‘The female person who enacts the existence of women in patriarchal society must live a contradiction: as human she is a free subject who participates in transcendence, but her situation as a woman denies her that subjectivity and transcendence. My suggestion is that the modalities of feminine bodily comportment, motility, and spatiality, exhibit this same tension between transcendence and immanence, between subjectivity and being a mere object. We often experience our bodies as a fragile encumbrance rather than the media for the enactment of our aims.’
Iris Marion Young, ‘Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility and Spatiality’
Some time last spring I signed up to take part in a boxing match. I’d been going to a boxing gym to keep fit for a while: I got sick of the cheap gym I’d been visiting, with its constantly changing class times, and its ever-worsening instructors. I got tired of taking step classes led by men who looked embarrassed to be there, in such a feminine space, who didn’t think it was important to time the exercises to the music, let alone plan them in advance. I’d never felt at home there anyway: I was always too red-faced and visibly sweaty. I couldn’t wear the sleek black leggings that seemed to be the women’s uniform because I got too hot. My hair was always a mess and I didn’t wear make-up. Compared to the other women I felt what I often feel around large groups of women, that I was failing to perform my gender in the right kind of way.
The boxing gym was different. The mats we did our sit ups on were cracking and disintegrating. The punch bags were held together with gaffer tape. By the end of a class everything smelt of sweat. I’d never sweated so much before; it dripped off of me. And it didn’t seem to matter. It didn’t matter that my face became red and my hair got frizzy and in winter time I didn’t bother to shave my legs; just as long as I could make it to the end. Women came to the classes but it didn’t feel like a feminine space. It didn’t feel contained. I took pleasure in hitting things, hard, as hard as I could. I watched the other women and felt stronger, more aggressive. They punched like girls; I told myself that I didn’t.
I’d always been good at sports. In retrospect I think it was probably less to do with skill than it was a kind of shamelessness about my body. I took a long drive with my dad a few years ago, and he told me that he’d always wanted me to be fearless. He used to throw me high in the air and play rough with me. I don’t think of myself as fearless, but I think that perhaps what he gave me was a confidence in my body that lets me neglect it. Like him, I am clumsy because I forget what I am doing with my limbs; I get distracted and knock things over. I have always thought of this casual disregard for my physical surroundings as a problem; but it is also a kind of freedom. But though I’ve always enjoyed sport, I’ve never been good at practicing. I get bored. I get distracted. I get disillusioned when I can’t get something right immediately. I’ve never known how to train, to repeat over and over the fine movements that make for mastery. What carried me through school sports was less an aptitude for picking up physical skills and more a kind of fearlessness about trying, running, jumping, that marked me out from my female peers. The first time I went to the boxing gym the man who ran the classes said I was a ‘grafter’. I glowed with the praise.
Boxing is more like academia than you might expect. There are a lot of men, and that sets the culture. Once I signed up to fight a real match I got a lot of credit just for being there. Everyone remembers you when you’re the only woman, and it’s not hard to be exceptional – for a girl – when you’re the only one. But it isn’t always easy to get taken seriously. No one wants to get stuck with you unless it’s an opportunity to explain things to you. When you start this is helpful: so many men, so eager to show you the ropes; until one day you know the ropes and they still want to start from the beginning, to teach you. Once I fought a man who just wouldn’t hit back, and the momentary exhilaration of getting shot after shot to land was soon overtaken by the shame of realisation that he wasn’t fighting me because I was a girl, and you can’t hit a girl. But often it was more complicated. It wasn’t always clear whether men were explaining things to me and pulling their punches because they were being kind and I was new, or because I was a girl. Once I was paired up with another woman who tried to explain things to me. I was irritated, but I wasn’t sure if it was because she was almost as new as I was, or because she was also a girl.
The hardest thing to learn was how to punch without holding back. The first time I found myself in the ring with another person I was taken aback by how powerfully I felt, as I hit out, you can’t do that. You’re not supposed to hit people. It took a long time to get over that sense; I don’t think I really did until right at the end, during my fight. For a while I got frustrated that the men I sparred with wouldn’t really hit me, would barely even tap me when they got past my defences (all the time, just in case it sounds like I was actually any good at this). And then the first time someone hit me, really hit me, my first feeling was outrage: you’re not supposed to hit me, I thought, I’m a girl. Learning how to get punched wasn’t much better. There’s something shocking about it, especially when the punches land on your face, which they mostly did because everyone was taller than me. I cried a lot; and spent a lot of time trying to blink back the tears before anybody saw them.
The pleasure of boxing, for me, was all about finding the clean shot. It wasn’t about doing damage so much as finding the gap in your opponent’s defences, and slipping through to connect so perfectly. Early on when I was practicing with the women I knew I’d be up against in our match she said, a little disconcerted, ‘Every time you hit me in the face you smile’. I didn’t know how to explain that it wasn’t really about her at all, just the joy of finding a clear line of attack, taking the opportunity, making contact. My clearest memory of the one real fight I did was landing two clean shots, right in her face. It was sheer joy.
It was that uneasy juxtaposition, the coincidence of the moment when you score the perfect point with the moment that you do damage to another person that felt most like my experience of academic work. Critique isn’t the only joy of writing but it’s one of them: finding the gap in your interlocutor’s argument, slipping through to land a shot with a perfectly placed sentence. I love it. But I never know how to handle the personal aftermath. When I write I am sure of myself; I don’t think about anything except the skill of thinking, writing, arguing. I don’t think about the damage I’m inflicting. But afterwards it is awkward: how to integrate the freedom of critique, unbound from the demands of politeness and emotional labour with face to face interaction, where all of a sudden you’re not arguing any more, not fighting? All of a sudden the panel ends, you meet one another face to face at a conference, you remember that you are colleagues, not opponents, and all the weight of gendered expectations comes rushing back in on you. Had you forgotten that you’re a woman, that it’s your job to keep the peace?