I write a lot about how having a female body and female identity in a male-dominated sport and alien culture places limits on my possibilities as a fighter. There are also ways in which my anatomical build and a general physiognomy work to my advantage, (I use the word “physiognomy” throughout because none fit better, despite it not being exact): Namely, the ways in which my body isn’t stereotypically feminine create some new possibilities of perception and opportunity, not just drawbacks. I have just written about status and how near invisible behaviors, can affect it: The Mitt And the Joke. This is another take on questions of status, or in this case assumed capabilities, in a Muay Thai gym for women in Thailand.
I’m standing in the weight room of Petchrungruang gym in the afternoon. There are blue mats on the floor, covering one half of the big, enclosed space. There’s a big fan on one side of the room, near where I’m standing, but it’s never turned on. The room is hot. I’ve just slipped on my gloves and am waiting for Kru Nu to commence padwork with me. I’m standing right next to him and he has the pads on his arms, but he’s talking to Filippo – an Italian trainer and investor in the gym – about 13-year-old Alex’s fight from the night before. I’m sweating already and happen to be wearing a tanktop today. At that moment I’m wishing I had worn a T-shirt, so that I could wipe my face against the sleeves because my bare shoulders are too sweaty to do anything for the sweat on my face. In the space of a Muay Thai gym, in Thai culture, I often opt for more clothing rather than less, even when it’s very hot. My body gets attention, partly because I’m a woman and partly because I don’t look like what a woman “should” look like – it’s a mixed bag.
Little Alex lost his fight the night before. He’s also Italian and Filippo had acted as his corner; Kru Nu had stayed home with his baby and saw the fight on video the next day. Alex lost the fight after receiving a cut from an elbow in the second round. The blood wasn’t going in his eye, which is usually what causes a doctor to call the fight, but Alex is still a kid in many ways and it was his first cut. He must have demonstrated that he didn’t want to continue and the doctor called it. Now Filippo and Kru Nu are talking about him, about how it’s okay to stop a fight due to a cut, it’s okay to be scared of your blood all over your face the first time and when you’re a kid, etc. But they both are complaining about an ongoing issue with Alex – it’s the same conversation for the past 6 months that I’ve been at the gym, every single fight – which is his body. He’s built like a string-bean. He’s maybe 40 kg, pretty close to my height, rail-thin and no muscle tone at all. He looks like a typical gangly kid. The other kids at the gym near his age, Kru Nu’s son Bank for example, are all starting to look like little men. They’re ripped with six-packs, muscled legs, biceps and wide shoulders… they don’t look like kids. Even 10-year-old Jozef from Slovakia has a tiny muscled body, even though he’s younger than the others. Kru Nu is lamenting that he’s tried everything with Alex, making him eat chicken and eggs and drinking “Brand” every night (that’s “essence of chicken,” which Thais see as a health supplement) and doing pullups and situps. Still, Alex’s body wasn’t responding by building muscle. The unspoken tone to all of this is “what’s wrong with Alex?”
But then it got to the heart of something very integral to Thai attitudes about fighters and their bodies. Kru Nu said that because of Alex’s physiognomy, his body-type, people watching a fight know that he’s being hurt by every strike that lands. Not Alex’s response, not flinching or backing away (which might happen, might not), but just the bare-bulb assumption that a gumby body is taking damage because of how it looks without muscle tone. Kru Nu used his own son, who is 14 years old, as an example, “remember before, Bank’s body soft, phum phui (“pudgy”, “chubby”) everything hurt,” he began. Then he said that Bank had taken two years off from fighting and in that time his body changed; he lost his baby fat and this little-man body emerged as he developed into his teens. Now he’s all muscle and Kru Nu believes this means even if he gets hit in fights it won’t hurt him. It’s the composition of the body, its aesthetic, not actual visible affect from strikes. He seemed to be suggesting that Alex should take time off from fighting until his body changes; wait out the awkward phase.
All of this directly relates to me. As I’m standing there listening to this conversation, literally standing between Kru Nu and Filippo, I might as well be on the table as part of the subject as well. My body is like Bank’s – it’s muscled and hard. If I looked more “womanly,” the attitude toward me would be more in the direction of the attitude toward Alex’s body. In a very direct way, the size of my breasts equates with ability to have hard fights. At that very moment I was wearing a tanktop, which shows off my built shoulders and arms, my sak yant tattoo stretching across the width of my flat chest. The build of my body and the presence of the sak yant both emphasize the not-female aesthetic of my physiognomy. And that works to my advantage. If I had bigger breasts and softer arms; if I were taller and had a pinched waist or if I were heavier and had curves formed out of softness instead of curves carved out of muscle, the attitude toward my fighting would be different – I believe, in my case, it would be more limited. The way my trainers have talked about my Thai female opponents and their changing bodies give me that impression. Standing there between these two men who are deciding the fate of a 13-year-old boy who hasn’t started to look like a man, I’m given both access to the conversation and am included as being on the right side of a fighter’s body because my particular body is more “like a man” than Alex’s 13-year-old body is. That’s pretty incredible.
