Posts Tagged ‘punchball

10
Jul
15

The thing about being a girl

The thing about being a girl

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There’s a school of thought that considers the use of the word “girl” to describe a female over the age of nine as somehow degrading to her womanhood. The thinking goes that ascribing “girlness” consigns women to a perpetual child-like state of existence—and certainly, as someone old enough to have had a job in 1971, I do remember being one of the “girls” in the back (not to mention having experienced one of the oldest clichés about working in an office: being chased around a desk … literally.)

What I also remember, however, is being a girl, and feeling my own power as I ran like the wind, or punched a pinkie ball in the schoolyard over the head of the kid on second base. In those days it was just a classmate named Frances and me among the girls, who could actually do that. This was circa 1963-1966, when my own girlness meant wearing white knock-off Keds sneakers, beige jeans and a stripped T-shirt.

I could wander through my range on the Lower East Side (in the pre-East Village days) that took me roughly from 14th Street as far east as the East River Park, through Tompkin’s Square Park down to 4th Street and Avenue B and up over to Second Avenue and 12th Street. Sure, there were streets I wouldn’t walk down and creeps I would avoid, but mostly I felt invincible. I was, in one sense, a sort of Artemis in training with none of the knowledge that being “fleet of foot” and self-assured in my girlness was in the greatest of Greco-Roman traditions that reached back further than Homer, or that as a girl in Sparta I could have wrestled or boxed in competitions with the boys.

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In thinking about girlness now, I feel an almost evangelical sense of connection. And as I unpack the feeling, what I come up with a sense of self that is stripped away from the trappings of gender as an expression of sexuality that seems to always add so much bloody noise to the conversation about women; or in other words, the thing about the breasts. Yep, the twin charms—the two lovelies that get strapped in and down or puffed and up or whatever configuration is necessary to meet whatever that perfect standard happens to be in whatever orbit those twins charms are circulating in.

Ever try buying a bra for 12 year old? It is a frightening experience. Please explain to my why a size 30AA needs to be hot pink, lacy and pushup! Unless the occupant of that contraption is anorexic or REALLY tiny, the only possible person it could fit is a girl, yes, a girl, aged between 10 and 13. So … what’s up with that??

Watching women and girls fight over the last few days at the Women’s National Golden Gloves in Florida, I have marveled at how much of that “girl” spirit is imbued in the strength, prowess and lightness of foot in the athletes ranging in age from 11 to 49 who have competed so far. There is also no sense that the athletes are fighting like “girls” in the pejorative sense.

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Iman James, amateur boxer, Brooklyn, NY

The best of these athletes are fighting with the technical skills and ring savvy that marks them as boxers demonstrating complete fluidity of movement, improvisational talent and perfect execution. And when some of these athletes go on to compete in upcoming Olympic qualifiers in their weight classes they will reach back to the spirit of Artemis in whose name games were held through out the Greek world.

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If the “skirts” controversy proceeding the 2012 Games has died down–for those who may not remember, AIBA, the governing international boxing organization had pushed for female boxers to wear skirts instead of shorts in the ring because some people couldn’t figure out if they were boys or girls–the continuing effort to sexualize female athletes, however, remains a constant in athletics, including boxing.

More insidious is how much we inculcate such notions. One fighter I know readying for her novice championship bout last night remarked that she couldn’t wear her makeup. “I’m borrowing Jenn’s headgear,” she said, “I promised her I wouldn’t wear it if I had makeup on.”

“Even when you fight?” I asked.

“I always wear makeup,” she said.

Somewhere in the 1970s I remember eschewing makeup and its trappings as a feminist statement of sorts—though I was far from a bra-burner, and in fact, did little by way of movement work. Fast-forwarding another twenty years I was less rigid about it, and did indeed have a pedicure before coming down to Florida for the tournament and have been wearing a hint shadow on my eyelids with faint eyeliner color for years.

Still the notion that an athlete would feel the necessity to wear face makeup during a fight—when goodness knows one sweats on one’s sweat—struck me as a “drink the Kool-Aid” kind of moment wherein one so inculcates a construct as to go beyond all sense.

There is no question that as social beings we are very much defined by the cultures we find ourselves in. Still, there are “languages” of culture that transcend our tribal/national/religious forms into a more global form. Sport and athletics are certainly transcendent cultural pathways with agreed upon rules and formats. Some specify for gender differences and some do not—and most, though far from all (think Olympic Beach Volleyball)—do not overtly sexualize gender.

