**Trigger warning: narrative contains mentions of assault and harassment.
I don’t think about being pretty when I enter the gym. Too busy applying a peppermint oil underneath my nostrils, I’m more concerned with blocking out overlapping smells of wet towels, damp canvas, and still-moist gloves that might have three strains of fungus growing inside of them.
With five minutes to spare I prioritize and focus on the critical things: washing off any makeup, lacing up my shoes, or indulging in the meditative practice of wrapping my hands. Things that impact performance, and make a difference as soon as the clock starts running.
I don’t care if my hair is a frizzy mess by the time I throw my first punch, the satisfying smack of leather echoing through the gym. I’m not concerned about the extra two pounds of water weight I carry around my middle. For an hour and change, my life is dictated by Coach’s cues and the cyclical firing of the bell.
Vanity goes out the window when your sole concern is surviving.
The underbelly of the city is where the magic happens. Everything superficial melts away in this zone if you allow it. Down here, I can’t be bothered to ask after my looks if the ache in my shoulder fights for my attention. All thoughts on beauty disappear if I’m about to pass out in the middle of a session.
There isn’t time to think about being pretty when shuffling around the hard-bodies grinding away in the room. Walking through hell requires keeping your cool, not wondering if the man working the double end bag thinks you’re as cute as the brunette with the hourglass figure. The one who smells like weekends in the Hamptons, pre-war brownstone, and expensive perfume.
It’s a blessing to have sixty minutes where I’m not contemplating being too Amazonian or skinny, too angular or ass-heavy. What a relief to not worry about the unruliness of my hair or whether my crooked front tooth is deemed unsexy.
There is no time to waste when preparing for battle. Pretty and ugly have nothing to with what is unfolding. It is why I ditch the insecurity and trade it for perseverance. That energy is better channeled towards self-preservation, letting go and shattering limitations.
This practice is about making peace with the bodies we exist in.
I don’t get wrapped up in the notion of pretty because pretty isn’t what this is about. Blocking a punch isn’t contingent on breast size. Throwing a knockout hook isn’t based on the seductiveness of your pout. Why preen in the mirror or gauge your sex appeal? No one is attractive when flushed hellfire red or covered in a pound of their own sweat.
But on the days I get the urge to check myself, and obsess over some insecurity that has risen to the surface, I think about times when being pretty never entered my mind—like the day someone yelled “Go home, Somali bitch!” as I crossed the street in downtown Copenhagen.
Or the occasion a sixty-year-old man spat the word “nigger” in my ten-year-old face.
Or the assault I can’t quite remember because someone slipped something in my drink.
Or the near-assault a friend and I avoided by running, breathlessly, down a forested hill in Armenia.
Pretty wasn’t a factor in the attack that took me by surprise because the perpetrator used to be a friend. He was someone I thought I knew.
And I certainly didn’t think about prettiness when I was groped in downtown Cairo by a bunch of youth who should have been in class learning long division.
I never consider how ugly I seem when I clap back at perpetrators who run their mouths. Men who believe they can say what they want because, for a brief moment, we share the same public space.
But while pretty doesn’t matter when you’re under fire it, thankfully, carries even less weight when you’re getting shit done.
I didn’t think about beauty the day I received my graduate degree. I never took out my compact when I helped my volleyball team achieve a victory. The last thing on my mind when I met my goddaughter for the first time was my level of cuteness. My hair was a knotted, nappy mess the day I typed the last line of the first book I wrote.
‘Pretty’ has not played a major role in any of my successes.
In an ideal world, there would be less emphasis on attractiveness. We wouldn’t have conflicting perceptions of beauty and sex appeal jammed down our throats. At times, I wish men could spend a week in our shoes to get a taste of how women move through the world. Being ‘on fleek‘ all the time is a fucking ordeal. It’s why we need more sanctuaries where we can be whatever the hell we want, and not have to think about the physical.
Sacred spaces free us from the designs and expectations forced upon us by others. It is why the gym and my yoga mat serve as secondary and tertiary homes. No one gives a damn if you were Homecoming Queen or America’s Next Top Model the second you step into the ring. We shouldn’t have to primp, preen or clamour for attention while trying to master a new discipline.
More than anything, we are in dire need of safe harbours—where being pretty does not matter.