in an echo chamber, but I feel that that’s a really important part of things. But there are things that you know, you will not have to think twice about in India, you know, the kind of your mother’s food being in the fridge, and what if your friends come over, you know, or does your house smell of curry when your friends come over? Do your clothes smell like that, because those are all things that you know, you get picked on for?
And then there are other things such as, you know, literally everything when you turn your TV on, there is no one who looks like you Bollywood was not on mainstream TV at all back then let alone you know, South Asian actors. And so on the one hand, you’ve got this sort of the sense of moving about society, and there’s just nothing that really reflects part of who you are. And even when you do find things in pop culture, or you know, whether that’s music or whatever it is, you still can love it, you can appreciate it, it can be part of who you are, but it’s still a fundamental difference. You’re having a different experience than it is for some of your white friends.
Those were some of the differences. Also, parenting is a huge one, you know, culturally we have strict parents like the concept that I would leave my house and my parents do not know where I was going was something that was just routine for some of my friends. It definitely wasn’t for me or just being back home before we got dark and so on. The one thing I will credit my parents with is that they never really told me what to wear like that was always a part of my Creativity and self-expression, that I was allowed to just do whatever I kind of wanted within, you know, within reason. But that was something I really appreciate some of the stuff that I used to wear back then. I just think, oh, wow, like, you know, kudos to them for not saying anything, because some of it was terrible.

Sangeeta Pillai 10:17
So what does identity feel like now?

Poorna Bell 10:20
Identity, for me, feels like honesty. Because one of the things back then was, and this is something I’ve written about, you know, before, was when I was growing up, I had two different accents. So I will have an Indian accent, which I spoke with at home. And then I would have an English accent that I spoke with at school and with my friends. And the English accent came out of necessity because I just needed people to not look at me, you know, like I just crawled out from under a rock, which is what they did in my first week. And I just wanted to be accepted. And I wanted to make friends. And I just thought my accent has to go, because this is the thing that’s like, you know, holding me back. And I feel so sad that I thought that back then.
But I hate to say it was true, because the minute I started talking like them, I was accepted into their friendship circles. But of course, that part of me hadn’t really caught up with the part of me at home. So I would say back then it was the fear of being found out about things that I shouldn’t have had to feel ashamed about, or I shouldn’t have felt like I needed to hide it. And identity, to me now feels like being honest, in every single part of my life, and being able to be honest with my friends and family about who I am. Whatever aspect of that that may take. And so the accent that you hear now is exactly the same accent that I use for my parents.
And I don’t feel afraid, because there isn’t this massive part of me that’s just locked away. But it also includes being really proud of stuff. So it’s not just feeling neutral, it’s being really proud that I’m South Indian, that I’m South Asian, and, and being open and bold about that and supporting other people who also need that, that help and that support.

Sangeeta Pillai 12:05
That’s absolutely wonderful. I think so many things you said that really resonated with me, one was the accent. So I do this thing, if somebody calls from India, my accent becomes more Indian. So I’ve done this in offices and the like, things are really Indian on the forum. Like, I don’t even know I’m doing it. But I guess there’s this inherent need to fit in wherever that might be. So if I’m working in an organization, that’s English, then I become more English. And I’m in a meeting and I want to sound like I fit. It’s just bizarre, and even on the phone like this always makes me laugh. Like, why is my accent changing on the phone? But yeah, I guess the bigger point is that trying to fit in and what you said the other thing that that made me really sad. It’s like some parts of you that are very much a part of you need to be hidden in order to fit within the broader culture. I mean, that’s so sad, right?

Poorna Bell 12:57
It’s incredibly sad. I mean, I think that, you know, it’s difficult to articulate some of this stuff to my peers, especially my white peers, because you’re articulating stuff that you feel desperately sad about, but that you can’t change. But that still informed the person that you are today. So, when people wonder. And I don’t know, if you’ve had the same thing, when people wonder why we feel so passionately about things like why we are so vocal and outspoken about things, it’s because there was a really fundamental time, where we didn’t feel that we could be like that. And we were definitely not alone. In that experience, we talk to people that’s part of both of our jobs. And the more you talk to people, the more you realize how common this was an experience. And I hold a lot of sadness around that. But at the same time, I’m not going to sit in that I’m going to use that to try and make things a little bit different or to be outspoken, or to try and kind of even balance out a little bit. But I don’t know what to do with some of the regret of that. Because I also know that some of that behaviour came from a place of wanting to survive and being okay, and, you know, having friends and having a full life. And I did have that to an extent. It’s just a real shame that it had to come, you know, at the cost of sequestering a really important part of myself, I think.