Not 10 minutes earlier, Kru Nu had pointed to my tattoo and told the young Thai woman he was holding pads for – she trains for fitness and is absolutely on the side of “feminine” as far as types go – that I must have been a Boran Warrior in my past life. It was one part a joke, a way to tease both her and me, and one part praise to my attributes as a fighter now – the “warrior” strength of my body and how I train and fight. It was a complicated compliment. But it was also speaking to the ways in which my body and the way I mark it point toward masculine associations – and that works toward being a Muay Thai fighter because it’s a very masculine-associated thing to be.
Alex received 7 stitches for his cut, which is up in his hairline and looks great already, only 2 days after the stitches went in. There wasn’t talk of him not fighting because he got cut. There wasn’t talk of him not wanting to fight anymore after the cut happened, something that could be perceived as not having “heart” – but I think there’s leniency there because Alex is a kid. All the talk was about his body. About a year ago I was stopped in a fight with cuts to my forehead. The same doctor who stitched Alex stitched me and when I came back to this same gym there was a head-shaking concern from Kru Nu – who, to be fair didn’t know me well back then, on my first visit to Pattaya – that maybe I shouldn’t fight anymore. It wasn’t a moratorium until my body changed, as it is with Alex. My body won’t change – I’ll always be a woman – but the problem Kru Nu had was that as a woman my face had been damaged. There wasn’t concern about Alex’s face; there wasn’t concern about my body. It’s a completely gendered divide: wait until the boy becomes a man and stop because a woman’s aesthetic appeal is threatened. This matters because the way my body looks with its muscles, straight lines and flat planes – the message those attributes send – is in opposition to the assumptions gleaned off of the fact of me being a woman and having a face that needs to be protected. The messages my body sends allow me to be grouped in with the fighters in a way that I believe would be much more difficult if the markers on my body were more feminine: breasts, curves, softness. Alex’s body works against him because it’s sending messages of not-masculine… yet.
I should add something I’ve mentioned elsewhere. I’m not all stoked on the responses my body generally gets in Thailand. When I’m out and about I tend to dress in jeans and a T-shirt, but occasionally I wear something that shows my arms and tattoo. It’s rare to not get comments when I’m out like this even in Pattaya were all kinds are seen; walking into a 7-11 you know when people are talking about you and because I can speak Thai I know exactly what’s being said. It’s not complimentary. When it happens it’s a somewhat mouth-agape or elbow-nudging to a fellow employee at whatever store or shop or restaurant I’m at, with the comment of “is that a man or a woman?” It sucks. Sometimes I make eye contact and let them know that I can speak Thai – it’s not a polite thing to do on my part but shit-talking isn’t polite on their part either. Recently, upon exiting the ring from knocking out my opponent (who, incidentally was Tom and therefore fashioned herself in a masculine aesthetic of short hair and bound breasts) one of the gamblers in the audience asked aloud, to nobody at all, if I was actually a man. I’ve heard announcers say pretty much the same thing on the damn microphone when I’m in the ring. It hurts my feelings and it makes me feel shitty. It’s not even necessarily an insult – there is a weird gap in the commentary where it’s somewhat positive and not all criticism in the context of the fight – but I hate it.
So I’m conflicted about the way my body appears: grateful for the way it serves a purpose, proud of the strength and generally pleased with a muscular aesthetic on a woman’s frame; but I’m also at odds with the messages it sends and the unsolicited critique it invites. What I’m bringing up here is the notion I’ve gleaned from being privy to so much commentary and nuanced, tacit treatments of me that appear to be due to my body that are positive. I can only speak to my own experiences and to my own body. Women training in Thailand with more feminine phisiogamies might have a very different take and it could be that their experiences are not in line with what I assume would be a difficulty in my own particular case. Maybe others can speak on that and round out the conversation.
(above) a vlog where I talk about being questioned to be a man in Isaan
If you’d like to read more about physiognomy-thinking in Thailand among Thais, read the first few pages of this academic article “Thai Boxing: Networking of a Polymorphous Clinch” by Stephane Rennesson
A year ago I wrote about western women and “playing to type” in Thai gyms as well, which may be part of this subject matter: Playing to Type: the Sexy Foreign Exchange Student