Punching Like a Girl

by Krista Foss

Krista Foss’s debut novel Smoke River (released by McClelland & Stewart in 2014) was shortlisted for the North American Hammett Prize for literary excellence in crime writing and won the Hamilton Literary Award. Her essay writing has been published in the Humber Literary Review and her short fiction, published in several literary journals, has twice been a finalist for The Journey Prize. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.

Walking home from a holiday open house, my twenty-two-year-old-daughter and her boyfriend stop at a late night fast-food joint for a snack. Three men wearing tight shirts and reeking of beer enter and line up behind them. They start taunting; provocatively and cruelly. Impossible to ignore. My daughter’s boyfriend turns and asks them to stop. Within minutes, he’s met with a fist, the opening salvo of a pile-on.

The next morning, I wake up to find my kid waiting for me in my office. She’s shaking. There’s a slowly blackening bruise on the side of her wan face as if she’s wiped her chin with a sooty mitten. Her knuckles are split and bloodied.

My daughter tells me that when her boyfriend was hit, she started punching. She punched and she didn’t count how often or how hard. Her knuckles testify to multiple swings and more than a few connections.

I am confused: about what she has done and how I’m supposed to respond. But already there’s an opinion, inchoate and unattractive, slouching toward articulation. Because let’s face it, even today, a woman who throws a punch—unless she’s your plucky granny popping a purse-snatcher—risks being tarred as unnaturally aggressive. In the very least, she has issues with self-control; she’s reckless.

These thoughts come to me in the brightness of my office, when I see the dusty umbrae of my daughter’s eyes, shadowed from a sleepless night spent on concussion watch with her boyfriend. Reactions gather like a mob in my head: did her actions make things worse for him? What if one of those three guys was packing a knife or a gun? Who is this kid of mine?

Then she whispers that she’s afraid. Not about going out at night or being targeted again. Instead, she’s worried about how good it felt to ball up her fist, aim, and clock somebody who deserved it. She’s afraid of what it means about her.

I liked the feeling, she says. Is something wrong with me?

Usually quick to offer reassurances, I hold my tongue. If I’m honest, my relief that my daughter and her boyfriend are okay is tinged with something else I won’t express—an unsavoury glee that one of the assailants caught some humiliation and pain at the end of her fist. It’s shameful and reptilian. And satisfying. I too am afraid of what this means.

… she’s worried about how good it felt to ball up her fist, aim, and clock somebody who deserved it. She’s afraid of what it means about her.

Because I have my own history with punching. And a history with punching is almost always a history with powerlessness, with impotence, with frustrated anger that can’t be expressed, and when it is, has unexpected costs. For women, these costs can be complicated by our culture’s uneven tolerance for violence, and, often, a lifelong suppression of their own physical strength and power. My daughter’s reaction to three drunken men at a late-night fast food joint arises from her own fierce complexity, her navigation of the world as a six-foot twenty-something enraged by injustice and double standards: her values, her body, her story. My response to her injuries and confusion is as a mother first, but also a woman who throws a pretty decent right hook. It sucks me backwards into my own narrative, where there is as much discomfort with physical violence as there is flirtation with it. It’s a story that begins with a girl who hit back and hit first, if only for a little while.

As children, my siblings and I pinched until we broke skin. We held each other’s heads down in the public pool. We slapped and kicked in front of the television. Stuck in the middle of five children, I felt affronted when my next youngest brother breached the pecking order by growing bigger and stronger than me. So I lobbed tins of Meccano at his face, I tripped him into a brick wall, and once, while I was on the couch, and he was sitting on the floor, I rammed the edge of our coffee table into his head. Twice he was sent to the hospital because I’d cracked his skull. A turning point in my campaign against him was the afternoon he chased me around the house lobbing darts at my back; to this day we disagree on whether he had removed the points. He’d become so big by then it didn’t make sense for me to keep picking on him. If my siblings and I had grown up twenty years later, we might have all been medicated, labeled and sent for therapy. As it was, we were sent outside with the back door locked until dinnertime.

