Writing by Rebecca Cuzens-Sutton // Illustration by Jordyn McGeachin
When I first started boxing, I had just gone through a break-up.
It was a bad break-up, the kind that makes you feel like all of your previous relationships were naive experiments in immaturity, and that nothing could ever possibly be as important, or as painful, ever again.
I had “discovered” exercise a little later in life. Sure, I had played team sports in high-school (I was actually the Vice-Captain of my volleyball team, thank you very much), but since starting uni, the most I could boast was the fifteen minute walk to my local supermarket. That and the dancing. Oh, God, the dancing.
I did not wake up one morning and think, “Golly, what ruin has my wine-soaked, caffeine-fuelled midnight existence wreaked on my body?!” It was more the slow building of anxiety surrounding certain aspects of my life.
I was a little overweight, I didn’t sleep well, I deliberately avoided strenuous physical activity in front of peers, and, most importantly, I fought a constant battle against anxiety and depression.
I knew these things– I had always known these things– but confronting them takes courage of a kind that I had not yet managed to muster. There was no eureka moment, or catalytic event, just the gradual cajoling of myself to action and the growing certainty that I needed to start taking responsibility for my health.
So I woke up one morning and decided, after many mornings of waking up and deciding, that I would start going to the gym. And this time I did.
By the time The Break-Up happened, I worked out pretty regularly. I could even run a little bit, an activity which I had previously avoided with unparalleled dread.
For the first time in my life, something other than a sense of obligation or stress about my physical appearance was motivating me to work out. Exercise was the only thing that gave me even the slightest relief from the shitstorm of emotion that was a constant and unrelenting cloud over my life.
When I ran, I would cry. I would cry heaving in huge, strangled breaths and half-sobbing in between. The fact that I invariably listened to Tegan & Sara probably made things worse, but it seemed appropriate and at least gave the illusion of catharsis. It would make me feel better for at least a brief period, and I would have the added satisfaction of taking action to improve my mental and physical health.
At the time I lived right near Merri Creek, (Melbourne), which meant I could run, tear-stained, in relative privacy along densely treed paths and riversides. The same could not be said for the gym, which suddenly seemed to be full of muscular, in-control people lifting weights and no doubt being generally successful. It wasn’t enough.
Then I found Alternative Women’s Fitness, a collection of women-only fitness classes run out of various venues in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. It was community-oriented and they played alternative music instead of that toxic remix shit I was sick of enduring at Power Pump or whatever it’s called. I signed up for a bunch of classes immediately and one of them was Pink Boxing.
It was brilliant. Hitting things was better than I ever imagined it would be. There were “things” too, for the uninitiated; beginners do not hit, and are not hit by, people directly. The raw physical relief of punching or kicking a pad was satisfying in itself, but it was also immensely empowering to discover my own strength, and to know that I was taking steps to grow and focus that strength. The workouts themselves were also intense beyond anything I had been pushed to before. I would leave every class feeling drained, sore and utterly elated. It was exactly what I had been looking for, and I was hooked.
I had long nursed a vague interest in martial arts. Growing up as a young woman (albeit a white, cis, able-bodied woman), I felt the increasing inevitability of having to defend myself against attack one day. Learning basic self-defence was attractive to me. Conversely, I considered myself a peaceful person. I had been vocal amongst friends about my dislike of “blood sports” and thought them to be exclusively stupid and dangerous at a professional level. I thought that boxing was a wonderful, powerful way of keeping fit, but the idea of actually fighting, or even sparring, scared the shit out of me.
As my interest in boxing and kickboxing has grown (I have now graduated to the intermediate class!), my attitude towards fighting as a sport has started to change. I have started to think more about what fighting is really about, about what women, what I, get out of it.
I watched “Fight Like a Girl,” a documentary by Jill Morely, that asks exactly those questions. Jill and the other women in her film were fighters, both amateur and professional, and several of them had also experienced physical abuse during the course of their lives. Jill was intrigued by what that says about about women who box and wanted to explore the links between victimhood and the desire to fight.
I immediately identified with the women I saw on the screen. Several of them struggled or had struggled with mental illness and one in particular seemed to exemplify how I felt about women and the inevitability of attack.
Kimberly Tomes, an Asian-American boxer, got into the sport after being knocked out by a patron while working in a strip club. She said being confronted by her “glass chin” (a term used to describe people who are easily knocked out by trauma to the head or jaw) made her want to learn to take a punch and defy the stereotypes of “timid” Asian women. In Kimberly, I saw a woman who had refused to become a victim of everyday violence, a woman who wanted to take back control of her own physical autonomy as fully and as powerfully as possible.
Other women in the film had suffered physical abuse at the hands of their parents and partners, and all of them felt compelled to arm themselves, to empower themselves with the ability to fight back.
They felt, after a fair bit of introspection and a great deal of honesty, that they would always have to fight, physically or mentally, and that they might as well learn to do it properly and to the very best of their ability.
I was inspired.
Morely’s film made me realise that my growing love of boxing is more complicated than a cathartic release of aggression or emotional distress. The benefit I feel is more than endorphins and more than a supportive, women-oriented environment.
Depression and anxiety do nothing more effectively than make you feel weak and out of control. They can feel like an unbeatable enemy, knocking you down over and over again until all you want to do, all you think you *can* do is give up. Learning to fight helped give me some of my power back. It is of course, a great way to channel frustration and anger. It can even help you reach that anger in the first place if you have been pushed down often enough to forget it was there. It put me back in touch with my fighting instinct. Being pushed hard, existing in that headspace where all you can hear is your heartbeat and your ragged breathing; where it’s just you and your opponent; where you have to reach into places you didn’t know you had to find strength and the will to keep going. That’s what fighting is about for me.
It makes me strong, mentally and physically, but more importantly it makes me feel strong. It makes me feel powerful. It lets me know that I can keep going when I think I’m done, that I can get hit, get knocked down and get back up again.
It makes me remember, that I can fight.[share]