It was Maurene’s idea that we would feel better if we learned how to fight. In the early months of 2017, my friends and I, like many women in America, were feeling newly vulnerable in our bodies and aggravated by the way the world was shaping up around us. We would be less frustrated if we could punch things, we reasoned; we would feel less fragile if the punching was part of a program designed to make us stronger.
Maurene’s husband had a friend who ran a boxing gym, so she took him out to drinks to ask him if he’d be willing to design a self-defense curriculum for a group of us: six women who liked yoga and spinning, most of us young-adult novelists whose daily battles are more often mental than physical.
He told her no.
He told her that he found self-defense useless: a few afternoons of drills couldn’t be counted on to ingrain themselves as instinct, especially when they would be needed exclusively in scary, high-stress situations. Plus, as far as he was concerned, most self-defense moves were improbably violent: You just aren’t likely to be able to bring yourself to put your thumbs in a guy’s eyes if you haven’t trained yourself to hurt someone else on command first. Serious violence is a place in your mind, and most people don’t even know where the door to that room is, much less how to open it.
But the coach made us an offer. If we wanted, he would teach us the basics of fighting: things like how to use pressure and control to get someone to take his hands off you in a bar. How to make a fist that wouldn’t shatter on impact with someone’s nose or ribs. Four weeks, an hour at a time. After that, we’d reassess.
That was February. Now I spend four or five hours at the gym every week: conditioning on Tuesday mornings, boxing and wrestling on Wednesday evenings, boxing and conditioning again on Saturday afternoons. Before the gym started a women’s wrestling class, I went to the mat with the men. I knew less than they did, but I was just as tenacious. I lived to make the coaches clap their hands together in delight when I managed to pull off something scrappy and wild.
The men who run the place still haven’t gotten over the novelty of us: the way we talk to each other constantly, and talk back incessantly, and show up like clockwork every week to slam the heavy bags back and forth until their chains rattle and we can’t hear one another talking over the sounds of their thunder. They don’t coach us like girls. They coach us like fighters. They treat us like athletes.
Some of the original group have fallen off in the months since we started, but we’ve added members, too: friends of friends who showed up and fell in love with the sport, or women who used to take the gym’s mixed-gender classes but who prefer the atmosphere of comraderie in ours. We gossip while we wrap our hands before class starts and while we’re doing cool-down stretching. Sometimes one of the women brings her toddler son, and her husband runs around in the ring with him while we’re getting warmed up.
It turns out that when you see people a couple times a week every week for a year, you get to know them pretty well. It’s always a delight to be a regular: to feel known when you walk into a room, especially when that room is traditionally built to intimidate and exclude people who look like you.
This is where I could say that fighting has mostly taught me about kindness and community, and it has, but I don’t want to underplay the physical aspect of it. I said, earlier, that our coaches treat us like athletes. As someone who has never before played competitive sports, I’m still figuring out what that means. But among its valences is that we are granted permissions that adult women rarely receive.
We are allowed to be nakedly competitive. We are encouraged to be striving and intense. There is no discussion of lean toning or dithering about building bulk. Instead there is: Hold your arms up and punch for three minutes. If you can do it once, do it again. If you can’t, here’s what to do to make sure that next time, you can.
The conversation about women’s bodies is often reduced to two options: Hate and change or love and accept. The underlying assumption is that change comes only as the result of disappointment. In boxing, we can want our bodies to be different without censure for vanity or narcissism.
A friend who doesn’t fight was recently telling her brother about what I’ve been up to. “Yeah,” he said. “But, like, I could still beat her up, right?” He’s well over six feet tall, and not what you’d call a shrimp; I’m 5’4”, and I’ve only been training for a year.
I don’t know the answer to that question. When I’m walking home alone at night or through a parking garage’s dim interior, I don’t feel like Wonder Woman. I don’t feel invincible: not nearly, not yet.
But now when I make a fist, my knuckles fall flat and my thumb curls into place around them. I know how to channel and direct my anger. I know how slippery a body can be, flailing around. And I know how much of myself I need to use to direct it where I want it to go.
It is hard to fight, it turns out: to flip the switch of aggression on and then off again. But I’m working on it, surrounded by women who are learning the same things: how to line up a punch, and how good it feels when you finally let it fly.
This article originally appeared at www.bonappetit.com/story/why-we-learned-to-fight