The Oberlin Review

Kickboxing, Martial Arts Empowers Individuals

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I do not look intimidating. I know that. As a young woman, people who claim to look out for my best interests often choose to preemptively categorize me as a target and demand that I behave accordingly. I shouldn’t wear that shirt because it’s too provocative. I shouldn’t walk alone outside after dark, even if the route is familiar, because there might be threats lurking in the night. I shouldn’t post that opinion online, because we all know about the reactions women draw when they write controversial pieces on the internet.

But even though I do not look intimidating, I am hardly as defenseless as people first assume. When I decide to go against this sort of well-meaning advice, it is not because I am unaware of any risks that I might face, but because I believe that I can adequately protect myself from harm. I love to see the way people’s expressions change when I tell them that I kickbox. Suddenly, I have gone from a person who is presumed to be defenseless to someone who is perceived as a force to be reckoned with.

I’ve never fought competitively — as a Psychology major, I love brains too much to deliberately put myself in situations where head injuries are so common. But I train as much as I can, either at a gym when I’m home or sharing techniques and strategies with sparring partners who come from different fighting backgrounds.

These fighting communities have been some of the most supportive groups that I know, and I think that there is a lot to be learned from the way that respectful fighters conduct themselves in training. In particular, I have never been in another community that placed more emphasis on consent. Part of this is out of necessity — if the people who have agreed to a practice fight aren’t all crystal-clear about the nature of what they are doing, someone is probably going to get hurt. If I tell my sparring partners, “I’m not comfortable fighting unless heads are off-limits,” for example, I know that my limits will not be ignored or treated like they are up for debate. They are simply a fact of fighting with me. In this setting, no one considers these conversations to be prohibitively awkward or thinks less of someone for expressing their needs or preferences.

Deciding to learn how to fight may seem daunting, especially if your main exposure to the sport is through watching professionals. But it can be an extremely beginner-friendly sport. Oberlin has a number of active clubs for a variety of martial arts, and martial arts ExCos are offered almost every semester. And you may have more related experience than you know. I quickly found that boxing shares many elements with figure skating, which I did for years.

At first glance, these activities might seem like polar opposites; figure skating is all about athleticism with an elegant, composed grace, while boxing is gritty, sweaty, and violent. But both require a similar understanding of the way your body moves through space. You need a similar type of balance and an understanding of your own movements and strength. The main difference is that in figure skating, if you slam into something, you’re doing something wrong.

Through learning how to fight, I have learned to see myself differently in the world. I have no illusions that I am invincible — in fact, the more time I spend learning how to fight, the more I become aware of my own limitations. I frequently run up against them when I train. And I know better than to go around picking fights with people outside of the gym — both because I have no interest in starting a violent confrontation, and because I would likely lose. But I am also aware of my capabilities. If someone were to pick a fight with me, I could defend myself. I know how to throw a really good punch, I have great respect for the impact of a well-placed elbow or knee, and I have enough training that I will not freeze under pressure. As a woman, society tried to teach me that the best way to protect myself in the world is to exist as invisibly as possible, lest I draw unwanted, violent reactions. Fighting teaches me that I can exist in the world exactly as I want to, and become capable of dealing with whatever reactions I may draw.

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