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Photo credit: Sharon Attia
I've always been a petite person. I weighed a mere five pounds, 15 ounces at birth, a full term baby in a premee’s body. Growing up I steadily remained in the low 20th percentile for my height, and 10th percentile for my weight. My mother loves to tell the story of a time I came home from kindergarten crying. “Cris, what happened?” she asked, to which I responded through tears, “The teacher said I was the smallest person in the class.” I didn’t like the implication of being the smallest, because to many it meant that I must be weak. The statement bothered me because I thought myself pretty mighty.
As I got older, but not necessarily bigger, I continued encountering assumptions about my physicality, facing the usual offers to carry something that others thought might be too heavy for me, or little pats on the head as if I was some cute little toy. All of this was made worse by the fact that I am female, which meant that the usual things that are assumed about a woman’s strength and capacity were simply magnified by my less-than-imposing stature.
It took 32 years for that to begin to change. I started taking boxing classes as a challenge to myself to do something I didn’t think I was capable of excelling in. I had just finished the season with my dragon boat team, finishing second in that summer’s dragon boat race in Flushing, Queens. Dragon boating was a hobby I took up through a mix of curiosity and necessity—I had sprained my ankle that spring and couldn’t engage in anything physical that required my lower body, and dragon boating provided the perfect outlet for my aggression. It was an incredible feeling to see our ragtag group go from novices to placing second behind the fire department team in a matter of a few short months. So when this fun hobby ended, and my ankle mostly healed, I went searching for the next thing to take on. Boxing felt like the natural next challenge. It was for the tough, aggressive and badass, and it offered a great opportunity to a woman who balked at traditional gender norms.
I was pretty terrible at first. Even though I was running some 15 miles a week, I would leave class in utter pain from the punching, squatting, lifting, throwing, and any other grueling exercise they’d throw at us to build up our stamina as boxers. I’d keep coming back week after week, frustrated by my inability to naturally pick up the coordination required to throw punch combinations, chasing that elusive moment when it would all finally click. And little by little it did! One, two, hook, two! Two, slip, weave, hook! The snapping sound of my glove perfectly hitting the instructor’s mitt became my new addiction, and my motivation to continue improving. Months passed and I became stronger, muscles showed up in places I never fathomed having muscles. My most surprising accomplishment was finally having the ability to lift my suitcase into the overhead compartment of an airplane without any assistance. No longer a short girl problem because I now had boxer girl strength.
Boxing gave me the ability to finally display on the outside the way I felt about myself on the inside: strong, powerful, relentless, unstoppable. I wanted to see what else I could dive head first into and master, and I wanted to use this newfound power and strength to affect change where it mattered most to me. I wanted to be able to use what I’d learned in boxing to make sure other women and girls never thought of themselves as less than, or broken, or incapable. I wanted to use that strength to fight the patriarchal system that leads to so many women and girls underestimating their own capacity. If I could teach them boxing in the process, even better.
And so She Fights Foundation was born. I created She Fights to give other girls the opportunity to also feel strong, powerful, relentless, and unstoppable, and provide for them a safe environment in which they could match that strength with vulnerability. We started offering free boxing classes to NYC girls aged 14 to 19 who come from low income backgrounds, first as a pilot program in May of 2016, and officially as She Fights in November of the same year. Most of the girls start the program with the intention to learn self-defense, and I while I do want them learn boxing and self-defense, I hope the takeaway is much greater than that.
I don’t want to say that our mission is especially germane now given the current political climate, because our societies have always looked to squelch the voices of strong women, to snuff out those who dare enter realms dominated by men. Our subjugation is not new, and our objectification is not novel. But if our detractors feel more emboldened than ever to speak up, we must be louder, and our resolve to strengthen and lift one another must be relentless.
I hope our boxing program allows our girls to see themselves as forces of nature, unstoppable in their resolve to become their strongest selves. I hope it changes the way the world sees women, and starts noticing the power we possess in our ability to endure and overcome. Ultimately, I want our girls to look at themselves in the mirror and ask, "What can't I do?" I hope they set out to find the answer, and discover that there is little they can’t achieve.
About the author, Beverly Baker:
Beverly’s mother always wanted her to take ballet. Instead Beverly fell in love with the fluid and powerful movements from those super-corny martial arts movies her older brothers used to watch. She aspired to move that beautifully (not including the mismatch of mouths and words caused by English dubbing). Beverly is a 2nd dan black belt in ChaYon Ryu, a Yellow Belt in Krav Maga and has trained in a range of traditional and modern styles including karate, jiu-jitsu, boxing, aikido and judo. She lives in Los Angeles, holds an MBA focusing in digital media management and spends her free time road tripping with her boyfriend, Brian.
This is a follow up to her previous Society Nine Storytellers blog, which you can read here.
I was at the gym tonight. This new guy, he was 20-something, was there holding the heavy bag as I was hitting. When I finished he said, "Wow, she really hates men."
In my teens I would have crumbled at the remark.
In my 20s I would have clocked him when we sparred.
In my early 30s I would have said, "Hate men? No, I live life with just as much passion."
Now in my late 30s, all of these ran sequentially through my mind, but I let them all go. I just kept working out, shrugging his attitude off as his problem, not mine.
I love being me.
I jotted that down a few years ago after coming home from my boxing class. I was astonished that a fellow boxing student would equate punching a bag hard with some kind of hatred inside of me and writing those words down helped me put them in perspective. But even more important, it helped me see how far I had come mentally in dealing with these kinds of comments.
