Alison Dean is the author of Seconds Out: Women and Fighting.
I am standing barefoot at the edge of the mats. My kickboxing coach holds an open tub of Vaseline in one hand and performs a greasy baptism across my cheeks and around my eyes with the other. I am as ready as I am going to be. I’ve passed through the rituals of weighing in, braiding my hair, stretching and wrapping my hands. My skin is damp to the touch from my warm-up, and I am hyperaware of my physical self – from the pull of my clothing to the heaviness of my arms dangling at my sides as I open my mouth to receive my mouthguard. My hands are taped into boxing gloves, my legs are strapped into shin guards, and in the moment where I am supposed to feel most powerful, I have to ask a friend to pull up my pants for me, since I now have leather paws instead of hands. Moments later, I find myself face to face with a complete stranger. I’ve warned myself that she wants to hit me; I’m trying to teach myself to want to hit her more. This is my very first fight, and questions abound: Will I know what to do in the moment? What if I freeze up when I get hit? As I face my opponent, I am struck with a shockingly obvious question, and wonder why it hasn’t occurred to me before: Why the hell am I doing this?
When I tell people that I train in kickboxing and boxing, I am often met with a polite reply: “That’s great. It’s important for women to learn self-defence.” They’re not wrong – although the histories of self-defence are more complex than most give them credit for. There are times when marginalized groups, including women, are more galvanized to take up physical training. Self-defence training often spikes in moments of social unrest. This was the case when women were seeking the right to vote in Britain in the early 1900s, and it is true today. The popularity is well warranted. Studies show that people who learn self-defence become more confident, have increased mobility and freedom, and inhabit the world in a way that allows us to feel less afraid. Training helps us to establish boundaries and anticipate threats; it also raises our chances of escape if attacked.
But that’s not why I train and that’s not why I fight.
I started kickboxing in my mid-30s. I was always drawn to the sport, without really knowing anything about it. I had never even seen a fight. Not surprisingly, no one took my interest seriously. I think we all assumed I’d just get hurt. From the first day, I felt like an anthropologist every time I walked into the gym. Fight culture seemed alien. As I grew more comfortable in the setting and with what was being asked of me, however, I realized it provided an opening to explore who I was and what I was capable of doing. I want to thrive within spaces and situations that are unpredictable and (like so many things in life) largely out of my control. I fight because I enjoy it. I’m not alone in this. And this is not a new phenomenon.
Women have always fought, both officially and informally. While many of us share common social conditions, our reasons for stepping onto the mat, into the ring, or up into the cage are as varied as they are for our male counterparts. There’s evidence of women wrestling against men as far back as 330 BC and when boxing was becoming formalized as a sport in the early 1700s, one of the most famous and respected pugilists was the “European Championess” Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes. Despite adversity (and astronomical pay gaps), many women have fought for a living throughout history.
So when the default for any women’s combat sports training is categorized as “self-defence,” it seems to flatten the category of what so many fighters are actually doing. This mental shortcut says a lot more about stereotypical gender roles than it does about the practice of combat sports. At its worst, this assumption highjacks the narrative. It makes it about “men.” As far as I am concerned, (male) would-be attackers already limit where I can walk at night, when I should look over my shoulder and how I interact with strangers. They don’t get to have my training, too.
There’s nothing passive or easy about learning to fight. Part of the difficulty is retraining your body and mind to take up different, often counter-intuitive patterns; this is exhausting physical, psychological and emotional work. But fighting is also about pushing your limits, so you know you can always dig deeper when the time comes. If you don’t challenge yourself in the gym, how will you find those depths in a fight? Fight training asks us to embrace discomfort. It pushes us to expect more each day than we were capable of the day before and to find the best versions of ourselves. No matter what is going on in my life, when I leave the gym, I feel renewed.
