Challenges in Positioning in the Gym as a Nak Muay Ying

The first side of this coin is always present, like an undercurrent that you can kind of push out of your conscious mind for periods of time before it...

The first side of this coin is always present, like an undercurrent that you can kind of push out of your conscious mind for periods of time before it flares back up and forces you to reckon with it. It’s the side of the coin that lets you know how shitty being “unique” can be. At my gym in Pattaya, Petchrungruang, I am the only woman who trains there. Not only the one western woman, the only woman at all. There have been women there before and every now and again there will be a few of us, but those are temporary states.

I’ve worked really hard to be in the position I’m in at my gym. Again, I’m not the first woman to ever be there, so the door was already open and those who came before me laid down some groundwork for me. In my time at the gym I believe hammered out some serious reframing in the way my trainer sees female fighters; in some ways it’s drastic from how he thought before, in other ways I’m still seen as an exception. That exception can be glorious in that it has created a sense of pride in my trainer, Pi Nu, which in turn gives me a kind of status in the gym. But it can also be terrible in that being treated disequally stands out and becomes unmistakeable, unshakeable.

A number of factors led to this first vlog update. I’d just gone on a nearly week-long trip up North for a fight, followed by filming for this website and for my sponsors at Nak Muay Nation. Gyms are very tight-knit communities and if you miss a few days, you miss a lot of social dynamics. Because you are constantly jockying for social position in a gym, being absent means finding different footing when you return. You don’t just take a break from juggling and expect all the chainsaws to be floating exactly where you left them when you get back to it. Then, coincidentally, upon returning back to the gym there was only one full day of training before Pi Nu and 4 of the boys (my training partners) left to Bangkok for fights at Lumpinee. That takes them out for an entire day-and-a-half: one day for the weigh in and fights, the next half day for resting. So I missed getting padwork on Friday because Pi Nu was gone, then my morning training was postponed and by afternoon I was very excited to get back to work with him – I adore Pi Nu and working with him makes me really, really happy – but there were quite a few people that day and he’s the only trainer, so the queue for pads was quite long. I waited patiently and got all my other work done, but at the end of it all he just didn’t hold for me. Only me. To be fair, because the boys had just fought it was only non-fighters and westerners in that long queue and maybe he didn’t think of me in that group. But it means he didn’t think of me at all, which feels like shit. I made a note of it to him and with a tone of apology he promised we’d do pads, “tomorrow.”

That tomorrow was Sunday, which is a half-day. Again I was pushed to the end of the line, then we watched the boys fights from Friday on the big TV in the livingroom, which was wonderful, and then it was very late and I was cold and while it didn’t make any sense to start up again for my padwork, it still wasn’t acknowledged with, “aw, shit, sorry Sylvie.” It just didn’t happen. Two days no padwork while everyone else got theirs – and I’m training for a fight. I felt sad because I was overlooked, but I also felt angry because usually Pi Nu takes people in order of when they arrived and in that practice I was skipped over. It felt like it was on purpose, like Pi Nu didn’t want to hold for me, which felt so awful because I look forward to it so much. I’m ashamed to admit how much of a snit I was in, but when this guy was taken into the ring when it was my turn (instead of me) I was very close to just grabbing my bag and walking out. Making a dramatic gesture instead of simply saying, “hey, can I go next then?” I didn’t walk out; but I didn’t say anything either.

That’s what resulted in this first vlog (above). The frustration is complex, partly because you’d think that a gym is just a meritocracy of showing up and working hard, which I get tons of merit badges for if that had any worth at all. But gyms are also social networks and so your feelings can get hurt due to the social dynamics of what’s going on; it’s not just pragmatic. So, yes, I got all my work in (except for pads) and if Pi Nu had a hurt hand or something I’d have no problem at all with not getting padwork. It was in the non-communication that I interpreted that it may be personal. And I wasn’t just being overly sensitive, as a woman in a gym you are always in a different position than the men, this is just the fact of it. This feeling that Pi Nu was avoiding me on purpose was like having the rug ripped out from under me. How pissed am I allowed to be? As a fighter, super pissed because I have status and priority over the fitness group – even though they’re treated as equals in the gym by Pi Nu and they train with the fighters, same routine, there comes a time when the division of priority shows up and fighters fall on a different line there. Why wasn’t I falling on that side of the line? And that’s where the exceptional status sucks. Because even if I’m generous and feel like I understand why I’m being pushed to the back of the line, not one of the boys would ever be in that position. I am not their equal.