Sangeeta Pillai 14:25
Absolutely. And I think things like when you were talking I was thinking of food. It was the first time I remember coming to the UK, I was working at this job. And I made some prawn curry and rice, I think, and I was going to take it to work and I remember the people we were staying with at that point, my ex and I, you’re going to smell up the office, are you? And I’m like, it had never occurred to me that the food I eat would be considered smelling anything up. I was like, but that’s just food and my food. And I remember feeling a little bit like that sense of shame that starts in your stomach and you’re like, oh God the thing I am. A that’s such a part of me is going to smell something up, you know.

Poorna Bell 15:05
Especially food for us isn’t just food. Food for us, it’s those people when they’re saying that they insult us, they insult our mothers, they insult our entire family and I don’t mean that to sound like a mafioso. I mean, you know, it goes beyond just, I’m insulting your lunch or your dinner, right. And that feels like such a huge thing.
And that’s what I mean about that, you know, people not understanding and not understanding where some of our behavior comes from, is from experiences like that, from you know, watching a lot of American TV where that’s used as a punch line in joke like Indian food, or South Asian food, having a strong smell is used as a punch line, you know, that’s a really hard thing, then, in your present day, have people who are really excited about it, who want to tell you how much they like Indian food or Good God, like the number of like, men that I’ve dated, who wants to tell me about the curry that they’ve cooked? Like, these are like, let’s say, white men, and I’m like, I mean, good for you. But I just don’t really want to hear it. It doesn’t mean anything to me, because there is this part of myself that will. And I feel 100% Okay, about Yeah, you know,

Sangeeta Pillai 16:24
Tell me, what are the bits of South Asian culture that really resonate with your food? I’m sure we could talk about food for the whole podcast, what else? What are the bits that make you happy that make you feel like part of that identity?

Poorna Bell 16:38
The biggest thing probably, is how hospitable we are. The fact that I would say this is part of my Indian identity, because I feel like in India, it’s just things are more fluid, and they’re less intense, and you don’t have to book something in with someone, you know, five to 10 weeks in advance. And in terms of socializing, I just find the pace of it a lot easier to deal with, than here where everything you know, in the UK where everything needs to be so ordered and structured. But I like the fact that you could just invite someone over to your house, and it not be you know, this big deal.
I like the fact that we make a lot of foods so that you know, it’s not about having, you know, a set number of I don’t know, fish fingers or whatever per plate. I like the fact that I feel like you know that the parts of us that really love music and dance and color, and sound and conversations with each other about lots of different things. And I think the thing that this doesn’t make me sad, it’s just that I wish it was just better represented are those conversations that you know, I will have with my other like Indian friends that I and the things that we talk about and the topics that we dissect, versus what I see, you know, in scripts, on TV, which just doesn’t seem to reflect the kind of people that we are, I feel like I’m looking at an experience that is happening at someone else rather than go, Oh my gosh, that’s exactly like it is for us.

Sangeeta Pillai 18:11
What is my cultural identity? I’ve spent most of my life in India. And that is a huge part of who I am. But I’ve also spent almost two decades in the UK where I really grew into the woman that I am today. What’s weird is that moving to the UK, allowed me to really own my strong feminist Indian woman side. I had to move all the way here to really own my Indianness. Isn’t that strange and wonderful? Most of the time, my Indian side and my British side coexist. Happily. Not always though. The Indian Sangeeta likes the warm informality of just popping over to see a friend for tea. I missed the ease of making connections and forming a community like I did in India.
The British Sangeeta, however, finds going back to India really chaotic. On my last trip there, I found myself chatting at people not forming an orderly queue at the supermarket, which made me laugh at myself. So I suppose my two cultural identities are now fused. And sometimes a bit confused. But you know what? That’s okay. Let’s talk a little bit more about the sporty side of things. Were you sport Tea, athletic, any of that when you were growing up?

