Boxing is a purely masculine activity and it inhabits a purely masculine world. […] Boxing is for men, and it is about men, and is men. (Joyce Carol Oates)
Writing about boxing is an intimate, private, and unusual activity. Although a decade has passed since I first “stepped into the ring” (sparring or fighting), I have not engaged with boxing in academic terms. I undertook a doctoral degree from 2012 to 2016, during which I competed and won amateur titles in three different countries. Boxing, in a sense, shadowed my research. My fieldwork, researching heritage foods networks, brought me to various locales, situating my body in reference to participants and academics as well as my textual analysis. My daily interactions and reflections in the boxing gym, though, were marginalised to give priority to my doctorate. In a mirrored journey to Wacquant’s “carnal ethnography of the skilled body” (Habitus 87), I boxed as a hobby. It was a means to escape my life as a doctoral student, my thesis, and the library. Research belonged to the realm of academia; boxing, to the realm of the physical. In this paper, I seek to implode this self-imposed distinction.
Practising the “noble art,” as boxing is commonly called, profoundly altered not only my body but also my way of seeing the world, myself, and others. I explore these themes through an autoethnographic account of my experience in the ring. Focusing on sparring, rather than competing, I explore conceptualisations of my face as a material, as well as part of my body, and also as a surface for violence and apprenticeship. Reflecting upon a decade of sparring, the analysis presented in this paper is grounded in the phenomenological tradition whereby knowledge is not an abstract notion that exists over and above felt experience: it is sensed and embodied through practice.
I delve into the narratives of my personal “social logic of a bodily craft” of boxing (Wacquant, Habitus 85). More specifically, I reflect upon my experiences of getting hit in the face by men in the ring, and the acclimatisation required, evolving from feelings of intrusion, betrayal, and physical pain to habit, and at times, excitement. As a surface for punching, my face became both material and immaterial. It was a tool that had to be tuned to varying degrees of pain to inform me of my performance as well as my opponent’s. Simultaneously, it was a surface that was abstracted and side-lined in order to put myself purposefully in harm’s way as one does when stepping into the ring. Through reflecting on my face, I consider how the sport offered new embodied experiences through which I became keenly aware of my body as a delineated target for—as well as the source of—violence. In particular, my body boundaries were profoundly reconfigured in the ring: sparring partners demonstrated their respect by hitting me, validating both my body and my skill as a boxer. In this manner, I discuss the spatiality of the ring as eliciting transitions of felt and abstracted pain as well as shaping my self-image as a re-gendered boxer in the ring and out. Throughout my account, I briefly engage with Wacquant’s discussion of “pugilistic habitus” (Body 99) and his claims that boxing is the epitome of masculine valour. In the final section, I conclude with deliberations upon the new bodily awareness(es) I gained through the sport, and the re-materiality I experienced as a strong woman.
Methodological and Conceptual Frameworks
The analysis in this paper is based on the hybrid narrative of ethnography and autobiography: autoethnography. In the words of Tami Spry, autoethnography is “a self-narrative that critiques the situatedness of self and others in social context” (710). As such, I take stock in hindsight (Bruner; Denzin) of the evolution of my thoughts on boxing, my stance as a boxer, and the ways the ring has affected my sense of self and my body.
Unlike Wacquant's “carnal ethnography” (Habitus 83) whose involvement with boxing was foregrounded in an academic context where he wrote detailed field-notes and conducted participant observation, my involvement was deliberately non-academic until I began to write this paper. Based on hindsight, the data collected through this autoethnography are value-inflected in ways that differ from other modes of data collection. But I have sought to recreate a dialectic between perceptual experience and cultural practices and patterns, in a manner aligned with Csordas’s paradigm of embodiment. My method is to “retrospectively and selectively write about epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture” (Ellis et al. 276) of boxing. These epiphanies, as sensed and embodied knowledge, were not solely conceptual moments but also physical realisations that my body performed, such as understanding—and executing—a well-timed slip to the side to avoid a punch.