Part of that makes me irate, because it’s unfair and shitty. I know the world isn’t fair and I know that this inequality will be part of my life all the way through. And part of me knows that letting the people you know best and value most know that you love and value them is not high priority for most relationships. If you asked me who does the most for me, who I could not live without, it’s my husband. Guess how often I tell him that? Guess. It’s not often. When I was about 15 I worked at the same “Family Fun Park” where two of my brothers also worked. The older of those two, John, was a supervisor and Shane and I were grunts. That business was fairly sexist and the girls all worked inside, selling tickets, making food and handling snotty little kids at the arcade. The boys worked outside at the go-karts, monitoring the maze, handling malfunctions at the mini-golf course or picking balls at the driving range. So, John had never really worked the job I was working inside, but it was his job to delegate closing duties. Because I was his sister, I always – always – got the task of cleaning the bathrooms. This was everyone’s least favorite thing to do and so I think John wanted to eschew any accusations of favoritism by making sure his little sister had to do the grunt work, too. Except, he did it every fucking time. I hated when he was my supervisor. I even asked the schedule maker to put us on different shifts. And I like my brother, we spent a lot of time together and it wasn’t a sibling rivalry thing outside of work. What does this have to do with anything? It’s possible that because I’m at the gym all the time, for over 2 years now, that Pi Nu takes for granted my needs or the true “fairness” of getting to everyone because of our relationship. Like, I can miss my sister’s birthday due to some work thing and know she still loves me because she’s my sister, but I wouldn’t assume that kind of forgiveness from someone I have obligation to but who isn’t as close to me.

Now, that’s a very generous consideration, but one that might be partly accurate. Due to the dynamics and relationships of a gym, I can’t write it off as, “oh, well I’m just part of the family so that’s why I’m overlooked.” Because that’s also not why I’m overlooked. And expecting or demanding better, or at least equality, isn’t being a brat. I work so fucking hard to position myself, and make room for women as a whole, in the gym that my face is right up against the fine-grain of detail in everything. If I didn’t read into everything, notice everything, be ready to adjust to everything, I’d be in a very different place and one that isn’t nearly as valuable and precious as the one I’m guarding and building now. It sounds neurotic, but it is a simple reality that just relaxing and letting things ride could wipe out relationships, or change opportunities very quickly.

Monday morning, after two days of this nonsense, I felt a relief while heading to the gym. Mornings are just me and Pi Nu, so the relationship is simple, the dynamics paired down and variables finite. It felt like the situational reprieve as I’d been too chicken-shit to work out by saying something in a full gym for the last two days. I stepped into the weight room and started warming up. I could see Pi Nu through the big glass window between the weight room and the livingroom of his house. He was in his “going out” clothes, which was odd, but maybe he was coming from somewhere. Sometimes he has to run errands in the morning and he comes and tells me we’ll do pads in the afternoon session, so I just work out myself and that’s fine. But I watched in disbelief as he walked through the TV room to the garage, seeing me for sure but not acknowledging me at all, and then got in his car and drove away. What the actual fuck?! There are times you can just wait things out and the tides just shift. This was not one of those times. This was putting me into full panic of not understanding what was happening.

Finally, I showed up to the gym not during training hours and with tears already threatening to burst through my eyes and a huge lump in my throat, I blurted out to Pi Nu, “did I do something wrong?” He looked at me like I was crazy, or like he maybe hadn’t understood a word I’d said, then said, “noooo.” We couldn’t really talk at that moment and I just waied to him and said I’d see him in the afternoon. I went home, feeling somewhat relieved but totally unsettled. He called me about 30 minutes later and told me to come back, so we could sit and talk. It turned out that he’d had a truly horrible night and was very stressed, so my emotional outburst had seemingly come out of left field for him. He explained that he’d meant to hold pads for me but it got pushed back and he kept telling himself, “okay, I’ll do it tomorrow,” but then things came up that weren’t expected. It’s not a relief to be told you were forgotten or are relatively dispensable, but it is a relief to know that it wasn’t out of some kind of purposeful gesture to hurt me or because he was pissed at me – because Thais can be very non-verbal and non-confrontational it is possible sometimes to offend someone and not even realize that you have, it was not out of the realm of possibility that I had done something, upset the balance of gyms I go to or some other thing I had no clue of. After we talked for a while I went home and that night Pi Nu sent me a note telling me to come talk to him anytime, not to “stay alone.” I told him to let me know when he was stressed so that I could respond to him as a friend rather than trying to make adjustments to the underlying inequalities of the gym as a whole… but putting it in a far less theoretical manner than that. After our talk I made this second vlog, where I realized that saying something earlier would have saved me a lot of grief, and maybe assuming something is wrong with me is a shitty gendered pattern I could do with tossing out as well.

Vigilance and Why Women Are Not a Priority

Some background on why I am vigilant. I’ve mentioned above that women and men simply are not seen in the same way in a Thai gym, and in the wider sense this comes from a bigger theme of cultural constructions about the differences between the genders. Women are an anomaly in a gym space, men are expected to be strong.  And this should come as no surprise as this isn’t only Thai culture, it is world culture. Thais have their own, at times, fairly dogmatic version of it. I say this while at the same time acknowledging that girls and women have a pathway to fight, and a celebration of fighting in Thailand that is qualitatively different than how it is seen in the west. This is because Thailand embraces fight culture, and fighting by anyone, be it elite male fighters, out of shape old men, young kids, top female fighters, chickens or even beetles is seen to express noble characteristics. But in the structure of Muay Thai as a sport and esteemed expression of masculinity, women’s participation is dramatically reduced in importance.

