HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE PUNCHING THINGS

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~ Maurene Goo

There’s this thing about being a woman. Sometimes your outsides don’t match your insides. You can be a strong, no-nonsense person who verbally rips someone to shreds, but you have ask someone to help you open a pickle jar. It feels unfair. It feels shitty to walk this world knowing you are unsafe—that any mediocre man can take you by surprise and hurt you. That the only reason nothing bad has happened to you isn’t because you’ve been safe, but because you’ve been lucky enough not to come across someone who’s wanted to hurt you.

After the election, my usual irritation with the power imbalance between the sexes was amped up to a level that was unsustainable. I couldn’t contain my rage in a healthy way. I wished so hard for my outsides to match my insides. If they did, I would have been taller than a skyscraper, jacked and ready to crush every fucking human in history who paved the way for our current situation

And I wasn’t the only one. Every woman in my life was feeling this way, filled with despair and frustration, feeling powerless. Especially my writer colleagues—women who I sat with on election night with champagne at the ready. I write fiction for young adults. It’s something I love, writing funny and warm stories about romance, family, and friendship. It was rough trying to get back into that headspace when all I was feeling was this uncontrollable anger. One day, some of these writers and I were talking about this desire to be stronger—to have the ability to defend ourselves. Naturally, we thought of self-defense classes. Daydreams of kicking guys in the nuts and all. The thought of it filled us with pure joy.

My friend Ben had been going to a gym to do things like box and wrestle. He had a birthday party there and I remember thinking it had a nice vibe despite the boyness of it all. So I asked him if his coach, Willard, would be interested in teaching a self-defense class for women. Ben insisted that I meet Willard to talk about it, which I found a little strange.

That’s how I found myself at some rando tiki bar in Glendale on a weekday afternoon. When I mentioned that the election had spurred this entire enterprise, Willard started the conversation by asking me, “Why do you want this class now? Do you think you’re in more danger?” I bristled, ready for some grade-A mansplaining. It wasn’t that we felt like we were in more danger now—we’ve always been in danger. It’s just that we were just more hyper-aware and pissed.

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But what I got instead was fightsplaining. “Self-defense classes don’t work,” he began. I took a sip of my drink politely, feeling like this was so LA, that even a martial arts dude had a holistic approach to his practice. But the more he talked, the more I listened. (Women are good at that.) In sum, his argument was this: You can’t truly learn to protect yourself from a crash course on poking out eyeballs. Not only is it not enough real training, but most of us aren’t deranged enough to physically hurt someone without lots of time spent practicing it. Not to put too fine a point on it: You had to learn to be ok with hurting someone.

And you also had to become more athletic. You have to learn to run, make yourself stronger. And this is what really convinced me. In the end, my friends and I wanted to be stronger. We wanted to be somewhat equipped to defend ourselves.

So we decided to try a four-week intro mixed martial arts class to see if it was something we’d be interested in. All of us were at varying levels of fitness. The first class started off with a mix of light conditioning, boxing, and grappling. If you had told me even five minutes before class started that I would not feel like an ass punching a bag with giant, smelly gloves on, I wouldn’t have believed you.

But it was love at first punch.

Love at first shove.

Love at first realization that, holy shit, this was fun.

Not grueling, not intimidating, not too serious. It was challenging, for sure. Thirty seconds into our bag drills, all of us were wheezing. We were women who ran every morning, did the splits, sprinted on stationary bikes—but this was a whole new thing.

And we were hooked.

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So, the women’s martial arts class was started. The gym moved, new women came in, the class has tripled (or more?) in size, and we have it a couple times a week, now.

It’s the first time Strong Sports Gym has had women’s-only classes. I think the success of the class can be owed to something fairly simple: Safety. Not physically, but emotionally and mentally. Never would I have ventured into a boxing gym not knowing anyone or anything. I’ve done that with other kinds of classes in the past—I took up ballet as an adult and kept at it for years. I took pilates, yoga, spin, cardio barre, all that stuff. I was never intimidated because those were spaces where I felt welcomed as a woman. But wrestling, boxing, and weight-lifting? That was not shit I ever imagined myself doing. That wasn’t a space that I felt was mine. Visions of playing kickball with boys picking me last for the team, of bouncy dodge balls filling me with terror as they hurdled towards my face—that’s what I associate with boys and sports. Get me the fuck away from that, no thank you.

But this gym has really shifted that wariness. The staff has to be credited for that—they foster a laid back yet challenging environment. We all give them so much shit, but they’re good teachers and we’re lucky to have them. And they set the tone for the gym, which somehow manages not to be hypermasculine. (Sorry to bum you out, bros.)

So as months have past, we feel stronger and empowered but we also enjoy it as a sport, to watch ourselves get better, to see tangible growth. And then there’s the sense of community. It’s nice meeting twice a week to punch the shit out of a lumpy heavy bag that we named Paul Ryan.  

There was a moment once in class when I was doing pad work with Willard. As I focused on my jabs, in that zone you can get into when everything falls into place in this very satisfying way, Willard’s face broke out into a huge grin. “What?” I asked, defensively. It was never good when boys smiled or laughed while I was doing something related to sports.

“Did you ever think you’d like boxing?” he asked. As sweat dripped into my eyes, my arms heavy and tired, I also smiled. Because no, I never thought I’d like boxing. Like ever.

Whether it’s getting used to being hit in the stomach by another woman or learning how to stretch properly—these classes have balanced something inside of me. My outsides no longer feel so at odds with what I’m feeling inside. It’s a feeling I wish for every woman.