When I had to stop, I experienced the absence of fighting back as a chronic low-level frustration—like losing a language or the ability to sing certain high notes. But as long as we all had to outgrow the tactile clarity of a swat, slap, shove or wrestling hold, it was bearable. Except of course, we didn’t: my sister and I were expected to give it up much sooner. This wasn’t subtle: we were just told to stop more often, pulled out of the melee first, until we got the message. One morning, I looked out a window to see my older brother and his best friend having a fist-fight in our backyard. A whinny of panic could be heard in their heavy breaths, as if neither could believe what the other was doing. A few minutes later, my brother burst through the back door, smeared with dirt and blood and hyperventilating. He stormed into his room. That friendship is toast, I thought. But I was wrong. Within the week, my brother’s best friend was back in our living room, laughing and playing air guitar as if nothing had happened. I was startled and a little bit pissed off. Why did boys get to vent their anger and move on?

There are side effects to being told to pull your punches while others don’t, ones I felt acutely. For instance, when I was a teenager working in the pantry of a summer resort, the head chef called me in to the walk-in freezer. There, among frozen sole fillets, crab legs and corn niblets bulging like bags of lead shot, he spun me around, clawed at my breasts and crotch and rubbed his pants against my backside. It lasted for a minute before he pushed me away, and walked out of the freezer.

Shivering, I went back to the kitchen, spoke to no one and resumed appetizer assembly: an avocado quarter cradling a shrimp salad, garnished with a grinning lemon wedge. The first tray I filled up was for the waitress who was the chef’s girlfriend. I watched him flirt with her, daydreaming about splitting his lip or kneeing him in the groin. Today, nearly four decades later, I can remember his full name, conjure the sweat that plastered a few curls to his forehead, the self-satisfied smirk he beamed at me over the steam table afterward. He read my silence as an illicit yes rather than a learned apoplexy, a default for survival.

By the time second-wave feminism trickled into popular culture in the late ’70s, it was too late; it couldn’t undo the messages I’d already internalized.

Who took the brunt of my anger? Not the thirty-year-old groper in sauce-smeared kitchen-whites but instead my teenage self. I had wasted a chance to yell; more importantly, to curl my fists, aim, and put up a fight. Because of this, on some level, I felt I deserved what happened.

This was an old feeling. When I was even younger, other adult males, whom I trusted, placed their hands on my childish body in ways that were uninvited and unwelcome and never spoken about. The silence and confusion that followed was diffuse and enduring, a pain different from having my hair pulled or my fingers slammed in a door-jamb (two infamous tactics of my siblings.) And it had its own violent quality: a cleaving of cause and effect within my psyche and body. It would take me well into adulthood to fully sort out how I could fix the broken joint of what had happened and how it changed me.

Small wonder then, that I reached adolescence yearning for heroes—proxies, versions of me who didn’t sit on their fists. By the time second-wave feminism trickled into popular culture in the late ’70s, it was too late; it couldn’t undo the messages I’d already internalized. Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman were well-meaning—each had a few bad-ass moves, their good manners and great hair never mussed by the impossibly pectoral men they took down—but this blithe suspension of the obvious and punishing differences between male and female strength made it hard for me to believe these women, or to be encouraged by them. Contemporary versions of Wonder Woman, from Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, are equally lithesome yet much tougher; still, I worry their CGI-enhanced empowerment translates better to equal opportunity merchandising than to how safe a woman might feel walking alone at night. And yes, of course, they’re fantasy characters; but isn’t the wink-wink nudge-nudge of superheroes that some small element of what they do—for instance, calling-out bad guys—is attainable for us mortals?

Perhaps it is this hunger to bring deities back to earth, to have avatars for feminine physical rage, that has so many young women (not to mention men) flocking to a venue where they can see actual female bodies swing actual punches—skilled, adversarial, bloodying and bone-breaking. This is not as new as it sounds: at the height of gladiatorial fighting—the Roman spectator sport, which much like modern boxing, exploited the underclass for its heroes—there were a subset of women, the gladiatrices, who entered the ring for an elusive glory.

