My hands are shaking as I loosen the laces of my gloves, my fingers pruned and pale from all my sweating. I unwrap and fold the wet strips of linen so that I can hang them up to dry for afternoon training. Normally, Pi Nu is deciding at this point whether we’re going to do some insanely difficult conditioning drill together or scrap it for the morning because he’s too lazy. I’m hoping for the latter. He comes and stands in front of me, kind of watching me silently in this way that he does sometimes, trying to read me… or perhaps, successfully reading me. Dohn yen ma spah-ring, boxing, he says. I nod, a little surprised. He’s telling me that he wants me to spar, boxing only, this afternoon. Usually I have to ask for this myself, so it’s an interesting twist that he’s commanding it for me today. I decide to put off reminding him that I’m fighting tomorrow, which I reckon he forgot, because if I remind him he’ll scrap that sparring idea and I’ve been sick for a week so I really need the work.
When I get to the gym in the afternoon I’m already feeling pretty “off.” It’s just been a hard few weeks with lots of fights, followed by an infection that required limited training and lots of antibiotics, then right back to another fight. So I can’t get my rhythm and I’m just dancing off-beat a little. Immediately, Pi Nu tells me to put on my boxing gloves and get in the ring for sparring. No time to warm up and wrap my hands, I just throw some tape over my right hand, which was broken a couple years ago and gives me some trouble sometimes, and get in the ring. It’s a “round robin” with 3 fighters, so two spar for a round and then one stays in for the next opponent for one round, then that new opponent is in for 2 rounds, etc. My first opponent is Geng-Gat, who is a good 3-4 kg lighter than I am but an accomplished fighter. He’s tall and skinny, and Southpaw. I do really well in our first round, jabbing and switching stance as I’ve been working on my own Southpaw approach by prescription of Karuhat. Geng-Gat just kind of loads up for his left cross, so I can weather his predictable combinations and nail him with my own little flurries when he pauses. I stay in first and go against Sun next, who is pretty much the same size as Geng-Gat but much newer. He’s terrified of me and pretty much just guards and tries to throw a right cross every now and again. Pi Nu tells me to try to knock him out, which he doesn’t really mean but certainly isn’t entirely joking. He means bring the pressure but keep the power in control. So then I have a round off and I watch Geng-Gat and Sun sparring together. Geng-Gat is ruthless and is just tagging Sun over and over again, knocking him back and sideways. I can tell by watching this round that Geng-Gat is going to be all fired up for when I come back in, which I just have to look out for. I’m not in the mood for it, honestly, but you don’t get to pick the situation – you only get to pick your mood.
I go back in and, sure enough, Geng-Gat is going full power. He’s smaller, but he’s strong. When I go against guys 3-4 kg bigger than myself, I don’t go 100%. There’s just no need for it. So I’m a little pissed that he’s brought the energy to this but I need to deal with the energy, and my desire to escape it. At some point I was caught with his hard left cross and it slammed straight into my nose. My eyes teared up hard and I got that metallic taste in the back of my throat. I tucked my chin and came back at him, although by now I was legitimately pissed and hurt and was trying to nail him with a single hard shot, which means I wasn’t relaxed enough to hit him with much of anything. After about a minute one of the dads around the edge of the ring pointed out to Pi Nu that I was bleeding pretty heavily. Pi Nu walked over to investigate, not stopping us, just trying to get a look at the blood situation. I kept hunting Geng-Gat and he kept going as well. Pi Nu separated us, maybe seeing how pissed I was, and decided to stop the sparring. My nose was broken, gushing a lot of blood, and I threw my gloves on the ground and hopped out of the ring. I tossed my blood-filled mouthpiece onto a chair and walked into the weight room to cut over to the bathroom so I could clean myself up. I knew my nose was broken but was mostly just frustrated by having to stop, because now it’s just what it is and there’s no way to overwrite it with anything else.
In the bathroom I used my fingers to pinch my nostrils and pull huge gobs of blood out of my nose, spattering it into the sink with running water. I looked in the mirror and could see my eyes were watery and red, but my nose didn’t look flattened, just starting to swell and definitely nudged farther to the side than it already was. Geng-Gat appeared behind me in the mirror’s reflection, wai-ing and apologizing. Mai bpen rai, I said, “no problem,” and tried to rinse some of the blood out of my shirt. Then Pi Nu appeared and the look of concern on his face threw me. I really hate that expression on him. He hasn’t looked at me like that since when I first came to the gym and after the first fight booked through Petchrungruang contacts, had 28 stitches in my face, something he wasn’t yet used to because I had never really been cut before and he didn’t know me that well. So I went from no scars on my face to huge scars on my face in one go. Now I just have so many it doesn’t register much anymore. So to see this expression on his face made me want to just get out of there and avoid being looked at and the feeling all together. He caught me as I tried to walk past him, holding my shoulder firmly in one hand and pinching at my nose with his other hand. He tried to move the bridge but it didn’t budge. It wasn’t mushy, but he kept frowning because it was definitely sideways and swollen and bloody. “We ask Papa,” he said, pulling me along as we walked back into the other room.