Focusing on my embodied experiences in the ring and out, I have sought to uncover “somatic modes of attention:” the “culturally elaborated ways of attending to and with one’s body in surroundings that include the embodied presence of others” (Csordas 138). The aim of this engagement is to convey my self-representation as a boxer in the ring, which emerged in part through the inter-subjectivity of interacting with other boxers whilst prioritising representations of my face. As such, my personal narrative is enmeshed with insights gleaned during embodied epiphanies I had in the ring, interweaving storytelling with theory.
I have chosen to use the conventions of storytelling (Ellis and Ellingson) to explore the defining moments that shaped the image I hold of myself as a boxer. My personal narrative—where I view myself as the phenomenon—seeks “to produce aesthetic and evocative thick descriptions of personal and interpersonal experience” (Ellis et al. 287) whilst striving to remain accessible to a broader audience than within academia (Bochner). Personal narratives offer an understanding of the “self or aspect of a life as it intersects with a cultural context, connect to other participants as co-researchers, and invite readers to enter the author's world and to use what they learn there to reflect on, understand, and cope with their own lives” (Ellis 14; see also Ellis et al. 289).
As the focus of my narrative is my face, I used my body, in Longhurst et al.’s words, as the “primary tool through which all interactions and emotions filter in accessing subjects and their geographies” (208). As “the foundation of the entire pugilistic regimen”, the body is the site of an intimate self-awareness, of the “body-sense” (Heiskanen 26). Taking my body as the starting point of my analysis, my conceptual framework is heavily informed by Thrift’s non-representational theory, enabling me to inquire into the “skills and knowledges [people] get from being embodied beings” (127), and specifically, embodied boxers. The analysis presented here is thus based on an “epistemic reflexivity” (Wacquant, Habitus 89) and responds to what Wacquant coins the “pugilistic habitus” (Body 99): a set of acquired dispositions of the boxer. Bourdieu believes that people are social agents who actively construct social reality through “categories of perception, appreciation and action” (30). The boxing habitus needs to be grasped with one’s body: it intermingles “cognitive categories, bodily skills and desires which together define the competence and appetence specific to the boxer” (Wacquant, Habitus 87). Through this habitus, I construct an image of myself not only as a boxer, but also as a re-gendered being, directly critiquing Wacquant’s arguments of the “pugilist” as fundamentally male.
Resistance to Female Boxing
Mischa Merz’s manuscript on her boxing experience is the most accurate narrative I have yet read on female boxing, as a visceral as well as incorporeal experience, which led Merz to question and reconsider her own identity. When Merz published her manuscript in 2000, six years before I put the gloves on, the boxing world was still resisting the presence of women in the ring. In the UK, licenses for boxing were refused to women until 1998, and in New South Wales, Australia, it was illegal for women to compete until December 2008. It was not until 2012 that female boxing became internationally recognised as a sport in its own right. During the London Olympics, after a sulphurous debate on whether women should be made to box in skirts to “differentiate” them from men, women were finally allowed to compete in three weight categories, compared to ten for men.
When I first started training in 2006 at the age of 21, I was unaware of the long list of determined and courageous women who had carved their way—and facilitated mine—into the ring, fighting for their right to practise a sport considered men’s exclusive domain. By the time I started learning the “sweet science” (another popular term used for boxing), my presence was accepted, albeit still unusual. My university had decreed boxing a violent sport that could not be allowed on campus. As a result, I only started boxing when I obtained a driving licence, and could attend training sessions off-campus. My desire to box had been sparked five years before, when I viewed Girlfight, a film depicting a young woman’s journey into the ring. Until then, I had never imagined a woman could box, let alone be inspirational in the use of her strength, aggression, and violence; to be strong was, for me, to be manly—which, as a woman, translated as monstrous or a perversion. I suddenly recognised in boxing a possibility to rid myself of the burden of what I saw as my bulk, and transform my body into a graceful pugilist—a fighter.
First Sparring Session
Two months after I had first thrown a punch in my coach’s pad—the gear coaches wear to protect their hands when a boxer is punching them to train—I was allowed into the ring to spar. Building up to this moment, I had anticipated and dreaded my first steps in the ring as the test of my skill and worthiness as a boxer. This moment would show my physical conditioning: whether I had trained and dieted correctly, if I was strong or resilient enough to fight. More crucially, it would lay bare my personality, the strength of my character, the extent of my willpower and belief in myself: it would reveal, in boxing terminology, if I had “heart.” Needless to say I had fantasised often about this moment. It was my initiation into the art of being punched and I hoped I would prove myself a hardened individual, capable of withstanding pain without flinching or retreating.
The memory of the first punch to my face—my nose, to be exact—remains clear and vivid. My sparring partner was my coach, a retired boxer who hit me repeatedly in the head during the entirety of my first round. Getting hit in the face for the first time is a profound moment of rupture. Until then, my face had been a bodily surface reserved for affective gestures by individuals of trust: kisses of greeting on the cheeks or caresses from lovers. Only once had I been slapped, in an act of aggression that had left me paralysed with shock and feeling violated. Now in the ring, being punched in the face by a man I trusted, vastly more experienced and stronger than I, provoked a violent reaction of indignation and betrayal. Feelings of deceit, physical intrusion, and confusion overwhelmed me; pain was an entirely secondary concern. I had, without realising, assumed my coach would “go easy” on me, softening his punches and giving me time to react adequately to his attacks as we had practised on the pads. A couple of endless minutes later, I stepped out of the ring, breathless and staring at the floor to hide my tears of humiliation and overwhelming frustration.
It is a common experience amongst novices, when first stepping into the ring, to forget everything they have been taught: footwork, defence, combinations, chin down, guard up … etc. They often freeze, as I did, with the first physical contact. Suddenly and concretely, with the immediacy of pain, they become aware of the extent of the danger they have purposely placed themselves in. The disturbance I felt was matched in part by my belief that I was essentially a coward. In an act condemned by the boxing community, I had turned my face away from punches: I tried to escape the ring instead of dominating it. Merz succinctly describes this experience in the boxing realm: “aspects of my character were frequently tossed in my face for assessment. I saw gaping holes in my tenacity, my resilience, my courage, my athleticism” (49). That night, I felt an unfamiliar sting as I took my jumper off, noticing a slight yet painful bruise on the bridge of my nose. It reminded me of my inadequacy and, I believed at the time, a fundamental failure of character: I lacked heart.
My Face: A Tool for Sensing and Ignoring Pain
To get as accustomed as a punching bag to repeated hits without flinching I had to mould my face into a mask of impassivity, revealing little to my opponent. My face also became a calibrated tool to measure my opponent’s skill, strength, and intent through the levels of pain it would experience. If an opponent repeatedly targeted my nose, I knew the sparring session was not a “friendly encounter.” Most often though, we would nod at each other in acknowledgement of the other’s successful “contact,” such as when their punches hurt my body. The ring is the only space I know and inhabit where the display of physical violence can be interpreted as a “friendly gesture” (Merz 12).
Boxers, like most athletes, are carefully attuned to measuring the degrees of pain they undergo during a fight and training, whilst accomplishing the paradoxical feat—when they are hit—of setting aside that pain lest it be a distraction. In other words, boxers’ bodies are both material and immaterial: they are sites for accessing sensory information, notably pain levels, as well as tools that—at times detrimentally—have learned to abstract pain in the effort to ignore physical limitations, impediments or fatigue. Boxers with “heart,” I believe, are those who inhabit this duality of material and immaterial bodies.