Poorna Bell 20:03
So the answer is no. But it’s an interesting one. Because when I was in India, I wouldn’t say I was, I mean, I never was athletic as a child. And I don’t if I would describe myself as sporty, but I definitely was active, you know, and whether that was riding your bikes around playing with friends, just sort of, you know, having a lot of fun just moving around. And that was, that was a really fond memory from that time. But I definitely remember being in secondary school, when we moved back to England, and I just hated it. Because you know, the majority of how you’re taught sport in school, at least in England, I’m not so sure about India, is that it’s a competitive sport. And if you are not particularly good at it, your teachers don’t really have any interest in developing you further than that. And also, I just feel like, the way we were taught about sport is that, you know, they showed you how to do something once and then you were expected to just go off on your own and do it. I mean, I’m talking about things like javelin, for example, you know, which is crazy when you think that you’re giving like that kind of implement to a 13 or 14 year old, or doing things like rope climb, which is something you know, that I talk about, in stronger the book that I wrote about all of this stuff around physical activity, which is that, you know, we were, we were told, okay, for your assessment, do rope climb? And just how on earth would you be able to do that as a child because you have, like, no upper body strength. So I definitely was not, and I really didn’t like sports at all at school. And that kind of continued into my 20s, where, yes, I did join a gym. But I can’t say I really gave it much thought beyond, you know, kind of huffing away on a cross trainer or doing some work on the treadmill.

Sangeeta Pillai 21:51
And I guess it’s also I don’t know if this was your experience, but for me growing up, it was very much that the men were the kind of sporty type, they were encouraged to kind of play sport to be physically strong or active. And as women, we were told that we were the opposite of that, in many ways. It’s like, you’re the one who has to wait for the man to do whatever. Or you can open a jar and you immediately get a man to open the jar. You know, it’s that kind of conditioning almost. Did you get any of that when you were growing up? Or was that not the case for you?

Poorna Bell 22:24
I mean, I definitely grew up with the conditioning that, you know, men were sports here. And, you know, my dad was a weightlifter. And it was definitely something that was mentioned, you know, at home or with extended family, but I don’t remember the other men around him doing the same, you know, it was always something that was picked out or something that he specifically did. So I didn’t grow up with that kind of conditioning. But for sure, you know, when I grew up, and I was a bit older, I didn’t really it wasn’t so much that it was like, Oh, you need to wait for the man to do this. Or to do that. I don’t think it was as overt as that.
But neither did I think that there was anything wrong with this expectation or this understanding, you know, that men just did like heavy lifting or men were the stronger ones by default, or any of that stuff. Like I think I just took that as a given. You know, so when it came to, to needing to confront that, and needing to confront the idea of But hang on, I’m a feminist, and I believe in equality. But yet, I also expected my husband to take up the bins because that’s what men and then I had to unravel it that way.
And I was like, oh, yeah, I believed that there were men’s jobs and women’s jobs. And if I believe that there are men’s jobs, then yes, there are women’s jobs. And that doesn’t sit right with me because, okay, so when we unravel that, what are women’s jobs and if women’s jobs are cooking and cleaning, then that person can just go to help because it’s absolute rubbish. But it was shocking to me, Sangeeta, how I did not really connect those dots and go, Oh, my God, like I’ve been pushing for equality, for dismantling gender stereotypes around one thing, at the same time as fundamentally believing this other thing that supports those stereotypes. That was mind blowing to me.

Sangeeta Pillai 24:20
Now, I think so many of us carry this stuff, because it’s all subconscious, isn’t it? We’re growing up, we’re absorbing this information, whether it’s family, media, books, whatever. And what’s being fed to us is the same thing that you’re: this is a woman or a man, and you can’t be that. So obviously, we’re going to pick that up. So let’s talk about the thing I’m really fascinated about pulling another powerlifter. How did that start?