Back over by the ring all the kids and fathers gathered around with a kind of buzzed excitement and concern while Bamrung, Pi Nu’s father and the head of the gym, slowly squinted at me and started nudging around my nose the same way Pi Nu had. It wouldn’t move. Bamrung was, surprisingly, way more gentle in his attempts to move it than Pi Nu had been (I totally figure him for a tough just-crack-it-back-into-place kind of guy, but he was shockingly delicate with me) and kind of shook his head in confusion when it wouldn’t move. The general discomfort of being the center of attention was amplified and made much worse by what this attention was for and I began to squirm, just trying to get this over with. “My nose isn’t straight to begin with” I offered. There was a collective “oohhh,” and then I was released. “It’s okay,” I said, mai suay laew (“ugly already”) and a few of the fathers laughed and looked at each other instead of me. Pi Nu frowned. He hates that joke.
My nose has been broken 4 times now, only one of those times in a fight and three times in training. It’s never a dramatic flattened-against-my-face kind of thing that you can get out of Google Image searches of boxers with broken noses, but it has fractured this little tail part at the top of the bridge that just keeps nudging in the same direction. Maybe with my Southpaw development I can start getting hit on the other side of it and nudge it back. But the first time it broke, it really got my guard much better, so it’s a blessing in disguise. The problem is I hate looking at my face and seeing this curve in my nose, which is usually most noticeable in video and photos. I see it all the time – probably less so because it’s been a few years since the last break – and assumed that everyone sees it, but given the response by Pi Nu and Bamrung upon learning that it’s been crooked this whole time, apparently it’s not as obvious as I’d thought. When you’re self-conscious of something, you obsess over it and assume everyone else does too. Thailand is a very image-conscious culture and how you look and present yourself publicly is a big deal. Thais aren’t shy about staring or pointing out your physical flaws while in line at the grocery store or upon first meeting you, or a good 5 years into your relationship. It’s all fair game. So I’ve kind of learned how to ignore being stared at for my tattoos, my muscles, the scars on my forehead, or the one lady at the Big C who stands by her bra kiosk and reminds me that she knows I’m a fighter because of the scars on my face and my crooked nose every time she sees me. Thanks! I almost forgot since last week when you told me!
I happen to love my scars, so I have an easier time with being stared at for those. One lady in Chiang Mai, who saw me every day for 2 years and then now only when I come up for fights, noted the dramatic difference in my appearance now that I’ve had over 100 stitches in my face. I gave the usual explanations of how many fights I have and that it’s fine, blah blah, but she just kept making a big deal about it. Right there at her shop, in front of some other older ladies chewing on their lunches and a guy waiting for his grilled pork to be chopped. “It’s okay,” I said, “already have a husband.” With that everyone laughed, same joke as my “ugly already” joke, and we all moved on with our lives.
It’s not like checking a box on a questionnaire, whether you feel proud or embarrassed or neutral about your looks. Some days I’m sexy as fuck, some days I just don’t want any focus on me at all. Sometimes the only part of my face I see is my crooked nose, sometimes I don’t mind seeing it. I love that I look the way I do, from muscles to scars to sweaty and haggard, because of what I do. I truly am a “body by Muay Thai” product. But I’ve never quite gotten a handle on that total self-satisfaction thing. It’s a struggle that I’m embarrassed to struggle with and sometimes it surprises me. I can go long stretches without thinking about any of these things and then be confronted with it because of someone else’s problem with it. For example, when I have stitches I can keep training at Petchrungruang, my main gym, because Pi Nu won’t say anything or pay it any mind (that’s noticeable to me, anyway). But I will sometimes avoid going to train at WKO because Pi Mutt makes a big show about how awful it is that I’ve been cut again. I should be able to feel however I want regardless of what anyone else is saying or thinking, but none of us has a laminated ego.
While my nose was still freshly broken (this time), Kevin convinced me to go see a doctor here in Pattaya. I’d gotten an X-Ray years ago after the last break and the doctor in Chiang Mai had said that I’d waited too long to reposition it and surgery was the only option. So this time we went soon after to see if he could just pop it back into place. Nah, of course not. I was apprehensive of seeing a surgeon because his job is pointing out your physical flaws, so when I sat down in front of him and he zeroed in on my face, I kind of braced myself for the bluntness of what he might say. It wasn’t too bad, really. He just made a sound of quick recognition of what the problem was and said he could fix it that afternoon. He’d shove a metal rod up my nostril and wrench the bridge back to the center. It would require general anesthesia because the pain is too much for local and I’d have to stay overnight in the hospital for observation. My nose wouldn’t be straight, it would just be as it was before this break and maybe like before one of the previous breaks. For it to be actually straight would require hours of surgery, but also general anesthesia, a night in the hospital and the same recovery period of about 6 weeks. So, same recovery time for two very different fixes. We decided not to do either one right now and just wait until a time in the future when a proper fix seems more reasonable.