I have systematically been questioned whether I fear bruising or scarring my face. It would seem illogical to many that a woman would voluntarily engage in an activity that could blemish her appearance. Beyond this concern lies the issue, as Merz puts it, that “physical prowess and femininity seem to be so fundamentally incompatible” (476). My face used to be solely a source of concern as a medium of beautification and the platform from which I believed the world judged my degree of attractiveness. It also served as a marker of distinction: those I trusted intimately could touch my face, others could not. Throughout my training, my face evolved and also became an instrument that I conditioned and used strategically in the ring. The bruises I received attested to my readiness to exchange punches, a mark of valour I came to relish more than looking “nice.”
Boxing has taught me how to feel my body in new ways. I no longer inhabit an “absent body” (Leder). I intimately know the border between my skin and the world, aware of exactly how far my body extends into that world and how much “punishment” (getting hit) it can withstand: boxing—which Oates (26) observed as a spectator rather than boxer—“is an act of consummate self-determination—the constant re-establishment of the parameters of one’s being.” A strong initial allure of boxing was the strict discipline it gave to my eating habits, an anchor—and at times, a torture—for someone who suffered from decade-long eating disorders. Although boxing plagued me with the need to “make weight”—to fight in a designated weight category—I no longer sought to be as petite as I could manage. As a female boxer, I was reminded of my gender, and my “unusual” body, as I am uncommonly big, strong, and heavy compared to most female fighters. I still find it difficult to find women to spar with, let alone fight. Unlike in the world outside the gym, though, my size is something I continuously learn to value as an advantage in the ring, a tool for affirmation, and significantly, a means of acceptance by, and equality with, men.
The Ring: A Place of Re-Gendering
As sparring became routine, I had an epiphany: what I had taken as an act of betrayal from my coach was actually one of respect. Opponents who threw “honest” (painful) punches esteemed me as a boxer. I have, to this day, very rarely sparred with women. I often get told that I punch “like a guy,” an ability with which I have sought to impress coaches and boxers alike. As such, I am usually partnered with men who believe, as they have told me, that hitting a “girl”—and even worse, hitting a girl in the face—is simply unacceptable. Many have admitted that they fear hurting me, though some have quickly wanted to after a couple of exchanges. I have found that their views of “acceptable” violence seem unchanged after a session, as I believe they have come to view me as a boxer first and as a woman second.
It would be disingenuous to omit that boxing attracted me as much for the novelty status I have gained within and outside of it. I have often walked a thin line between revelling in the sense of belonging that boxing provides me—anchored in a feeling that gender no longer matters—and the acute sense of feeling special because I am a woman performing as a man in what is still considered a man’s world. I have wavered between feeling as though I am shrugging off the very notion of gender in the ring, to deeply reconsidering what my gender means to me and the world, embracing a more fluid and performative understanding of gender than I had before (Messner; Young).
In a way, my sense of self is shaped conflictingly by the ways in which boxers behave towards me in the ring, and how others see me outside of the boxing gym. As de Bruin and de Haan suggest, my body, in its active dimension, is open to the other and grounds inter-subjectivity. This inter-subjectivity of embodiment—how other bodies constitute my own sensory and perceptual experience of being-in-the-world—remains ambivalent. It has led me to feel at times genderless—or rather, beyond gender—in the ring and, because of this feeling, I simultaneously question and continuously re-explore more vividly what can be understood as “female masculinity” (Halberstam). As training progressed, I increasingly felt that:
If women are going to fight, we have to be reminded, at every chance available, time and again, that they are still feminine or capable, at least, of wearing the costume of femininity, being hobbled by high heels and constrained by tight dresses. All female athletes in a way are burdened with having to re-iterate this same public narrative. (Merz)
As I learned to box, I also learned to delineate myself alongside the ring: as I questioned notions of gender inside, I consequently sought to reaffirm a specific and static idea of gender through overt femininity outside the ring, as other female athletes have also been seen to do (Duncan). During my first years of training, I was the only woman at the gyms I trained in. I believed I had to erase any physical reminders of femininity: my sport clothes were loose fitting, my hair short, and I never wore jewellery or make-up. I wanted to be seen as a boxer, not a woman: my physical attractiveness was, for once, irrelevant. Ironically, I could not conceive of myself as a woman in the ring, and did not believe I could be seen as a woman in the ring. Outside the gym, I increasingly sought to reassert a stereotypical feminine appearance, taking pleasure in subverting another set of beliefs. People are usually hesitant to visualise a woman in a skirt, without a broken nose, as a competitive fighter with a mouth guard and headgear. As Wacquant succinctly put it, “I led a sort of Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde existence” (Habitus 86), which crystallised when one of my coaches failed to recognise me on three occasions outside the gym, in my “normal” clothes.