Ultimate Fighting Championship founder Dana White seemed uninterested in resurrecting the gladiatrix when he insisted at a press conference in 2011 that a woman would never fight in his mixed martial arts octagon. But White is a profiteer first, ideologue second, and two years later, when a smack-talking, photogenic Californian named Ronda Rousey—a former US Olympic medalist in judo—began her bid to be mixed martial arts’ biggest star, he changed his mind. I’d never heard of Rousey (despite her being the third most searched person on Google in 2015) until my daughter mentioned in passing last fall that she found her “unabashedly herself” and “refreshing.” Certainly, Rousey did what was unimaginable twenty years earlier: before the age of thirty, she turned punching like a girl into an estimable career, a source of both celebrity and infamy …

In contrast, I wait until I’m middle-aged and newly divorced to learn the art of throwing a punch. I show up at a CrossFit gym with my first pair of 14-ounce Everlast boxing gloves and a set of bright pink wraps. And it soon becomes clear I’m going to excel at muscling my way through the conditioning—skipping sets, sprawls, burpees and sit-ups—but not the basic boxing skills. My introduction to the heavy bag is underwhelming; I punch like a girl in the pre-Rousey sense of the phrase, which is to say I lack technique. When Craig, a thick-shouldered, bespectacled and exacting young coach, barks out the order of combinations and drills, what results is tentative flailing. Each contact with the heavy bag sounds like an uninspired “meh.”

I wait until I’m middle-aged and newly divorced to learn the art of throwing a punch.

Surrounded by younger boxers with much more potential, it surprises me that I get any of Craig’s attention at all. But over the next months he persists. And while my jabs never reach a crisp snap, and my combos never attain that jab-jab-pow syncopation, I start to connect with the occasional straight. Then my right hook makes a delicious thud that cuts through the gym’s warehouse din. I turn the sequence of movements that produce this sound into a moving mantra. I make it again. And again. I entertain ridiculous fantasies: my arms raised in the ring, a vanquished bully on his or her back. I take the tiniest sip of what Joyce Carol Oates, in her poetic and often elegiac 1987 meditation On Boxing, calls, “… the triumph of physical genius in a technologically advanced world in which the physical counts for very little …” Maybe because it’s often withheld from an occasionally athletic middle-aged female, it tastes so damn good.

Before she lost her UFC bantamweight championship belt to Holly Holm, Rousey was that unstoppable arm-raiser. And while she still had a champion’s swagger she put out a book called My Fight/Your Fight, co-written with her sports journalist sister. It quickly became a New York Times bestseller.

With its stagey black-and-white photos and testosterone-fueled language (the word “fight” is used no less than 17 times in the book’s 500 word opening) My Fight/Your Fight merges autobiography with Sun-Tzu-inspired self-help talk. (The latter shows up in 36-point all-cap chapter titles such as “Pain Is Just One Piece of the Information” and “Prepare for the Perfect Opponent.”) Needless to say, it’s a quick read.

But it’s compelling, too. In addition to gender norms, Rousey battles personal setbacks and demons: a speech impediment, a beloved father’s suicide, a formidable judoka mother, an eating disorder that resulted from years of “making weight” and her own rebelliousness and occasional bad judgment. She also has a tale of extreme forbearance for isolation, physical pain (she competes with a broken foot and later, a pit bull bite) and privations such as the general lack of glamour, budgets and regard for female athletes trying to make their mark in male-dominated sports.

Even her advantages—coming from years of judo training—turn out to be an Achilles heel. In mixed martial arts championships, you have to be a proficient striker, but Rousey’s trademark is grappling her opponents to the ground and keeping them down for the count with an elbow-dislocating move called the armbar. In her fall 2015 matchup with Holm, a former boxer and preacher’s daughter with the shoulders of Atlas, Rousey’s just-good-enough punches are her undoing. She simply can’t mow the taller woman down. Holm uses a spectacular muy thai kick to knock out Rousey, but this comes after she’s already dazed and bloodied her opponent with several precise and vicious straights to her face. Rousey looks out-matched from the start: Holm simply packs more of a punch.

It’s wincingly hard to watch a real woman take this much real punishment. Yet female fighters—tough, pugilistic, trash-talking—raise the same possibility that professional boxers have done for generations of young men: that when threatened, there might be an opportunity to defend yourself with a punch that lands. There might even be some heroism in it.

For reasons I couldn’t articulate, throwing a decent punch was important to me. During my sessions with the heavy bag, I aim for a mastery I never expect to use. And for several months, it works. I get better. I get better. I get better. And then I get bored. The heavy bag is all forgiveness. It does not hold onto my punches; it’s unchanged by them. It quietly, quickly re-inflates, and swings back to me for more. It’s a reliable, one-trick therapist, a good listener. But any triumph it offers is, ultimately, illusory.

