Fight like a girl

No sport should be off limits to girls’ participation and that especially includes boxing

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It’s 2019 and women are stepping up to take on anything that has ever been traditionally considered a man’s game. And rightly so. I mean, if not now, then when? It seems that no sport is off limits as women are receiving the recognition they deserve for their skill, courage, power and resilience in all kinds of sporting arenas. Consequently, sporting role models abound for young women today: I’ve been gripped by the women’s tennis at Wimbledon; awed by the incredible performance of the England women’s football team at the World Cup (cheering on as America’s fantastic Megan Rapinoe has used her platform to speak out against injustice); and we’ve been alerted, thanks to Meghan Markle’s Vogue cover, to the inspirational Ramla Ali and her fight to become the boxer she is against pretty high odds.

These are just a few of the ways women’s power, strength and skill has come to the fore in recent months. If only these women hadn’t been outdone in terms of media exposure by the attention given to the Love Island ladies (and chaps) whose bikini bodies were flaunted in our faces to remind us of our flaws (I liked seeing Tommy Fury teaching the housemates how to box with a pair of flip-flops masquerading as focus pads but, let’s face it, it was only as part of some rather unelaborate mating ritual, not really a serious physical challenge).

According to womeninsport.org, 1.5 million more men play sport than women each week and only 8 per cent of girls are meeting recommended exercise guidelines. Why do girls get put off sport? Low confidence and dislike of being watched are significant barriers, particularly in the 14-16-year-old age group and once girls get to this age, PE becomes even less relevant, perceived as an unimportant subject, despite its impact on skills such as teamwork and resilience.

What was once a testosterone-fuelled, male-dominated sport is having a bit of a makeover

Research also shows that many find self-confidence issues hold them back – something I can definitely empathise with. At school I was pretty much a straight A student, whose school reports were full of glowing compliments about the power of my brain. I could smash an exam with the precision of Serena Williams firing winners onto the baseline. But when it came to school PE, my grades lurched like a tipsy figure skater tumbling on the ice. I’d loved sport as a child but horse-riding didn’t feature on our curriculum, and nor did roller-blading or ice skating. And although I did love netball and desperately wanted to be on the team, I never excelled at school, so was never picked or given any training. PE became more of a chore, and absolutely joyless to boot.

What was it about school PE that was so offputting? It could have been the hideous kit, certainly, that made no concessions to the body-conscious young teenager who’d really have appreciated some jogging bottoms rather than a pair of skin-tight navy gym knickers for a freezing January cross-country run. Or maybe it was the stinky changing rooms, utterly devoid of privacy – dreadfully exposing if you were pretty embarrassed about your pubescent body; or possibly it was simply the fact that I wasn’t much good, so I didn’t really try.

From my vantage point as an adult woman, I look back and wish there’d been more opportunities for me as a young person to engage with lots of different types of sport and to see sport taken seriously as a pursuit for young women. My attitude then might have been different.

Take women’s boxing. I’d never have dreamed of seeking out a boxing gym and giving it a go. But women’s professional boxing has flourished since it was introduced into the Olympics in 2012. Believe it or not, it’s been around a long time – there were female boxers in the Victorian era, and even before; bareknuckle fights between women were staged in London in the early 1700s. But what was once a testosterone-fuelled, male-dominated sport is having a bit of a makeover, which is something I’ve explored in my new novel, Gloves Off.

My protagonist, Lily, ironically finds a safe haven from the violent bullies she encounters at school. She seeks the sport out as a way of defending herself, but soon finds there’s much more to it than that. Boxing gives her the chance to prove herself, to excel, to feel like she belongs and to find her perseverance and grit. She is precisely the kind of girl who needs the message of a hero like Ramla Ali. Ali took up boxing because she was bullied in school for being overweight. A shy and easily intimidated young girl, her first boxing experience was in a male gym, where she felt afraid, but out of a deep sense of pride she persevered, gaining self-confidence and titles along the way. Not only that, but she kept her boxing secret from her family, sneaking out for fights, hiding her black eyes, covering up her participation in competitions with fabrications about university work. Now she’s hoping to be heading for Tokyo in 2020 and to become professional, which means she’ll finally be paid for her talent.

Not a boxer myself, I’m drawn to this sport as a spectator – because, as many commentators have pointed out, boxing is the best kind of theatre and as such has been a ripe area for writers to explore. George Foreman, former heavyweight champion, described boxing as the sport to which all others sports aspire, perhaps because it is the most elemental of all, the most brutally physical, the most intimate, the pain of it entirely contrary to how we conduct ourselves in our daily lives.

It seemed to me that this was the sport I had to write about if I was going to weave a powerful narrative about overcoming the odds, about confronting the darkest aspects of human nature, testing the limits of both body and mind, and about exploring how female strength can take on even this, once the most masculine of all sports. The boxing match is a fight for survival and, as Lily moves from victim to victor, she comes to see that life doesn’t have to be a game she loses.

Nowadays I think schoolgirls get a richer diet of exercise and so many more opportunities to try a range of fun and exhilarating physical activities. It’s great that going to the gym is now a normal activity for a teenage girl, but although teenagers are far more clued up on the necessity of keeping active and healthy, we need to do more to ensure that girls can find the sport they enjoy at an early enough age, and to support them in keeping up with it throughout their challenging teenage years.

The media’s relentless focus on weight and slimness leaves people who are overweight feeling unworthy. And it makes the idea of fitness seem impossible. It’s why we need to keep seeing sportswomen on our screens and to keep hearing their stories; women’s sport is serious stuff, and needs to stay that way.

Gloves Off by Louisa Reid is published by Guppy Publishing (£10.99)

Main image: Ramla Ali (red) in action against Chloe Jade Pearce (Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

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