Risking Your Beauty – Female Muay Thai, Brutality and the Beauty Aesthetic
Preface: I wanted to write on this topic right after reading the Lion Fight interview with Tiffany Van Soest prior to her fight with Caley Reece on the Lion Fight promotion. It ended up taking me longer than I’d expected to make the time to actually sit down and write it. Female fighter and blogger Natasha Sky also was inspired by this same interview (the question of risking beauty was also posed to Caley Reece, facing Van Soest on that card) and she wrote a piece on her blog, including questions to other female fighters on their opinions on this topic. (Note: I refrained from reading her piece prior to finishing mine so as to avoid influence. I’ll go read it as soon as I hit publish. You can read her blog post “Oh Don’t Mess Up Your Pretty Face.”
If you’re a woman and you do some kind of contact sport, and especially if you imply that you intend to fight or that you do fight, you’ve probably heard someone respond by having concern for your appearance. My oldest brother, when I first told him I was training in Muay Thai, even before ever fighting, was worried that I would ruin my face in some way. And female fighters of all experience and caliber get this question posed to them as interviews “fit for print,” like, it’s a serious question that isn’t at all out of place with “how are you preparing for this fight?” Men, incidentally, are not asked this question so brazenly; if they are, it doesn’t make it into the printed interview.
In a recent interview leading up to her title match against Australian fighter and World Champion Caley Reece, American rising-star Tiffany Van Soest was asked about “risking beauty for victory.” Here’s Van Soest’s answer:
RISKING BEAUTY FOR VICTORY
Most of the time if you’re a girl and your fighting then your definitely not vain; you don’t care what you look like. Do like my face? Yes (laughs). But I make sure I do a really good job of keeping my hands up and moving my head. But if I get a black eye – it happens. If I get bloodied up a little bit – it happens. There are more important things in life than being like Zoolander – being ridiculously good-looking. I’ve never really thought about it. People have told me, ‘Oh, you’re really pretty, you’re gonna mess up your face.’ I’m like, ‘No, because I’m going to be busy messing up my opponents’ face.’
I understand that men and women are marketed differently. I’m not denying that sex-appeal is currently and will most likely remain a primary piece of promoting and even appreciating female fighters, by both the largely male as well as the female audience and fan base. Most male fighters who are recognizable in the US are conventionally attractive, but it’s not part of the conversation, either openly or insinuated. Certainly this attractiveness is not part of the perceived “risk” that men are taking when entering into the ring.
What’s perhaps most offensive to me, personally, about this question and assumption for women is that the question is almost entirely external; it’s actually warning a woman about how everyone else might feel about her, not how she feels about herself, really. I’ll use myself as an example: I currently have 28 stitches in my face, 13 of which form a black, centipede-like shape down the middle of my forehead. Incidentally, I can’t see it. I need a mirror to do so, but I am made aware of it repeatedly by everyone else’s response – which is mostly staring, unabashedly. So, again, the issue is how others are viewing me. As a woman in pretty much any culture and society I can think of on the planet, physical attractiveness is directly linked to value, which is why aging for a woman feels like she’s depreciating whereas men, generally, experience at least some rise in rank. So when people look at me and see these sutures mucking up my face, they see it with some pity – it’s an injury in any case, so concern is warranted and considerate – but also with a “that’s a shame” flavor that you might cast at a Rolls Royce with a key scratch down the door. That’s a weird way to view persons, really; but not unusual, unfortunately.
So then the issue becomes “why would you do this to yourself on purpose?” If you’re attractive, the question suggests, why don’t you spend all your time and energy protecting that subjectively appraised value? This question about risking beauty turns the empowerment and personal “I feel sexy” boost that men and women feel as a benefit of exercise and maybe even the particular kind that combat sports offer, and minimizes the potency and value of this by suggesting – to some degree – that the feeling isn’t yours, or that the benefit is really in how confident and sexy you are to everyone looking at you. From my experience, beauty-as-told-to-you is actually quite painful. You’re not responsible for it – you didn’t do anything – so you feel somewhat burdened and limited by it. (Studies on children have shown that telling a kid, “wow, you must be really smart,” after they’ve done well on a test is actually damaging to them in terms of their self-esteem in being able to complete a second, more difficult test. Kids who were told, “wow, you must have worked really hard,” are given self-esteem in something they have control over and it positively affects their next, more difficult test by making them work harder. Beauty is like smarts; it’s not earned or controlled, generally.)
But beauty opens doors – attractive people are awarded far more opportunities for absolutely no reason other than the value society places on that attractiveness – but one can feel locked in by their beauty as well. (Not everyone; some people “own” it in a really wonderful way.) But it’s this same idea that the beautiful face can’t see itself, just as the scarred face can’t; so the perception is based on the mirror of everyone around you. The question of risking your beauty understands this – the risk is in having those mirrors reflect badly upon you – but the question also over-values it.
I have personally been asked this question about risking beauty. I’ve also broken my nose three times and have had a total of 37 stitches in my face and one patch of glue to close a cut. (John Wayne Parr told me you can’t count glue in a stitch-count.) I look differently than I did before. But, if you happen to find me attractive it’s because of Muay Thai. My body looks the way it does because of how Muay Thai has shaped it. I am happy and healthy and have light in my face because of my love for Muay Thai. My face is changing. I’ve always been self-conscious about my nose and as the center of my face it is a focus for me. The breaks have altered the shape, which has altered my face in general – not strongly, but noticeably. Because I’ve always taken issue with my nose the change in shape bothers me more than the acquiring of scars, which are more like a collection than an actual change. I wouldn’t say that my attitude is “oh good, I’ve broken my nose;” or “I hope to get a scar here at some point.” But I am proud of them. I’m proud of them because I know where they came from – I earned them in a way, even though they’re mistakes. I learned from them and I don’t feel the need to “patch over” lessons; I like remembering them. Anyone who has a problem with the scars on my face just doesn’t have context.
What’s most offensive to me, however, is the assumption that something permanent from a fight is the greatest risk. Here’s the secret that people who don’t know fighting don’t understand: everything about fighting is permanent. Every time I get in the ring I come out of it a different person and a better fighter… permanently.
(If you like the subject of this post you might also enjoy an entry in Emma Thomas’ blog “Under the Ropes”, on the less tangible ways in which fighting can change a person: Does Fighting Change You?)