Not all gyms are the same in their structure, interests, clientele or specialties. But any Thai gym is going to have many of these core Thai gender beliefs at their base and so you’ll run into the same issues, whether at the surface or under many layers as a surprise after months or years of feeling it was otherwise. There are some Thai gyms which specialize in female fighters, but they are few and often associated with sports education programs. Outside of female-oriented programs like this, knowledge of and interest in female fighting is somewhere between mild to non-existent. Even my own gym, which has had experience with women fighters in the past, has no idea how to promote female fighters outside of the very low-effort manner of the stadium two streets away. In this way, female fighters are basically forever the status of the young boys in the gym who are fighting at the local stadium for experience before their fights have any real financial or reputational risk. By remaining at more or less equal status to the youngest boys in the gym, women can be sidelined very easily, just as those boys are. They’re left to play among themselves and are expected to put in enough work to fight, but they are very low priority. Even so, because these young boys can eventually grow into young men, their potential status is still greater, sometimes far more than women.

At the more commercial gyms that are familiar with and practiced in dealing with western women as fighters, or even just as steady clients, the status changes somewhat in that these women are financial resources for the gym. So there are fairly high-profile gyms which will have a steady stream of western female clients who train for fitness, or love of the sport, and maybe some which have western female fighters for longer periods of time. These gyms might get some reputation and esteem from these women fighting on what count as big shows for female fighters, which has a kind of niche-following but still not very high income from the fights themselves, but for gyms the focus will always be teenage and young-20-something male fighters as the bread-and-butter of Muay Thai business. Because my gym doesn’t rely mainly on tourists for income, the priority has never shifted to the westerners in the gym. They are secondary to the young Thai fighters but are still immersed in the same training as the rest of the fighters; I’ve noticed that in the years since I’ve been at the gym the women who come in short-term are thrown in to the same training as the men on a more regular basis and more are offered a fight at the local venues “just for experience” than was the case when I first arrived. That’s the result of my trainer (who is also the gym owner) having adjusted his views and assumptions about women in a positive way I believe.

So, as a serious female fighter in the training space, forming relationships, you are constantly assessing your value to the main goals of the gym, because your value dictates your opportunity. I’ve written about this before, but as a female in my gym with a social relationship to my trainer, I’m somewhat protected – sometimes more than I’d like. As a female in my gym with a fighter/trainer relationship with my kru, I’m given wide berth to train very hard and fight more often than he thinks is reasonable. My value to the gym is the work I do, the very high level of training I keep, the reputation of the gym name I help spread when I fight across Thailand, and mostly, the bond I have made with my trainer Pi Nu and his family. But as a gym with traditional kaimuay roots, my position at the gym is always at risk, because in traditional Thailand women do not want to be fighters for long, they certainly do not want to fight 200 fights. In stretching Pi Nu’s views of what female fighters can do, or want to do, I’ve made room for the other women who come through the door. But on a social level, by being friends with a man as a younger woman who he cares for, I’m also constantly pushing to be treated other than how he feels I ought to be treated as someone in that position: not wanting to be protected, still having to ask for clinching and sparring even though I’ve made it astoundingly clear how much I want and need it and the boys never, ever have to ask, or pointing out that it’s not okay with me to miss out on padwork for 3 days even though we’re buddies.

In a more typical gym with larger western tourist motivations it can be more complex. There you may be forced to position yourself between an underlying traditional sense of females, and a more commercial valuation of your worth. The women who have trained there before you will have set the frame by which you are measured, by which expectations are made. And it is up to you if you want to settle into the general pattern of those expectations or if you’d rather rewrite them. The assumptions and underlying beliefs about gender are hard-coded and anything we do to oppose them or stretch those rigid lines is really just a soft adjustment. This is why behaving in agreement with these stereotypes or assumptions can be damaging – even if they are perfectly natural because, given a big enough population sample some of those people are going to happily and naturally fall within the roles of the stereotype. But reaffirming a belief is far stronger than forcing a reevaluation. Every so often there are women at my gym and when they behave in a “typically feminine” manner that goes along the lines of those expectations of women being not-serious, not being willing to attempt the same work as the men (not being willing), or dressing inappropriately for the space, all of those things lock down the limits of all the other women in the space, including me, I can feel it contracting. It’s the same as when one of the boys acts like a kid and I think, “oh, right, well he’s just a kid.” All the completely legitimate examples of when he behaved or conducted himself in a way that was outside of the rigid stereotypes collapse into a sigh of resignation that he was “really” this other thing all along. It’s the same with women. You grind and sweat and outperform the boys, but you have one shit day and start crying and it’s like the curtain has fallen. “Oh, right; I guess she was just a girl and all the things I think go with that all along.” It’s not fair, but it’s how it goes. So this is why the position is never settled. This is why I’m always juggling and thinking and obsessing over my position at the gym, because there is a current I’m swimming against. It’s not being overly sensitive; it’s not over-thinking. It’s commitment to keeping those limitations in question, making every border flexible so there’s a possibility of expansion.

 

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Muay Thai

A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay

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