Body Conscious – Finding Freedom and Personal Power
After struggling out of my wet sports bra, I stood in front of Kevin who was lying on the bed and waved my hands around animatedly while regaling him with the stories of evening training. I slipped off the rest of my clothes as I laughed about clinching, probably with a string of cuss words flowing out as I recounted the events. “Jesus,” Kevin said, looking at me, “I should take a picture.” I was feeling pretty good, do it, I said and kept talking. So Kevin snapped a few photos of my body before I disappeared into the shower, just enough time to get cleaned up before having to go back out again to collect groceries for dinner that night.
I was at the store when Kevin sent me the photos, which he’d made black and white on his photo editor. He sent two versions, one cropped, perhaps jokingly labeled “for public” and one only suitable for an art gallery, labeled tastefully as a “nude.” I was caught off guard by the images – a few fellow shoppers who were nosy enough to be peering at my phone were likely taken aback by the photos as well, but whatever – and honestly I looked at the shots a few times thinking to myself: I can’t believe that’s me. I see my body every day and it changes size up and down in small degrees all the time. A little softer for a week, then leaner for a few days; I’ll catch a glimpse of my abs at rest in the mirror while I’m walking past and be happy that they’re visible and then not notice again for several weeks. Or I’ll be self-conscious about how wide my shoulders and back look in a T-shirt when I see some photo of myself from behind. I’m aware of my body, but I’m not focused on it. Looking at these photos, it snapped into focus. This is me.
And there’s an interesting thing going on within myself regarding my relationship to my body right now. As a woman raised in America, I’m very body-conscious in a number of ways that I don’t like. Like many women in my life I’ve been overly critical of small details that I regard as imperfections and flaws, things which should be hidden and felt shame about. I remember as a young girl seeing my mother naked as she would dress for work or try to relax in the tub with four goddamn kids always needing something from her. She would hold the extra skin on her stomach between her hands, like bread dough, and lament that she could lose 5 pounds. I was maybe 7 at the time of that particular memory, but it’s a theme of how she expressed her feelings about her own body that I recall throughout my growing up. At the time, I didn’t think of my mother’s body as beautiful or flawed; I didn’t then think of my own body as beautiful or flawed. But when I think back to my mother’s body now, with my mind and world experience and my own adult woman’s body that has never borne children, I only think of how beautiful she was. That soft fleshy handful of her belly seems wonderful, it feels alien compared to the endless hardness of my own body. She found dissatisfaction in her softness and I find dissatisfaction in my body too. Our shared experience is the one of unhappiness, which is very sad. I don’t think I learned to dislike my body from my mother, that’s silly. But I don’t think my brothers ever internalized this judgement of their own form by that example, or by looking at my father. I don’t believe it’s a male experience to the same frequency or degree.
I’ve written before about how my acceptance and appreciation of my own body has come through understanding it’s function. My body does things, athletically and functionally and artistically as a Muay Thai fighter, that I love. That doesn’t mean I have an unconditional love for my body, but I do regard it differently than if I weren’t a fighter. As a woman in a male space (a Thai gym) and in a foreign culture to boot, I’ve necessarily made choices in how to hide my body and conduct myself in that space that I believe makes things both safer and easier for me – it improves my chances to get the training I need, and the opportunities I want as a fighter. I believe this constant un-sexing has been successful from an outside standpoint, as being viewed as sexually available in the practice ring or in the crowd of a fight doesn’t have many long-term advantages. One definitive time I was forced to change my shirt very quickly for a fight – several knockouts happened in rapid succession – and did so on the mat, surrounded by my trainer and teammates, rather than in the restroom where this would normally take place. The restroom was a 5 minute walk away, I had no time to go change and still I struggled with the decision and considered making the whole show wait. I was wearing my sports bra, it wasn’t that much different from the tank top that I fight in or what’s visible when I receive my oil massage and my shirt is pushed up to expose my stomach, but it was something that had never happened before. I was seen in a way that I’d never been seen before. And there was a very clear difference – a kind of palpable strangeness – in the male responses to me from my gymmates and trainers for a good 4 months after that. Simply by having flashed more skin in a moment that felt almost impossible to avoid. This is an example that illustrates why I’ve chosen to un-sex myself pretty starkly in the gym, but that decision is one that internally has taken its toll over the years. Part of what makes us love working out or playing sport is how that physical expression makes us feel. Part of that feeling is a sexual empowerment. To shut that down on a daily basis doesn’t feel good, and it carries over into my life outside the gym as well, even though it might have much greater advantages in the gym, socially.
The Thai fighters at my gym are constantly looking at themselves in the mirror, you can see them preening and strutting around when they feel good, poking fun at the doughy bodies of the younger kids and it’s notably difficult for my trainer, who is in his early 40’s, to let go of his own identification with this youthful body even though he’s in great shape. A 40 year old woman surrounded by 20-year-old women in their bikinis would not help but compare herself, but the male version of that is where an ex-fighter has to let go of his 20-year-old body. But even he gets to flex in the mirror when he’s lifting weights in the morning, strip off his shirt between pad rounds when the temperatures in the gym are stifling. I stay covered and closed, detached from the empowerment I should feel as a result of a very natural connection to my body and this work. It’s hard; it’s somehow self-effacing. And while I’ve written before about my relationship to my body and its function, I have never written – or even talked much about this other than with my husband – about the suppression of sexuality in order to hold my place in the gym. It’s been painful and in many ways has damaged my Muay. Everything I do – everything – is toward improving my ability to express myself in my fighting, in the ring, through my Muay. But this necessary cloaking of myself is, I believe, a kind of castration of personal power. This affects one of the primary aims of training in the gym, which is to make your fighting an expression – a direct expression – of personal power. A confident fighter is a dangerous fighter, but I’m consistently burying this aspect of my confidence.
The greatest thing I’m working on at all times is attaining more freedom in my Muay. I want to fight more freely, to feel that freedom of expression through the fight. In order to fight free, I have to train free. I have to learn to associate my experience of personal freedom, of power, with the acts of attack and defense, and let that feeling of power lead the way. And at the profoundest levels you train these things in all aspects of your life, everywhere you go. When in the ring there are loads of limitations, rules, regulations and factors which require constant adjustment and decision making, but one can bring along with you all sorts of self-limiting habits, deep concerns that you execute beautifully, or correctly, that you are not too aggressive or off balance, and sometimes an overriding feeling that you don’t want to let yourself go. It’s a fine line between restraint and constraint. This attitude of constraint can become reinforced in the constant self-regulation a woman may have to consider in the gym. Succeeding in a Thai gym can be like tending a garden where you only want certain kinds of plants to grow. Just because of the sexuality of the space weeds are going to grow no matter what you do and expressing sexuality in the gym is just going to feed them. I’m constantly pulling at the weeds (curbing conversations, where eyes go, the meaning of physical proximity, pretending to not understand a naughty joke) to keep the rows of valuable produce in line, growing and receiving the most care; if I stop pulling the weeds, it affects the entire garden – my intention isn’t in growing weeds, even if a wild and unkempt garden has a certain freedom to it. But that freedom would have a cost that would severely limit my possibilities as a fighter. Thai trainers are very accepting of female fighters and gym members, by and large, in many ways more so than in the west, but they are also subject to deeply ingrained attitudes toward women’s ceilings or what’s expected of young women (beauty, marriage, babies, etc.). You are always in many ways a woman first and that ultimately isn’t synonymous with a fighter, whereas being a man and being a fighter go together. It’s an expression of masculinity, and male prowess in Thailand has a defined path of achievement through big shows and National stadia that reflect honor back onto the gym. This is what’s at risk; this is why you tend the garden. You don’t want to be defined first and last as a woman if you can help it. It can seriously affect the training your receive, the clinch and sparring partners you are given, and the kinds and number of fights you can be booked for. As much as you can you have to push forward that you are a fighter, make it transcend your gender. This care is tedious and takes effort every single day. To cite a brief but significant example, when I’m preparing myself to go to arduous training, getting my mind right, one of the first things I have to do, twice per day, is pick out what to wear to training: tank top or T-shirt, shorts and undershorts. It’s the same 20 pairs of shorts, the same 20 shirts, but on any given day they can read differently. I look in the mirror and am making a conscious decision about how my appearance could possibly limit my opportunities – every day, regardless of everything I’ve proven about myself leading up to this day. What makes me feel good, like I want to kick ass vs how it’s going to be read by others. In this tug of war it’s always about 90% of a concern over how I’m going to be read. It makes me passive to my circumstances, and casts a judgmental light upon my own instinct towards personal power and expression. I literally start off every training session with a ritual of dress and self-gazing back that often makes me feel a little cut off from myself. And I do it dutifully. Those social consequences aren’t just for today, they’re for the long run. The 4 seconds it took me to change my shirt at that fight had a 4 month ripple effect. No heterosexual man has this same conflict with getting dressed before training every day.
It should also be said that self-contraint and un-sexing is not solely done for my own selfish aims of getting the best training and opportunity that I can possibly have. It is also done respectfully and out of an honest aim toward politeness and good decorum. Respect plays a very large part of Thai culture, and gyms are no exception. There is more than one story of western women coming to Thailand to train seriously but bringing with them their homeland power and freedom of sexuality (and if we generalize the one social power women in the west are granted, it is sexual power), often armed with western feminist sensibilities of liberation. Even though this is just “you being you”, set free in a foreign land, it can have serious consequences. It can be disrespectful in ways you do not see, either because the culture is opaque, or because you do not stay long enough to feel them. It can be destructive, as these are often teenage male spaces (lucky for me, not my thing). It can complicate signals and legal definitions of rape (where the law does not offer protections that might be expected), or have untoward effects on inexperienced Thais. And these things can happen even if you keep your sexuality on lockdown. It’s enough to say that part of my femininity has always brought with it a heavy instinct towards being respectful, especially in a culture that is not my own, and in most cultures being feminine is being modest. I’ve seen “let the thong hang out” freedom, or even “put your tongue in your trainer’s mouth” behavior in Thai gyms (yes, I’ve seen this with my eyes), and ultimately it just feels really disrespectful. I’m not trying to slut shame or claim that women have only one “right” choice for behavior. It might not be any one person’s fault, or the fault might be shared, but respect is a word that keeps coming to mind. When we first moved to Chiang Mai, in the more conservative North of Thailand, Kevin and I read the response to holding hands in public and decided to stop doing it. It was out of respect to the culture; but it had a very real impact on our relationship – just this tiny thing, we enjoyed holding hands. In a strange land, when trying to literally train personal power, something that inevitably involves the empowerment or at least tapping of sexual energy, it is very difficult work to separate out sobering instincts of respect from instincts towards female self-erasure, and the kinds of desexualization that feel necessary to succeed at a high level in a gym. For me, for several years now, this resulted in a strong disassociation from my own body, bending always towards my body being a tool to just do work, signifying nothing other than the work. But when fighting your body has to signify so much more.
So, standing in the store and looking at this photo Kevin sent me, I actually have to make the connection between the image and myself. That’s me, I have to keep reminding myself. And it feels good. This happens to be at a time where my awareness of my habitual dissociation and detachment between my body identity and sexuality is something I need to be addressing – carefully – and it’s because of the success of re-embracing my sexual confidence that I was able to tell Kevin, do it, regarding taking that photo in the first place. I’m digging at the very roots of fighting, what fighting means, and why it is beautiful. It pulls at all our threads. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of a talk I had with Sports Motivation Podcast host Niyi Sobo, who is very interested in gender dynamics among athletes. He seems focused on the balance of masculine and feminine, a ying and yang kind of thing, which is particularly interesting and complicated for female athletes because the “getting it done” aspects of sport are largely labeled as masculine, whereas the way that success makes you feel as a woman might fall within the sexual sphere. Within the male spaces of sport this can either mean you (as a woman) embrace it and get criticized for using your sexuality to sell yourself, or you suppress it in order to be “taken seriously” and then you’re criticized for not being feminine enough. Good times. When I look at this picture of myself, I see a lot of masculine markers – I am after all pursuing a masculine art. The muscles, the veins… it’s pretty intense – more so in the simple black and white photo (with a different crop), but the Prisma version is somehow more comfortable for me to show because the filters offer a kind of shroud – but there’s also a femininity to my body as well, the kind that I feel I often, in fact habitually and vigorously suppress in order to hold my place in the gym. This photo of me shifts the existing appreciation I had for my body for its function, for it as a thing and a tool for the purposes of my art, but it moves also toward an appreciation – maybe for the first time in my life – for my body as an expression of the power I feel, while acknowledging that I want to feel that power, because it’s mine. And it has to be a part of my fighting. It’s been a long process with various stages, being able to embrace this feeling of empowerment. Starting out from a common female experience of critical dissatisfaction, to embracing my body for its capabilities, regardless of appearance; then my more difficult leap toward owning my physical appearance as a positive and empowering expression of something not physical at all, but deeply personal. But that’s also how we engage with our social world. Sexual empowerment is something we are all entitled to, but it’s not without consequence. The balance between controlling it and expressing it needs to be handled carefully, but the responsibility is not only for how you engage with the world around you, as the casualties and damages can be internal as well.
Note: this post as well became the same kind of space of self-censoring and constraint. I originally planned to post not only the Prisma version of the photo, but also the photo itself (albeit cropped differently) in black and white, the version that my husband sent me. I wanted you to see what I saw, to be very honest and brave in order that readers might feel what I instinctively felt: the full disassociation. When I put the photo in the post it just was way too intense. It’s one of the more powerful photos I’ve seen of a female athlete’s body, but it scares the shit out of me because it’s mine. It’s just incredibly evocative in its detail and light in a way the Prisma cropped photo is not, with its darkness and obscurity through woodcut style. For reasons maybe worth thinking about, it could hang in an art gallery, but not in a blog post. It goes to show that this responsibility of self-cloaking is everywhere. When I was 18 I got my first tattoo, which is nearly the full length of my back and comes around my hips. The tattoo was, at the time, a reclaiming of my body after years of dissociation due to sexual abuse and an assault. My mother hated the idea of the tattoo, but once she actually saw it she scheduled me for a photo shoot with a fine art photographer to take nude portraits. It was a shocking turn and one I wasn’t entirely into – I definitely didn’t embrace my body at that age, but if felt important to be brave in the face of it due to the meaning of the tattoo for me. Those photos and this photo are not, in practice and in taste, very different from each other. Fifteen years apart and an entirely different lifestyle, focus, and project of self… and I’m still struggling with being able to look at myself and say “that’s me,” and being comfortable with others looking, too. It’s something to consider and there’s a similarity between the two experiences of wanting to be brave and bare. You don’t have to expose yourself to be confident, nor do you have to cover yourself to be polite. But I have written this entire post as a way to lay bare the experience of my own body in words, the concepts behind this struggle and the joys of power. But words are just words and this struggle goes beyond them. So I guess the point is that this whole thing scares the shit out of me, and weeding out fear is good for the garden, too.
You can read my articles on the Gendered Experience of Training and Fighting in Thailand here