Now in my 40s, I was reminded of this story after a former co-worker encouraged me to write about the cultural bias against strong women. He had read my first blog post for Society Nine and wrote to me in an email:
One of the things I've always admired about you is your confidence and strong presence in meetings and calls. It was really interesting to read your article and realize you may not have always had that, and that martial arts helped you become stronger in other areas of life. I think it's really interesting because a lot of women struggle with confidence in a largely male environment, and are afraid of being perceived as bitchy. I see a lot of articles about this in business and especially in tech, and I’ve learned a lot by talking about it with my girlfriend. It’s a delicate line, and definitely a double standard. But I think you handle it really well! You’re generally upbeat and outgoing and smile a lot so I think it’s hard for people to believe you’re angry or bitchy. People like you! :)
I think more women would be into martial arts if they knew it could help them be more confident at work or elsewhere. Beyond the techniques, I think there’s a lot of really helpful philosophy with broader applications, like de-escalating a situation before there’s conflict.
I was moved. And he gave me a lot to think about. In training, there is a time for making my partner at ease and comfortable and there is a time to plant my sidekick in their gut. Before I read his note however, I wasn’t aware of how much of that delicate balancing act I brought into my professional life.
But why is it important for women to manage how we’re perceived in the professional world? Shouldn’t we be judged by our merits alone? Unfortunately, study after study demonstrates that women are judged more harshly when we compete in areas traditionally defined as male. Further, while the women who receive the most rewards at work (promotions, etc.) are those who display “masculine” traits, they only reap those rewards if they can soften the edges of their assertiveness.
So just as we often do in martial arts training, women in business face a double bind: If we are too assertive or outspoken, we are labeled as “dangerous,” even as our assertive male counterparts are regarded as “driven.” But if we are perceived as too feminine, we are viewed as weak and ineffective. Our very success can thwart future success as we face negative reactions from our peers. And should we succeed in a traditionally male arena, our reward is being liked less and put down more. This dislike can hurt our careers long term even after we’ve clearly demonstrated our competence.
Whether I’m training or at work, I’m often in male-dominated environments. If I want to be effective, I have to consider how I’m being perceived and adjust accordingly. For example, in developing business deals, I negotiate hard, but not in a hard way. You could describe my negotiation tactics as akin to the principles of aikido. And then there are the times that I have to take a hardline with an external partner. Perhaps they’ve not delivered on their promises or have otherwise underperformed. As a woman I’m not able to get away with the hard line stance that my male colleagues can. Keeping in mind the consequences discussed above, I still have to set boundaries in such a way that does not damage the relationship. In working with guys in my physical training, who are generally larger and stronger, I’ve learned that my strength comes from attacking creatively, rather than simply head on. While my physical training has taught me to not be afraid to throw a proverbial hard punch, both physically and socially it has also taught me that who I’m working with is critical. Some people are fine with a head-on approach while others need a bit more finesse. While it may not be “fair”, “fairness” really isn’t relevant when there may be important consequences at stake.
It was through my martial arts training that I first learned to manage these perceptions. Early in my training I began to notice that my assertiveness sometimes elicited reactions that my male training partners don’t have to deal with. Ninety percent of my training partners are cool training with aggressive women. We work together with no problems. The other ten percent peg me as angry or in a bad mood when nothing could be further from the truth. I train not because I’m angry, but because I’m happy. And training makes me happy. How can I be in a bad mood when I’m doing something I love so much?
Dealing with that ten percent — and they aren’t all men, by the way — I’ve had to learn how to balance being serious and focused with being approachable and friendly. As my former co-worker observed, de-escalating a situation isn’t just about physical safety but also about reading the other person and managing their perceptions. In the earlier days of my training, I was terrible at this. I came across as cold because I didn’t want to make small talk in class, but rather stay focused on the drills. Over time, I’ve developed the habit of always giving my partner a big smile before we train and being sensitive to his or her social cues. Now when a partner wants to chit-chat during class, cutting in to our precious training time, my go-to response is: “That sounds great! I’d love to hear more about that after class!” Then we start the drill.
After all this time however, and regardless of my efforts, I’ve seen that I can still be misunderstood. Though more and more women are now training, we all still run into the negative perceptions assertive women face. The most recent came while I waited for some girlfriends after training to head out for our regular “Punch & Brunch” Saturday. As I waited I joined a conversation with a few guys in the lobby. Most of them I had trained with previously, one I didn’t know at all. As one of them, an instructor, described his curriculum for his upcoming sparring class I got excited and asked about his class.
“Oh, do you take sparring classes?” the man I didn’t know asked, surprised.
“I do, I love it. It’s a lot of fun!”
The other men joked, “Oh yeah, and she’s tough too.” Then one of them added, “You’ve got to watch out for her. She’s got a lot of hate in her heart.”
I generally let nonsense like that slide. But something about those words stung. I asked, “Would you say that if I were a man who liked sparring class?”
“Well, no,” he stammered.
I didn’t want to make it into a thing, and by his stammer and the sheepish look that came across his face, I saw that he got the point. I recognized those social cues and happily changed the subject.
It was my training that first taught me how to express and harness my physical power. As an unexpected benefit, my training has translated to skills for the business world. Perhaps one-day women won’t need to manage perceptions so carefully. But until that day, I am grateful for my training that helps me walk that fine line.