It is also, in my view, one of the places where that sense of girlness asserts itself along with the street dancing moves of female dancers on this year’s So You Think You Can Dance that capture the boundless sense of possibility perfectly.

If the Canyon of Heros tickertape Parade for the triumphant 2015 USA Women’s Soccer Team is any indication, our spirit of Artemis is alive and well, we just haven’t named it, why not just try for owning the word girl.

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12
Sep
11

Boxing and me …

Boxing and me …

I’m at the official start of writing my thesis today.  It is the culmination of my course of studies towards a Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies.  I bring it up because my thesis topic is Boundaries in motion: Women’s Boxing.  The study will  take a look at how women’s boxing is changing notions of the meaning of being “female” or in other words, what women are and what they are capable of.

Having been born in the mid-1950’s in the era of girls wearing dresses all the time — and I mean all the time — the idea of athleticism, muscles and so on were a seeming anathema. To the extent that there were “Lady” athletes that were at all visible to my young eyes, they seemed to only be slim-hipped tennis players, figure skaters, skiers and gymnasts — and while there were women’s roller derby, softball and bowling leagues, those sports were barely a blip on my consciousness.

Muscle-bound women were certainly viewed as something other — and in remembering back to my early childhood years on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, organized sport itself was entirely non-existent except for boy’s basketball and boxing at the local Boy’s Club on Avenue A and 10th Street.  The sports I played, such as they were consisted of punchball (with a spaulding ball or a pinkie), Newcomb (with a giant red playground ball), King (or Chinese handball), bottle caps, stoop ball (a pinkie bounced off a stoop, with a “base” counted for each bounce before the ball was caught), playing catch, riding a bike, roller skating (with metal skates attached to my sneakers) and general chase games.

The fact was, these weren’t even considered sports. These were things we just did either during recess (punchball and Newcomb and chase games) or as general play on the block.  My only experience of “organized” sports was at camp, and having gone to a “leftie” summer camp, our idea of sports was groaning through hot afternoons on the sports field playing pathetic versions of baseball (and fighting off the gnats), with some passable basketball thrown in, albeit mostly among the boys.

Getting back on topic, as a young girl, I loved boxing, but had no clue that it was ever something that I could actually do. I didn’t get to watch the sport much, so as a substitute, my brother and I watched professional wrestling with the likes of Bruno Sammartino and Gorgeous George.

By the mid-1960’s I was a confirmed boxing fan of Mohammad Ali and remember names likes Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston as icons to be venerated though I never actually saw them fight until much later.  I just liked the idea of them and learned names from the snippets of conversation between men and boys on my block.

Fast forwarding to what seems like a million years later, it took me until 1996 to actually walk into a boxing gym. Having done so, and like many men and women before me, I fell in love with boxing almost to the point of tears at just thinking about it. In those early forays, I used to keep a log of punch counts (so many punch combinations x so many repetitions per round) and would get all sorts of heart fluttery every time I got near the gym.

More to the point, it began to change how I felt about myself.  I was 42 then — and in decent enough shape for someone who’d never been athletic except for stints of hour-long runs a few years before.  Beyond the improvements in physical conditioning, it felt great to feel my own power, something I’d spent a lifetime denying.  The most liberating sensation, however, was the physical act of hitting — and I mean really hitting with all the force and torque of my body. That was something I’d been denied all my life — the freedom to let things go with an explosive pop accompanied by a guttural grunt of release.

That certainly wasn’t in the manual of things girls could do when I was growing up and how extraordinary that I was 42 years old before I was even aware of having missed out.

Female boxers in Afghanistan, Credit: Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

In thinking about my own experience, it occurred to me that other women, younger or older, athletes or non-athletes, may also undergo transformative experiences as they box.  Those experiences have multiplied times all of the women who participate in the sport whether as professionals, amateurs or recreational boxers like myself.   Somewhere buried inside of those experiences are the transformations that affect how everyone sees and thinks of women who box and whether those interpretations are positive or negative, the changes that women make for themselves are here to stay.

Maybe that’s why I smile so much every time I read about the Afghanistan Women’s Boxing Team.




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© Malissa Smith and Girlboxing, 2010-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Malissa Smith and Girlboxing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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