My training partner, Tomoko, started kickboxing because she wanted to get out of her comfort zone (an idea that is echoed by many of the women I have talked to). This self-transformation, which she jokingly refers to as “Tomoko 2.0,” grew from kickboxing itself, and from being exposed to the different people and ideas she came across in the process. In a boxing or MMA gym environment, students generally train with people from various walks of life, ages and experience levels. Many self-identified women gravitate toward women-only classes and sessions, which offer a way to delve into combat sports in a particularly safe space; these classes encourage hard work while often maintaining a fun and empowering tone. I enjoy women-only classes and attend a fair amount. I also take part in co-ed training because it opens up other opportunities. I like training with people of all genders on an equal playing field where we are held to a common contract and rule set. Fighting has the potential to create a safe space within which to experiment with non-traditional gender roles. I have female friends who find solace in sports such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that ask women to put themselves in intimate physical contact with strangers (mostly men) who by the rules of engagement they then have to trust. As these friends tell me, encountering mutual respect (rather than the toxic behaviour we might fear or expect) is heartening, and encouraging. And those discoveries go both ways. Though these co-ed spaces can cause anxiety, when managed well, they can also help to heal it.
While some people assume fighting is simply antagonistic, it’s more accurate to say fight training is an exercise in observation and communication. In the gym, we learn to negotiate our needs and expectations with coaches and training partners. Whether we are holding pads or sparring, we are also actively sharpening the ability to identify each other’s mistakes and tendencies. This might seem judgmental, but it’s not. While my sparring partner might want to exploit my weaknesses for their own benefit in the moment (they are also training to win!), we all benefit. When I am feeling tired or being careless, I drop my left hand too low, leaving an easy target. It’s almost a rite of passage for training partners to knock my left contact lens out at this point. They are learning how to read their opponent, and in the process, they are helping me identify and correct my mistakes for the future. Just as dear friends are the ones who will provide you with tough love rather than letting you flounder, the best coaches and training partners show support by pointing out gaps, working to correct weak spots and providing each other with the feedback we need to improve.
There are codes of behaviour in the gym, but within that frame many of the niceties of polite society get stripped away. We are all, at one point or another, laid bare. It’s hard to hide when you are physically and emotionally exhausted and getting choked, kicked or hit in the face. (And while I have definitely tried to pass tears off as sweat, it never really works. They know.) Fighting is intimate, and accepting the vulnerability required to work through the learning process is one of the most freeing things about it.
I am not alone in being drawn to fighting for the challenge. When asked why they choose to participate in “hard” and largely male-dominated martial arts, many female Muay Thai and MMA fighters say they want the opportunity to test themselves when pushed to their physical limits. Fighting shows you your strengths, and it shows you your fears. Empowerment can – and is – often the result. But as women explore realistic forms of violence even in these controlled settings, the process can bring up old memories and feelings. Fighting can be traumatizing. Many queer, non-binary, trans and gender-nonconforming folks are often made to feel unsafe just walking down the street, let alone stepping into a hypermasculine space such as a gym. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Coaches and leaders set the tone and actively shape the culture of the gym, but much of this change happens because our presence, and our voices, demand it. While we should always keep our eyes open and be careful about where, and with whom, we place our trust, there’s no question that we all belong in the ring. These spaces can adapt – we don’t have to contort ourselves to fit them.
Fighters learn humility and patience, as well as self-confidence. These qualities are balanced with the freedom to explore power and aggression – something that is often less expected for women. For an overthinker like me, the sense of immediacy that I get from fighting helps me get out of my own way. You have to go into a fight believing you can win. When there is someone across from me, I have to be focused and present; I have to put faith in myself. Fighting shows me what I can do, and what I can overcome. That sense of empowerment extends to other arenas as well. Self-empowerment doesn’t have to be shallow, individual, or selfish. And while self-defence training works through many of these same ideas, the assumptions connected to the term “self-defence” don’t quite cover what I’m getting at here. For many, the skills they hone learning to fight also show them how to stand up, protest, or be strong for those who can’t. But this is not an easy fix or a single event. It’s a process.
At some point before every competition, I return to that same question I asked at my first fight: Why am I doing this? Without fail, by the time the bell rings to signal the end of the match -- win or lose -- I have my answer.
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