Poorna Bell 24:48
I mean that was a slow journey. So I had started to dabble in learning how to lift weights because I just didn’t know how to do any of that before. So that would be, you know, just learning how to lift a barbell, and so on. And I had a personal trainer who just helped me with that. And that was a very, very different way of training that I had done before, which before, it was always, you know, I need to lose X amount of weight or whatever. And this, with this type of training, it was I actually just needed to get stronger. And so that’s what I had been doing for a couple of years.
I went traveling, and then when I came back, I needed to get a new PT, because, you know, I’d quit my job, I was in a different area and started to train with him, you know, and I’d notice when I go into the weight section, you know, there was never really any women in that section. And it was fine. It was okay. But I would just keep myself to myself and just go in there and just leave, you know, the minute my, my session was done.
And one day when I was in there, this guy came up to me, and started talking to me, and I’m really like, how would my dad describe it territorial and aggressive? I don’t think that’s true. It’s just that I don’t have a very approachable face in that section of the gym, because I don’t want guys to start talking to me in that section, right? I mean, who does? And this guy came and started talking to me, and I just thought God just went away. But he actually said, we’ve got this powerlifting competition that’s come up. And it would be really nice to get women to be part of it, because that might encourage other women.
And that was the thing that made me actually pay attention to him. I think if he had worded it in any other way, I’d have just said, like, I don’t even know what powerlifting is going away. But I just thought okay, well, you know, what actually would be really nice to see more women in the weight section. And yeah, that would be a great thing to do. But the idea of it still absolutely terrified me. And then it happened again, by coincidence that my personal trainer, who is my coach, his name is Jack, he is actually a professional powerlifter.
And he said, I actually think it’d be a really good thing for us to try, you know, it’s, you might really enjoy it, might have some fun with it. And then the rest is history. Like, I just remember thinking, I don’t know what Jack’s idea of fun is. But this doesn’t sound fun. It turns out that it was so much fun. And it connected me to a whole different community. And for the first time, I think in my life, I actually really enjoyed going to the gym. And it wasn’t something that was just about, oh, I need to like to manage my weight, or I need to do this, or I need to do that it was just about am I having fun while lifting weights? Am I getting stronger every week? And then that was it really.

Sangeeta Pillai 27:30
So what does it feel like to lift that kind of weight? What does that feel like in the body and in the mind?

Poorna Bell 27:37
I think that when I’m actually doing it, I mean that that can depend. So when I’m actually doing it, I can either feel like I’m having the best day of my life. And if I don’t know I’m tired, or it’s just not going my way, the mental load or like having to like psych yourself up to do those lifts can take a lot because you have to, I’m really glad I got a couple of my friends to try it because it was really important to me that they understood that this wasn’t just about what you’re doing physically, that the mental load that’s attached to it in terms of having to psych yourself up to do it is immense, right.
But the thing is, all of that effort, and all of that will count towards something. And what that counts towards is how you feel when you are outside of that gym. And that could include walking down the street, going into a meeting, you know, being on a packed train, any one of those things, and it feels like a superpower. It’s not something that’s an aggressive kind of energy. You know, it’s not like a sense of superiority or anything like that. It’s more just the understanding of the amount of work that you have put into yourself in a really positive and healthy way. And when I say healthy, I’m not talking about physical health, I’m talking about mental health here.
It doesn’t really matter how much you can lift; it doesn’t matter. You know whether those numbers sound impressive to other people, it’s the accumulation of all of that work. And the fact that you’ve said to yourself, I am worth this, I’m going to take the time I am going to work towards something because I want to not because I’m working towards some aesthetic score or because I need people to think about me in a particular way. And that level of self-worth Sangeeta, the self confidence that that gives you because it’s not a thing that can be taken away from you because you have literally gone in there day after day and created that yourself. But that level of self-confidence feels like titanium. It feels like no one can kind of move you from that point. And I’m immensely grateful to have found it because I spent a lot of my life not feeling like that. So the fact that I managed to discover it in my late 30s And now I’m in my early 40s, I’m immeasurably grateful for that.

Sangeeta Pillai 30:04
Sounds incredibly powerful how you describe it? Like working with this superpower? Almost, you know, that sounds amazing. That helps emotionally a lot as well. Right? So not only are you stronger physically, I guess I’m guessing you stand up stronger in the world and you take up space more in the world, but also emotionally, that must be really, really, I guess, grounding in a way.

Poorna Bell 30:29
It’s enormously grounding. I mean, if you speak to any power lifter, who will be able to talk to you and bore you to death about this for hours and hours on end, because we love talking about it, it is the thing that is such a metaphor for life, you know, so powerlifting, for people that don’t know involves three lifts, which is squatting with a barbell on your back deadlifts, where you’re picking something up, and bench-press, where you’re pushing something off your chest. And all of those movements are our metaphors for, you know, when something weighs you down, when something seems like a burden, when it feels like the load is really, really heavy, you can carry it, and you can lift it. And that is absolutely true. That is, it sounds so cheesy. But that is absolutely transferable to how you deal with things in life, because life isn’t about always succeeding all the time, you know, like in the same way that you might go into a training session and fail, because you might not lift the thing that you were intending to do.
It teaches you that failure isn’t something to be feared, it teaches you that actually, that failure is going to teach you something the next time you attempt something else. And it’s an opportunity to try something else rather than going you know what, no, no, no, I failed that I didn’t get that right, I’m not going to try it again, which I’ve definitely felt a lot during my life where it was something that scared me, or I just thought I didn’t I didn’t get it right the first time around. So I’m not going to try it again. It shows you that actual development and skill and learning takes a really, really long time. And it takes a lot of humility. Like it takes a lot of humility to go. You know what, I didn’t get it right that first time, but I’m going to go back. And even if I fail, like 10 more times, I’m just going to keep trying until I get it right.

Sangeeta Pillai 32:11
Wow, that’s really amazing. How do other people respond to your powerlifting? Men, women, how do they respond to you?

Poorna Bell 32:21
In the beginning, I got a lot of quote marks advice for men about how I needed to be careful. And loads of like injury stories, and this happened to my back or whatever. And then when I kind of unravelled it a little bit and said, okay, so thanks for the advice. Can I just ask, how did you learn how to lift and in all of those cases, they didn’t, they did that thing where they went into a gym, and they were too proud to ask someone for help. And so they kind of taught themselves.
And this is an error before YouTube, by the way, you know, before we had this, like massive access to all this information. So the people who had injured themselves who were trying to give me advice about this, were not coached, they didn’t have any professional help. I’m doing this, and I have always done this with a coach. So what I realized was that we aren’t trained, even though they may do weights in a gym, we don’t train the same way, you know. And I think that when you train in a way that makes you an athlete, it’s a very different type of training than when I’m going to just go to the gym to do a workout. And that’s not to like, you know, that sounds a bit snobby on my part, I don’t mean that at all. I just mean, we all have different ways of training.
So the people that I’m going to take advice from other people who train in the same way as me, I think initially, it did take a few people a bit of adjustment. Because my physique looks different. It doesn’t necessarily, maybe look dramatically different. But the proportions of it, I’ve got, like, you know, a weightlifter’s body. But people just don’t say anything now because I think that they know that this isn’t a phase, they know that I’m going to keep doing it. But also in a really nice way, actually, I’m achieving something.
So I’m working towards something and I’m bettering myself. And even if you are the most cynical person, there’s not really much anyone can say around that, because I’m the one who has been going to the gym and training and competing, you know, several times a week, I compete twice a year. So for someone who might go to the gym like three times a week and does their own thing or doesn’t train in the same way. I think that after a while, they just know that there’s not really much that they can say to me about that. So I haven’t really had any comments in the last year. And I think after having a long COVID For about 10 months and 2020. So I think anyone who really knows me is just really happy for me because I’m back to normal and I’ve been training for about a year.

Sangeeta Pillai 34:45
I’d love to talk about women and the ideas of strength and the ideas of, we’ve always talked about like emotional strength, but nobody really talks about physical strength with women. And I don’t think from what I know Girls are encouraged to be strong, really, young girls and then grow up to be women. In fact, it’s the opposite, where we’re constantly told to hate our own bodies, to be managing our bodies, to be managing our dad. Is this thing that must be kept under control? And it must be this particular weight and look this particular way? Or has your idea of your kind of relationship with your body changed since you’ve been powerlifting?

