To close out our month-long period of reflection, inspiration and celebration for International Women’s Day, we invited award-winning journalist and author, Poorna Bell, for an in-conversation session with MD of Technology, Sport and Entertainment, Charlie Morgan.

For many of us, Poorna Bell’s journey and work epitomise how we as individuals and as communicators are striving to challenge ourselves and the world around us. Poorna’s work in the fitness space and position within the diversity and female empowerment conversation has led to a number of high-profile collaborations with brands including NatWest, Bupa, Lululemon, Sweaty Betty and Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign. 

Using her social media platforms for good, Poorna was named on the Marie Claire Verified power list 2019, which champions women who use Instagram to amplify positive messages, inspire others, and open difficult conversations with honesty and candour.

Presented by EquALL, our framework to create a louder culture of equity at our company, and Thrive, our Health and Wellbeing programme, the session built on this year’s IWD theme, #ChooseToChallenge.

Poorna provided us with a timely reminder that we have as big a job to do to challenge ourselves as we do to the world around us. The following are four of her key tips to start doing this effectively:

Challenging gender norms

Poorna credits weightlifting for helping her throughout her grief, providing her with not only physical, but mental strength, body confidence and resilience. Her journey from someone who once did “practically no sport” to competing in amateur powerlifting competitions, squatting 110kg with ease, challenges us to rethink strength.

In believing that weightlifting is ‘for men’, that women should avoid getting ‘too bulky; or that men are ‘naturally stronger’, Poorna underlined a profound belief that many women hold firmly in ourselves, often subconsciously: that women should aim to be the smallest version of themselves. In practical terms, this looks like avoiding the heavier weights, or constantly fixating on dropping dress sizes. But if we aren’t careful, this belief also creeps into our personal lives and work lives.

How often does shrinking down into the smallest version of ourselves prevent us from speaking up when we think something isn’t right, or struggling to advocate for ourselves and assert our self-worth? There is a strength that comes from allowing yourself to be the strongest you can possibly be and feeling confident to take up space.

Challenging your comfort zone

We’ve all experienced that feeling of defensiveness when the ideas we hold firmly within ourselves are questioned. Sometimes, this can be as minuscule as whether we define ourselves to be a sportsperson or couch potato. Other times, this comes when we have to tackle big societal issues, like gender, race, sexuality or disability. In Poorna’s words, it is vital to give ourselves permission to course correct and challenge the ideas we hold close to us.

As communications professionals, this is certainly a practice that serves us as an agency and as client advisors. How can we produce boundary-pushing work for our clients if we fail to extend the boundaries of our knowledge of our own selves and our communities? What starts as taking the chance to pick up a kettlebell for the first time could very well end up as the inspiration for devising an industry-standard campaign that transforms how an entire generation of women view personal fitness.

Challenging resilience

When asked to define what ‘resilience’ means to her, Poorna reflected that for a long time, she mistook endurance for resilience. Something the comms industry knows too well since 59% of industry professionals (even before the pandemic) reported suffering or having been diagnosed with mental ill-health. We have to unlearn this. It’s not resilience, it’s endurance – and is ultimately unsustainable.

So many of us would do well to adopt Poorna’s revised definition of resilience: the ability to demonstrate a healthy trajectory of change through challenging times so that when challenging circumstances arise, your resilience is defined by how you adapt and cope with them. This doesn’t mean that you don’t fail, or don’t have off days, but that you choose to move forward.  

Challenging self-care

At the one year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, none of us should be strangers to the concept of ‘self-care’ Instead of grandiose rituals and expensive habits to help keep our spirits up, what if self-care could be as simple as the tiny things we can do every day – the metaphorical drop in the bucket.

Putting boundaries in place so we don’t have meetings during lunchtime, blocking out time in your diary for an afternoon walk, keeping a consistent night-time routine. As Poorna describes it, self-care can be seen as a preventative measure for burnout, instead of how we try to recover from it after.

As we strive to remove the external barriers put in women’s way, it is crucial that we also examine our self-imposed internal barriers. So much of this is easier said than done, but by giving ourselves permission to confidently take up space in our worlds, imagine the world of fulfilment and creativity that lies ahead.  

"We should think of self-care like a bucket – you have to make sure you add to it daily."

Poorna Bell

Thanks again to Poorna for taking the time to spark such an inspiring and thought-provoking conversation – check out her newly released third book, Stronger. The part manifesto, part memoir is inspired by Poorna’s journey to find physical strength following her husband’s passing, after which she became a competitive powerlifter, and the book aims to help lay a roadmap for how women can tap into their own physical and mental strength.