I have now come to resent profoundly the marginal, sensationalised status that being a boxer denotes for a woman. This is premised on particular social norms surrounding gender, which dictate that if a woman boxes, she is not “your usual” woman. I have striven to re-gender my experience, especially in light of the recent explosion of interest in female boxing, where new norms are being established. As I have trained around the world, including in Cuba, France, and the USA, and competed in the UK, Mexico, and Belgium, I have valued the tacit connection between those who practice the “noble art.” Boxing fashions a particular habitus (Bourdieu), the “pugilistic habitus” (Wacquant, Body 12). Stepping into the ring, and being able to handle getting hit in the face, constitutes a common language that boxers around the world, male and female, understand, value, and share; a language that transcends the tacit everyday embodiments of gender and class. Boxing is habitually said to give access to an upward mobility (Wacquant, Habitus; Heiskanen). In my case, as a white, educated, middle-class woman, boxing has given me access to cross-class associations: I have trained alongside men who had been shot in Coventry, were jobless in Cuba, or dealt with drug gangs in Mexico. The ring is an equalising space, where social, gender—and in my experience, ethnic—divides can be smoothed down to leave the pugilistic valour, the property of boxing excellence, as the main metric of appreciation.
The freedom I have found in the ring is one that has allowed my gendered identity to be thought of in new and creative ways that invite continuous revision. I have discovered myself not solely through the prism of a gendered lens, but as an emotive athlete, and as a person desperate to be accepted despite—or because of—her physical strength. I find myself returning to Merz’s eloquence: “boxing cannot help but make you question who you really are. You cannot hide from yourself in a boxing ring. It might seem a crazy path to self-knowledge, but to me it has been the most rich, rewarding, and perhaps, the only true one” (111). Using Wacquant’s own words to disprove his theory that boxing is fundamentally a virile activity that reaffirms specific notions of masculinity, to become a boxer is to “efface the distinction between the physical and the spiritual [...] to defy the border between reason and passion” (Body 20). In my view, it is to implode the oppositional definitions that have kept males inside the ring and females, out. The ring, in ways unrivalled elsewhere, has shown me that I am not reducible, as the world has at times convinced me, to my strength or my gender. I can, and indeed do, coalesce and transcend both.
After having pondered the significance of the ring to my life, I now begin to understand Merz’s journey as “so much more than a mere dalliance on the dark side of masculine culture” (21). When I box, I am always boxing against myself. The ring is the ultimate space of revelation, where one is starkly confronted with one’s own weaknesses and fears. As a naked mirror, the ring is also a place for redemption, where one can overcome flaws, and uncover facets of who one is. Having spent almost as much time at university as I have boxing, it was in the ring that I learned that “thinking otherwise entails being otherwise, relating to oneself, one’s body, and ambient beings in a new way” (Sharp 749). Through the “boxing habitus,” I have simultaneously developed a boxer’s body and habits as well as integrated new notions of gender. As an exercise in re-gendering, sparring has led me to reflect more purposefully on the multiplicity of meanings that gender can espouse, and on the possibilities of negotiating the world as both strong and female. Practising the “noble art” has given me new tools with which to carve out, within the structures of the society I inhabit, liberating possibilities of being a pugilistic woman. However, I have yet to determine if women have fashioned a space within the ring for themselves, or if they still need to reaffirm a gendered identity in the eyes of others to earn the right to get hit in the face.
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