Poorna Bell 35:26
Absolutely, I mean, we talked a little bit about me growing up in India and me having my Indian family. I would say that, as much as I love India, and as much as I love my extended family there, being part of that specific culture around your body image was really difficult as a teenager. And it’s difficult because as you know, I’m sure, it is the first thing that people comment on when they haven’t seen you for a while. And so it makes you so hyper aware, you know, before you are in the company of people, like before we used to go.
So after we moved back to England, you know, we’d go back to India periodically. And I just remember thinking, almost like, dreading the moment when I knew that my body would be commented on. And I think I realized, you know, somewhere, maybe a few years ago, where I just realized that it didn’t matter what size it was, whether it was, you know, ridiculously skinny, or you know, whether I put on weight or whatever, there was always just going to be a comment about it.
And when I think back to when, you know, people would say I’d put on weight or something, and I was like a size eight, which is incredible that they would find that to say about my, my body, I just realized, I think that, you know, it doesn’t matter if their opinion doesn’t matter, because their opinion will not kick start anything positive in my life, all it will do is make me feel bad about myself. And I think the thing I’m always be grateful to powerlifting is that it liberated me from that, basically, if my body is used for has, if it has a purpose, you know, if it has a sense of achievement about it, if I am moving it in a way that makes me feel good what someone else has to say about it is the least of my priorities or importance, you know, and this idea, you know, sometimes when I’ve said this to other South Asians, they’re like, oh, you know, but, but don’t, aren’t we being like irresponsible by not saying anything? This isn’t specific.
To me, this is like commenting on someone else’s body, you know, if they feel that that person needs to lose weight, or whatever, and I said, It’s none of your business. And also, if you care so much about it, maybe read some of the studies around this kind of stuff. And you’ll find that never in the history of people deciding to voice an opinion about someone else’s body was that the thing that, you know, kickstarter whatever you, you’re saying this like healthy, you know, lifestyle needs to be like that.
Such a fundamental pillar of stronger writing it is to demonstrate that shaming other people, and more importantly, bending them to our ideas of what we think is healthy, what we think is, you know, fitness should look like whatever, none of that is substantiated or corroborated by science, you know, and it doesn’t work on people, you know, that’s not good motivator. So I think for me, my relationship with my body now makes me feel neutral about it. There are days when I look at it, and I’m like, damn, okay, you look great. There are days when I think oh, God, like, I don’t really want to look at myself in the mirror. And that’s okay. Because the days that I love my body and that I feel neutral about it, are those that grossly outweigh the days when I don’t feel good about it. And that has taken a lot of work, and a lot of releasing other people’s expectations and opinions around it.

Sangeeta Pillai 39:01
And it’s not just other people’s or within South Asian cultures. We’ve said this to the aunties or whoever’s commenting on your body. But outside of that, there’s also kind of media, social media, there’s, it’s so like, I think about this a lot. There’s so much kind of policing of our bodies. It’s almost like the power of our bodies belongs to an external thing, like other people are telling us. And there’s so much that gets attached to how thin we are, or big way or whatever we are. And it’s totally disproportionate. Like, I don’t think men experience that to the degree that we do as women. And I don’t even know how one starts to change that or even challenge that, you know,

Poorna Bell 39:44
I mean, I would say that there’s a couple of things possibly, or rather, maybe I could say the things that helped me. I think one of the things that really helped was I think tackling my approach to food, for example. And a lot of that was around unravelling some of the diet culture stuff, which is fairly inescapable, right? If you live in society it is. So just not feeling restricted around food feels like understanding that food is a fuel that keeps me alive.
And sort of reclaiming some of the joy in that rather than always, like, you know, viewing it through a lens of restriction means that I moderate a lot better now. So you know, I don’t feel that I need to, I don’t know, eat something, and feel guilty about it afterwards, I don’t, I don’t really feel guilty after eating anything. And that took quite a lot of work. But definitely, with regard to being South Asian, you know, I mean, I think a big part of it comes from representation and media representation and social media. And definitely, you know, I do a lot of work in the fitness space.
And there are body sizes, for example, fitness influencers, that a lot of South Asian women are just not built like that, you know, we have different genetics around certain things. And I think that is when I sort of sat down and thought about it, and even like down to, you know, clothes, for example, and clothes not having, not being able to fit your bum properly, and all of that kind of stuff. And I just was like, actually, but that’s not a me problem. That’s a you problem.
Like, that’s a retailer’s issue, you know, and, and so for me, I’ve curated number one, the places that I buy my clothes from. So I have like a fixed number of places that I will go to that I know will produce clothes that fit my frame and make me feel good about it. The other thing is, it sounds so simple that I wear clothes that fit me rather than wearing clothes that are slightly too tight or make me feel bad about myself. Because if they’re not comfortable, I’m just not going to want to wear them. And the final thing is, in the same way that yes, absolutely.
Social media can be a generator for negative self-esteem, and so on. It can be such a massively positive space for us connecting and seeing images that make us feel good about ourselves. And I would say very specifically to do with South Asian women. Instagram, for example, has been a game changer for me just to see these gorgeous, beautiful women of all ages, all shapes, all sizes, all skin colours, in a way that is not represented in Bollywood and is not represented in the mainstream. But here these amazing women are, who are carving out their spaces.
Yes, some of their followings may not be anywhere near you know, the mainstream influences or whatever. But that doesn’t matter because they’re doing their own thing. And they’re being authentic and true to who they are. And I look at their body sizes, and I think my body looks like that, you know, yeah, that’s, that’s the community that I’m kind of connecting with. And also, just seeing other body sizes that don’t look like my own, but that might have, you know, might be another South Asian woman, I think are really, really important to just building up this idea that we’re not a homogenous lump. As a demographic, we are full of very vibrant different women of all kinds of abilities and intersections. And I think that that’s a really important thing to remember. Because growing up, especially at university, I thought that there was like one type of South Asian woman, and I did not look like her and I was not like her and I just felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. And now at the grand old age of 41. I finally do feel like that.

Sangeeta Pillai 43:31
I’m growing older, and my body is changing shape. My body in my 40s is not like my body in my 20s. I can no longer fit into those size eight or size 10 jeans. And I’ve always wondered, why are we made to feel like the size of our jeans should be equal to the size of our self-esteem. I’ve always had the big hips of a South Indian woman from Kerala, which frankly I’ve always loved. Sexy silk saris need lashes, swaying hips. Going from the hips that I love to the belly, that’s harder for me to love. I’m Peri menopausal. So now my belly has grown a whole lot bigger. It was easy to love the cute little belly of my 20s. It’s so much harder to love this big hormonal belly that juts out of the waistband of my jeans and wobbles out of my tights when I’m wearing dresses.
As women, we’re all exposed to endless images of Slim young bodies, on our TV screens, in our magazines, and even on our social media. How do we show love up to those parts of our bodies that don’t fit the accepted notions of desirability, and beauty? I’m learning slowly to show my belly, some love. Sometimes, I place my hand on my belly, feeling all the folds and the wobbles. And I let my hand stay on my belly, letting some of that warmth and love flow through. Feeling love for my belly is very much a work in progress. But I’m getting there. What projects have you got coming up? You were talking about your new book?

Poorna Bell 45:47
Yes. So my fiction is the main thing that is coming out on the seventh of July. And any support or help people listening can get around it, whether that’s ordering it on pre-order, or when it comes out in the book shops would be great, because I think that it will hopefully speak to a lot of people and I just feel like there are some incredible South Asian female writers who were already writing in the commercial fiction space. And I just think that this is a really joyous, funny, life affirming edition. It’s called in case of emergency.

Sangeeta Pillai 46:25
Love the sound of that. Thank you so much, Poorna, it’s been an absolute joy talking to you.

Poorna Bell 46:31
Thank you too.

Sangeeta Pillai 46:36
Thank you for listening to the Masala Podcast, a Spotify original. Masala Podcast is part of my platform, Soul Sutras. What’s that all about? Soul Sutras is a network for South Asian women. A safe space to tell our story, to hear inspiring South Asian women challenging patriarchy, a space to be exactly the people we want to be and still feel like we belong in our culture, and our community. And ultimately, a space where we feel less alone. I’d love to hear from you. So do get in touch via email at soulsutras.co.uk or go to my website, soulsutras.co.uk. I’m also on Twitter, and Instagram. Just look for Soul Sutras. Masala podcast was created and presented by me Sangeeta Pillai produced by Anushka Tate, opening music by Sonny Robertson.

I spoke to Poorna Bell, an award winning journalist and author, former executive editor for the Huffpost UK, and an amateur powerlifter. To her, her South Asian identity is important. Poorna grew up in the UK, and at the age of seven she moved with her family to India. At age 12 she moved back to the UK.

Read more about Poorna: https://www.poornabell.com/

This shift has shown her that smarter people who have talents are bullied, which is in stark contrast with India where being smart was praised. We spoke about how this shift in identity is difficult. She was conscious about the clothes she wore, the food she ate, and even how she smelled.

As she grew older she started surrounding herself with people who shared the same ethics as herself and no longer had to hide who she was and is. This helped immensely with her identity and to find out who she was and what she stands for.

Poorna is an amateur powerlifter. Powerlifting has a physical and mental impact on an individual, for Poorna the mental aspect ranged from having a phenomenal day to having to psyche herself up for powerlifting. It is not just a physical challenge but a challenge of will and mentality as well. The long term impact of powerlifting was feeling empowering for her physically and mentally.

Powerlifting has helped Poorna accept herself and her physical image in a way many struggle to achieve. It is through the challenges, the time and effort she puts into herself that she has accepted herself and has started to be kind to herself. Powerlifting has become a part of her that she is not going to give up anytime soon.

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