With currently being re-obsessed with my own nose, I’ve started noticing other people’s noses more as well. We’re watching a cooking show that has a million contestants on it and most of them have some kind of bend or other marks of character in their nose shapes. They’re quite lovely, actually. And living in Pattaya Thailand, the number of surgery-designed noses are abundant and the perfectly straight version is rather off-putting. The examples I’m seeing are quite different from what I would require, since it’s a cosmetic building of a higher bridge for aesthetics rather than re-positioning for straightness, but it’s not that different. A perfectly straight nose isn’t what I started out with, so it’s not actually entirely what I’m after, either. But I don’t know where that in-between is. I have this unsettling feeling deep down that I won’t look like myself with it fixed, that rather than this flaw being the thing I stare at all the time, that it will be this uncanny lack of flaw that I’ll stare at and hate. Which thing do I want to be the cause of my self-consciousness?
As a Liberal Arts College grad, I’m pretty much incapable of two-sentence expressions about anything. I was asked to come up with such a task on the subject of Beauty recently, for a proposed Dove commercial pitch of all things, and I couldn’t do it. But in the process of my attempts, I pondered this longer thought about how unfortunate it is that so many cultures around the globe (mine, in particular) offer beauty as a woman’s primary value. A woman is first and foremost beautiful and if she isn’t, then she’s nothing. It’s a youthful beauty, too, so as we age our value diminishes and we experience this painful, gradual vanishing; becoming socially invisible. But then there’s an aspect to this which is kind of amazing, that instead of a woman’s value being solely in her beauty, that value itself is beautiful. When I think of my mother, for example, she is kind, creative, intelligent, and brave – and all of these things gathered together are part of her beauty. So when I think of how beautiful my mother is, I think of all these things with that one word: Beauty. And as a woman I’ve learned to associate Beauty with a feeling and, indeed, it feels good; it’s powerful and has its own currency. So again there’s this collapsing of words, so that feeling powerful as you might from athletic performance, or self-value, or confidence might be called “beautiful”, because it feels similar. A man who lifts weights and feels strong as a result of that would call it “strength” or “power,” and a woman who lifts weights and feels the exact same strength might call that feeling “beautiful.” To feel ugly, which is something I reckon all women have felt, whether it’s justified or not, is definitely a devalued and vulnerable emotional experience.
I have a rather odd relationship to that exact correlation of ugly = vulnerable, while beauty = strength. When I was young I was continually abused by some schoolmates. This abuse was brushed off as probably schoolyard teasing in a boys-pulling-a-girl’s-pigtails-because-he-likes-her manner by those I confided in for help; “it’s because you’re beautiful,” I was told. But it wasn’t a kind of benign teasing, but rather 4 continuous years (from Kindergarten to 4th Grade) of peer molestation. Inside I felt very, very ugly as a result of this powerlessness and vulnerability. So after a few years I started “cutting”, or more accurately then, burning myself, as a way to kind of manifest a physical pain that I could focus on to alleviate the emotional pain. Furthermore, by making myself “ugly,” because scars are not generally considered attractive, I thought maybe these kids would leave me alone. So, my supposed “beauty” felt ugly and my ugliness eventually felt like beauty, because I was trying to find some control and power out of it. And surely that has influenced my current relationship with my scars from fighting, or my “unfeminine” muscles and tattoos. Because the scars and muscles feel like strength to me, that association of the feeling of power being the feeling of Beauty allows me to see them as beautiful. But the vulnerability I feel over the broken nose doesn’t feel powerful, so the association with powerlessness is that feeling of being ugly. That can change, and sticking a metal rod up my nose or being put under for an operation and waking up with a different face isn’t what’s going to do that for me. The operation will just relocate what people are looking at, it won’t make them stop looking. In a way, the breaking of my nose is repeatedly a metaphor for the insecurity itself: I let something get through my guard and now I have to feel it. The options are to improve my guard and to manage what that feeling is when the punch does come through. In the case of sparring with Geng-Gat, I was upset, but I kept sparring. So I have it in me to do the same in a more general, daily practice of my life. When I’m sparring or fighting, the goal isn’t to be beautiful, it’s to feel strong. And if I really embrace this value I’m promoting, then I can maybe change my joke to an earnest, “it’s okay; beautiful already.”
I’ve written about fighting and Beauty here
below you can see the beautiful faces of female fighters: