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I was training in a boxing gym where there was only one other woman beside me. She and I never had the pleasure of sparring with each other, but we had no qualms about facing the guys in the ring. Eventually, two more women joined the class. They arrived ready with headgear, hand wraps, and a couple of pairs of very expensive looking boxing gloves. The women were also dressed in the most popular style of workout fashion and wearing makeup. The coach expected everyone to spar, and when he brought that up to those two, their eyes widened in terror. “We actually have to hit people?” they said. They never came back to the gym. They had been there less than two weeks.
I hear the same question being asked by little girls and teenage girls in the gym I now run. As a female boxing coach, I’m very interested in encouraging women and girls to take up the sport. But it is a hard sell, especially in a society that still judges women and girls by how ladylike we’re supposed to act. Most of the girls who show up at my gym are all excited by the prospect of putting on gloves and prancing around the ring canvas. But when it comes to the actual work of training, that’s often where the interest in the sport stops.
This is especially true of most teenage girls I encounter in the program. I usually recognize the ones with “pretty girl syndrome” immediately. Breaking a sweat is contrary to looking cute at all times. Most of the girls show up wearing the trendiest workout clothing. That is if they are actually dressed to do a workout. The concept of bringing a change of clothes appears to be a lost art. Their hairstyles are done up to attract the boys and to outdo the other girls who pass them in their schools’ hallways. And yes, some don’t bother to take their makeup off.
The training steps, written in black and white on a huge bulletin board, is pointed out to them on the first day of class. “We have to do all of that?” is another popular question asked of me. “If you want to do well and perhaps win some fights, yes,” I answer, which cause the girls to get confused and concern looks on their faces. While showing them the basic punches and footwork, I have to keep turning their attention back to me when I notice the girls’ eyes glazing over. The thirty-second breaks between rounds are used to redo their hair, apply lip gloss, and make sure they still look good in their outfits. Then it’s another minute before I can get their minds focused back on the tasks at hand because after all, finishing their conversation about hanging out at the mall was more important.
It’s never long before the girls start cherry-picking what they are going to do as far as boxing training is concerned. One girl kept hanging out on the exercise mat for several rounds. Floor exercises are supposed to be done at the end of the workout, not in the middle of it. Both her mother and I noticed and we admonished her. “What do you want to get out of this class?” I finally asked her after weeks of watching her aimlessly standing around the gym most of the time. “My mother said I need to learn to defend myself,” she mumbled. “Well, hitting the equipment alone is not going to help because equipment doesn’t hit back. Standing and sitting around is not going to get it either. You also need to spar to learn how to react to a live person,” I told her. She had been showing up to the gym only when she felt like it or if her mother pushed her to attend. After that, she dropped out of the program.
Another girl, whose little sister was once in the program, declared, “I don’t want to be thought of as being a man!” when asked if she was interested in taking boxing. There were so many sarcastic remarks I could have made in response. I knew one of the real reasons was she didn’t want to lose her fan club, a series of boys who were always following her around. At least one or two of those boys were with her every time she stopped in the boxing gym to see what her sister was doing. She’d pay attention to her sister for a second then go back to batting her false eyelashes at the boys to put the attention back on her. Then I would put her and her flatterers out of the gym for disrupting the class.
When I get teenage girls, who are actually serious about the sport — and I’ve had a couple of them — I’m very happy. I constantly make it known that being an athlete does not equal being unfeminine. But those girls are hard to find. In the meantime, I have to reply to most of them with pretty girl issues like I did to one who asked me, “Do people hit each other for real in here?” “Yes, honey, and if you’re not prepared to sweat then I suggest you find another activity to do.”