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Strong + Bendy founder Rhian Cowburn: 'I was fed up of other gyms shaming their customers'

PUBLISHED: 15:18 22 November 2019 | UPDATED: 15:18 22 November 2019

Faye Mouse Bell (left) and Rhian Cowburn launched Strong + Bendy two years ago. Picture: Supplied.

Faye Mouse Bell (left) and Rhian Cowburn launched Strong + Bendy two years ago. Picture: Supplied.

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Tired of fitness brands that shame their customers in to exercising with 'before and after' images, the founders of Strong + Bendy are celebrating the beauty of their members with six giant portraits around their fresh new studio, now open in Hackney Wick.

Strong + Bendy fitness studio in Hackney Wick. Picture: SuppliedStrong + Bendy fitness studio in Hackney Wick. Picture: Supplied

When Faye Mouse Bell signed up for her first Iron Man triathlon, there was a problem. She had difficulty swimming 30 metres, and the race started with a cool 2.4 miles in the water. Then a 112 km bike ride. And a marathon to finish.

But this didn't put her off. "When I signed up to an Iron Man, I was really stressed at work, doing really long hours, and I needed something to focus on," she says.

"There's nothing that's going to drive you to train more than knowing you can't swim 30 metres, when you need to swim 3,800. Also there's [a sense of] excitement, it's so huge and the fear of failure drives you. I enjoyed the buzz of that."

At this point Rhian Cowburn - her identical sister and co-founder of the Strong + Bendy fitness studio - responds by saying "there was also a bit of: oh, you did an Iron Man… I'm going to have to do one now!"

Six portraits of Strong + Bendy members are located around the studio. Picture: SuppliedSix portraits of Strong + Bendy members are located around the studio. Picture: Supplied

The sisters founded Strong + Bendy two-and-a-half years ago, moving in to a new studio complete with an exercise garden on Trowbridge Road in September. The space has undergone an extensive renovation - funded by the pair's personal savings - and features six giant murals of some of their most treasured customers by the renowned street artist, Zabou.

"I was fed up of seeing other gyms shame their customers by posting 'before and after' shots of them in their underwear on banners, social media and websites," explains Cowburn.

"So I decided to do the exact opposite - I commissioned Zabou to create seven foot high beautiful portraits of our members, celebrating them just the way they are."

The murals are partly in place to respect Hackney Wick's reputation for street art, but they're mainly a thank you note to clients who have been a part of the Strong + Bendy journey from the start.

Strong + Bendy hosts 130 fitness classes per month. Picture: SuppliedStrong + Bendy hosts 130 fitness classes per month. Picture: Supplied

"What was unbelievable was that Zabou did them all in five days," Bell recalls. "My favourite thing [of the renovation] by far was seeing Zabou work. It was a privilege to watch."

Strong + Bendy hosts 130 fitness classes per month including yoga, kettlebells, pop pilates, strength circuits and bodyweight bootcamps. 1,500 people in total have taken a class at some point, with 250 clients coming to train regularly. Some of the sessions are run by Bell and Cowburn themselves, while others are put on by external instructors.

Cowburn says that the ethos of Strong + Bendy centres "on how you feel when you leave, rather than how you look.

"What these [other] brands sell on is that every bit of you is not good enough, you don't look the right way and we've got this magic formula that we can sell you," she adds. "I would counter that with the people coming here - like Sarah, who we chose for the wall - what an insult it is to suggest that anyone as amazing as these people would need transforming."

The venue features an exercise garden. Picture: SuppliedThe venue features an exercise garden. Picture: Supplied

Bell and Cowburn, who are 35 and grew up in a village in County Durham, have been in London for nine and 13 years respectively. They consider this corner of east London "a home from home - it's either the north east or Hackney Wick, we get a nosebleed in other areas!"

Bell says that there's rarely feedback from customers celebrating a physical transformation. They're much more likely to "say they come back because they enjoy the social aspect of it.

"We've got a catalogue of emails saying we've helped them with their mental health, and that is not recognised at all in the before and after pictures. You can't photograph that; the social element and motivation of group fitness."

Strong + Bendy is at The Trowbridge Centre, 1 Trowbridge Road, E9 5LD. More details and a full class list here.

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