In the end it forces me to confront myself. How much better do I need to be? A year after donning my boxing gloves, the original frustration and anguish that brought me to the heavy bag is exhausted. I start looking around for a fitness regime I can sustain with my wonky knees and sciatica, because, I realize, finally, I have no desire to get into a ring and aim for an opponent’s face or kidneys. I stop going to boxing class and join a yoga studio. I miss Craig. I lose muscle. My flexibility improves.

Self-protection has its own code, and its own illusions. Not every punch swung in self-defense is good, or fair, or blameless. And yet every punch, offensive or defensive, ugly or righteous, makes another inevitable—if not immediately, then later. Such constant ratcheting up, regardless of gender, requires an ever-more weaponized body. And these bodies put themselves in danger, because an impenetrable defense against violence is also an invitation to it. My brother—he of the Meccano-dented head—lived the paradox of a gentle spirit encased in genetically predetermined burliness; by his teens he was as tall and broad-shouldered as a defensive tackle. It was not unusual for smaller men, emboldened by a few pints, to walk up to him in bars, apropos of nothing, close their eyes, hold their breath and take a swing.

Self-protection has its own code, and its own illusions. Not every punch swung in self-defense is good, or fair, or blameless.

In her book, Rousey never concedes that her body can only temporarily sustain the profession’s required readiness for punching and being punched (the My Fight/Your Fight bravado would be hard to maintain otherwise) but her actions imply she knows it. Before her brutal comeuppance from Holm in the octagon, she’d already laid the foundations of an exit strategy: a fledgling acting career that includes bit parts in movie franchises such as The Expendables and Fast and Furious. A few months after her defeat, she guest-hosted Saturday Night Live. Such reinvention requires focus and a bit of luck. (For every Dwayne Johnson, there are surely dozens of former wrestlers and boxers working retail with concussed and hobbled bodies. Boxer Michael Spinks famously went from his Olympic Gold medal boxing win for the US direct to scrubbing floors in a chemical factory; a trajectory which led him to return to professional boxing. Rousey, herself an Olympian, lived in her car for a brief period while transitioning to mixed martial arts.) She’ll also need new fans; ones who clamour for her to do something other than inflict pain. Now that Holm has lost the championship belt, there will be considerable pressure on Rousey to don the gloves and do battle with old rivals. Because all these girls punching girls are money-makers. And thanks, in part, to them, Dana White is one guy who will never have to worry about his health insurance or his kids’ tuition.

The three men who line up behind my daughter and her boyfriend in the wee hours of a winter morning are strategists, too. They likely size up the chinos and Doc Marten/desert boot aesthetic of the couple in front of them, noting my daughter’s short platinum hair, and arrive at a conclusion. Because the conversation they begin out loud is about date rape—how much they each enjoy it, how best to do it. They are drunk and loud and lavish with detail.

My daughter says time slows down for her in the moments that follow. She knows her big-hearted, principled boyfriend, will turn around and ask the men to stop. She realizes, as the exchange escalates, he’s going to get hit first by the guy baiting him, before the other two join in. They aren’t counting on dealing with her. So she gets ready to surprise the one standing closest. (She’s had a few kickboxing lessons: she knows how to strike.) Once her boyfriend is hit, the rest is a blur. She remembers taking a swing and connecting, and nothing else. She won’t recall being hit in the face, though it happens more than once. Two passersby see the melee and pull her away for her own protection. They do not come to the aid of her outnumbered boyfriend.

By the time police arrive at the fast food joint where my daughter and her boyfriend are ambushed, there’s blood sprayed across the plastic laminate counter and a small crowd has gathered. The owner tells the police he doesn’t know who started it. Two of the instigators begin to walk away, holding of all things, the food they’d ordered in tidy to-go containers. My daughter starts yelling at the officers to make an arrest. One threatens to put in her in the squad car if she doesn’t shut the fuck up. So she does.

Before they become Buddhists or yogis or other-cheek turners, should our daughters also be boxers?

The world is a funny place for young women. Many will be victimized by violence or intimidation and left traumatized. (As will countless young men.) But most females will not enjoy the smallest taste of self-defense. So what happens when one does, when one literally throws a punch? How does an average woman—not a superhero or UFC celebrity—sort through the quixotic mix of exhilaration, shame and compromised justice that follows a physical confrontation in which she didn’t step back or take blows helplessly? What are the consequences, when the adrenaline wears off, of putting herself at risk? If it’s true, as Oates writes, that we must reluctantly acknowledge “… that the most profound experiences of our lives are physical events—though we believe ourselves to be, and surely are, essentially spiritual beings,” then do women need to reconsider the spectrum of physicality they allow themselves?

Later, I’ll retell the story of what happened to my daughter to a friend. “Whoa, you’ve got to rein that girl in,” he says. I inhale slowly. Really? I think.

Two years ago, my daughter and I had what was probably our worst-ever argument: the fissile emotions left over from my divorce, the ignition of money worries, her anger, and my overworked martyrdom converged and exploded on an early summer afternoon when the house was empty. The banality mushroomed upward, expanded outwards, until we were both screaming our voices raw, rattling the window panes, saying impossibly hurtful things. It was intense and shameful yet awesome too, in the way any tantrum is for its willful abandonment of sense and decorum. At one point, we were within six inches of each other’s faces, both yelling, and I felt the interesting, queasy possibility that one of us might take a swipe at the other. How dark, how very dark, this new reality would be for both of us. For a weird instant I was both seduced and repulsed by the moment’s destructive potential.

We both pulled back—it was such an infinitesimal amount of restraint in a maelstrom of excess. Yet because of this restraint it was so much easier to move on. There was nothing that couldn’t be salvaged. I’m grateful for that.

Still I cannot preach an exclusive non-violence to her (though part of me wants to). I only know every punch has the potential for shame: we can’t measure its appropriateness or its virtue without also considering its aftershocks, including the way one feels about having punched. Or not. Yet a punch is still just an option—and as an option, it’s not uniformly all right or all wrong. And there is something to be said for the purgative of learning how to punch, and walking around with the self-knowledge you can do it.

We do our best for our daughters. They grow up watching us, how we react. Also how we don’t. We encourage them toward agency. But agency presumes choice, and choice requires options, a choosing between at least two things—restraint or action, fight or flight, violence or non-violence, diplomacy or war. Without options, a choice is imposed and therefore no choice at all. So before they become Buddhists or yogis or other-cheek turners, should our daughters also be boxers? Should we expect them to pull their punches before they’ve learned to throw one?

It’s often a small window of time in which a girl feels physically invincible; it’s as easy to banish from her body, as it is from her memory.

On a Sunday morning, in my office, staring at my daughter’s bloody knuckles, the opponent I have to subdue is my own reaction—a fearful rampage of motherhood. For the most part, I win that match-up. I hang around the house that day. I fetch coffees and food. The windowsill near where she and her boyfriend sleep lines with watchful sentries of ibuprofen, antibiotic ointment, snacks and water-filled glasses. It takes them 24 hours before they are ready to return to their own apartment in another city. And it’s a shaky 24 hours.

Rousey tells a story in her book about being in Grade 6, waiting at the end of the day for her mother to pick her up. An older, heavier, Grade 8 girl with a history of teasing and baiting Rousey approaches and gives her a push. After the second shove, Rousey takes off her backpack and flattens the older child. While pulling up in her minivan, Rousey’s mother witnesses the interaction and also sees school staff separate the girls before marching them inside to the office. Rousey’s mother follows them indoors where a counselor tells her both students will be suspended because of a strict “no physical violence” policy. She finds her daughter crying, afraid of how much trouble she’s in.

“Did you see what happened?” her mother asks the counselor. “Because I did.”

She insists to the counselor, and anyone listening, that her daughter will not be suspended, not for defending herself. She simply won’t allow it. It’s a short anecdote, told in unadorned language at the end of an early chapter. And yet a girl can build her whole life around an instance like that—when she takes action against an injustice, and someone who she trusts defends her right to do so. Rousey returns to school the next day without incident.

It’s often a small window of time in which a girl feels physically invincible; it’s as easy to banish from her body, as it is from her memory. Having one story in which she is, surely moves her toward an embodied wholeness, the very human paradox of gentleness and aggression. That must be worth a few bruises and misgivings, if it fuels faith in her own strength, if it protects her from silence. A girl can build her whole self around a story like that.

Krista Foss’s debut novel Smoke River (released by McClelland & Stewart in 2014) was shortlisted for the North American Hammett Prize for literary excellence in crime writing and won the Hamilton Literary Award. Her essay writing has been published in the Humber Literary Review and her short fiction, published in several literary journals, has twice been a finalist for The Journey Prize. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.