Written by Sally Davies and Vanessa Chen
Graphic by Ana Isaacs
This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
CW: Mention of feeling unsafe around men.
The world of martial arts is largely a male-dominated space. While the place of women in this space has been gradually gaining recognition, it still remains far less prominent in comparison. In the wake of this discrepancy, we cannot help but to be concerned: how can female-identifying and non-binary people engage in traditionally male-dominated activities and in what is generally viewed as ‘violence’, or ‘violent behaviour’?
Strength has long been seen through a masculine prism. The typical image of strong, threatening masculine figures pervades this idea – to be ‘strong’ is to be aggressive, tough, manly.
But picture this: two women of colour who appear nothing like stereotypical fighters engaging in the martial art of Muay Thai. Muay Thai is referred to as the ‘art of the 8 limbs’, and is a Thai kick-boxing style of martial arts that focuses on the hands/fists, elbows, knees, and feet. Our interest in Muay Thai was sparked in Boxing and Boxfit classes taken for fitness, and grew out of wanting to learn better technique and get involved in a style-specific training gym – something neither of us had experienced before.
When we started at the Muay Thai gym, we stuck our class timetable to the fridge. Often, we would have guests noticing it, and asking our male housemates, “Oh, which one of you is doing the MMA stuff?”. When our housemates would point to the two of us, their reaction was always one of surprise.
Growing up, we both experienced constant comments and side remarks on what the supposed ideal female figure was. As a result, we were encouraged to avoid certain types of exercise in case we ‘bulked up’ or developed broad shoulders. Due to COVID-19 and the closure of our Muay Thai gym, we jumped on the Chloe Ting workouts train and noticed she would preface certain exercises with “don’t worry, this won’t make your thighs bigger or bulkier”. We found that, while there is a desire for women to look toned, there is most certainly a negative attitude towards gaining noticeable muscles – a potential dilemma for people considering engaging in martial arts.
Yet, even with these common experiences, our views and feelings towards engaging in martial arts differ – particularly regarding the ever-elusive idea of empowerment.
A sport and form of personal empowerment for Sally:
I feel empowered as myself and as a person, but I don’t necessarily feel empowered solely as a female when practising Muay Thai. I have, however, previously attended self-defence classes, so it may be that I unconsciously differentiate between self-defence classes and martial arts. I tend to find myself focusing more on technique and, while I love the thrill of sparring, I never imagine myself using it in a real scenario beyond the sport.
I love the feeling of physical and mental strength that comes with Muay Thai – realising new reasons to appreciate my body, as it serves me in many different ways. Outwardly, my appearance and disposition have not changed much; but internally, I feel significantly stronger after starting Muay Thai. I am especially motivated by our coaches and their firm belief that anything is achievable, provided that you are committed and give one hundred percent of your effort. Thanks to them, I have been able to transfer this energised enthusiasm into other aspects of my life.
Contrary to widespread ideas about martial arts, I do not view my experiences with Muay Thai as engaging in ‘violence’; particularly since my interactions with sparring partners in between exercises are always encouraging and friendly.
In saying this, Muay Thai can be an effective, cathartic release for any pent-up emotion. Due to its physically and mentally demanding nature, it requires my full attention and is therefore a great means of exercise and emotional release. When practising Muay Thai, I have no choice but to focus on what I am actively engaging in.
A form of female empowerment and security for Vanessa:
I agree with Sally in terms of it empowering me as an individual. However, I have felt that the technique-building we have learnt in our Muay Thai classes has enabled me to feel more secure when undertaking parts of my life where I have not felt particularly safe, such as walking back home by myself in the dark. While I still feel slightly afraid when I am walking alone at night, at times when I happen to walk past a stranger (especially if they are male), it is easier to imagine myself using Muay Thai techniques and moves that I’ve learnt to defend myself if anything were to happen. Had I not taken a style-specific class, I would have felt more vulnerable in these types of situations.
The other differentiating factor for me was that, as our primary instructor at the Muay Thai gym was female, that in of itself was enough to make me feel empowered whilst engaging in boxing tactics and techniques.
Like Sally, I do not see participating in Muay Thai as engaging in some form of ‘violence’. The attention to detail for technique makes learning Muay Thai more of an art form than a violent sport. This was made evident to me when I saw a live Muay Thai boxing match: while one girl did split open her opponent’s cheek, none of it was particularly violent in the way that we would imagine a boxing match to look like, i.e. bloody with possibly broken bones.
Our final thoughts:
For us, the concept of developing muscles or appearing more ‘masculine’ does not stop us from practising Muay Thai. While this does not necessarily stop comments from our Asian parents and relatives, the personal and physical strength we both have gained from training far outweighs the potential negative response.
From our experiences, we find that these specialised boxing gyms are moving towards providing spaces that are more welcoming and inclusive for all people, and we have noticed that many new beginners joining the gym are female-identifying. Over time, we hope that with more women continuing to engage and developing the confidence to participate in martial arts, we will be able to create a renewed and revised image of society’s perception of the martial arts fighter.