It’s been nearly a year since Coach took apart my jab and started to put it back together again. At the time, I thought boxing would be a phase because it was too intense and brutal.
A discipline built on a foundation of violence.
But instead, I have become more deeply entrenched in a world of brutality, brotherhood, and ferocity, training like a fiend and adapting the rest of my life to work around my boxing schedule. Not a day has gone by where I haven’t shaken my head and muttered,
Baby, what exactly are you doing?”
In the early days, I was convinced this deep dive was superficial. Six-pack abs. A defined back. Biceps that elicited comments from strangers. My body changed so rapidly that the physical markers seemed to be the most obvious reason for my new obsession. Yet, last summer it became clear there was more to the transformation than just looks. My urge to level-up intensified, as did my appetite for taking risks.
But what eluded me were reasons for my manic attraction to a discipline categorized as masculine, destructive, and inherently violent.
In Joyce Carol Oates‘ book, On Boxing, she writes, “Boxing is about being hit rather more than it is about hitting, just as it is about feeling pain, if not devastating psychological paralysis, more than it is about winning. […] Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost art of masculinity all the more trenchant for being lost.”
Her exposé is poetic, historically relevant and, at times, insightful but passages like the above made it hard for me to swallow many of her base assumptions. I took particular issue with those involving gender and racial classifications, along with the notion that because boxing is rooted in a primal thirst for brutality it can’t be for, or about, women.
For someone who never put on gloves or trained for a fight, I found Oates’ narrative dishonest. Halfway through the book, I threw it against the wall (try to ignore that irony). I set the book aside for a while because her philosophical chronicle reinforced stereotypes between the masculine and feminine.
It’s outdated, the idea that fighting is an ego-driven, rite of passage. Why is it that anything touched by violence falls into the domain of men? There are thousands of reasons for why someone chooses to fight. And although violence is exacted more by men in the “real world” it does not mean that women do not have a taste for absorbing or throwing punches.
Bursts of aggression in a controlled setting can be a release for anyone, regardless of gender.
I am continually asked what thrills me about hitting the pads or getting in the ring to try and not get thrashed upside the head. Each person clings to their bias as they listen to my responses but where the majority of women ask about the mental aspects and physicality of boxing, most men express concern or unease about a woman trespassing in, what is thought to be, a traditionally male domain.
It seems we still ascribe to norms that have been around since the days of T-rex—when physical determinants (including a life-giving womb) dictated women must be shielded, protected, restrained, and defended. It’s only in the last century we have seriously considered that violence might be a learned behaviour reinforced by the positive feedback one gets when they choose to act out.
This theory makes sense to my mind since aggression and violence don’t strike me as innate, built-in male traits. Looking at the world, and reflecting on various experiences, I’d argue women and men harbour both. The difference is that it is far more latent in women since we have been told we are polite, yielding, and peaceful, while men are violent, forceful, and savage.
It occurred to me a couple weeks ago that coming to terms with my ability to lash out is one reason I keep returning to the gym. Knowing I can get hit without dropping to the canvas teaches me something about withstanding whatever life throws my way. Being able to hold my ground or throw a punch tells me something about the fundamental power that underlies violence—a principle that is 100% volatile but might not be so destructive if we knew how to better harness it.
Contrary to the history books and popular sentiment men aren’t always knights and women aren’t always damsels in distress. The majority of us aren’t locked up in some tower, hair dangling out the window, waiting to be saved. Taught that strength makes women undesirable or exertion and belligerence isn’t feminine.
Naturally, I hope I’ll never have to use what I have learned this last year in the streets. I’m not looking for a fight unless it’s in the ring. That said, on my worst days I know for a fact I have thought about punching someone in the face so hard they spit blood and see stars. But my sex has no bearing on my decision to refrain from lashing out. I don’t do it because of possible consequences, like legal recourse.
And simply because I know better. Violence isn’t always the answer.
I suppose my choice to “act out violently” in a contained manner is a way of seeking redress. It might not make sense, but fighting is one method of rewriting my story. I use physical action to make peace with trauma. Putting on the gloves helps me harness the energy I need to throw off the narratives others have laid to rest on my shoulders.
It is a way for me to take ownership of the latent power I have always possessed.