The first MMA fight that I saw was by accident. I was visiting a friend at her apartment and her boyfriend and his friends were watching the last battle in a trio of fights between Quinton Jackson and Wanderlei Silva, two notable MMA fighters. I’d always had a healthy respect for the craft of boxing but this was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The extreme violence of it paired with the variety of fighting styles in the ring was especially jarring.
It was awhile before I saw my next fight. But this time it was between two women: Cristiane Santos and Gina Carano. I watched with a couple girlfriends of mine. All three of us were interested in fitness. We wanted to not only tone our bodies but also incorporate some kind of self-defense into our weekly workouts. The fight between Carano and Santos piqued our interest in not only learning how to fight in self-defense, but also in taking our fitness regime to the next level.
MMA fighting is an extreme form of combat sport in which participants utilize various fighting techniques and martial arts training. I’ve been drawn to the sport and, in particular, the visibility of MMA female athletes because they challenge ideas of femininity, female strength and female power. My girlfriends and I all share reasonably similar expectations of what our “ideal” bodies could look like — toned and “pretty.” Female MMA fighters are not only toned, but tough and strong. For women, there is an incredible amount of pressure to be not only shapely and thin, but weak-looking. As Colette Dowling writes in her book, The Frailty Myth: Redefining The Physical Potential Of Women and Girls, “When it comes to muscle, the question ‘How much is too much?’, is for women, continually being reassessed and redefined.”
I’ve always done well in athletics and have kept myself physically fit up through adulthood with a physical regime that includes yoga, boxing, and running. And instead of becoming less athletic as I got older, I decided early on to continue to push my body toward its best self. I became interested in Krav Maga and Jiu-Jitsu, incorporating them into my physical routine. Another friend practices boxing and kickboxing while the other tries her hand at karate and muay thai.
Because of my own interests in more combative workouts, I’m excited about the rising visibility of female MMA fighters. A few weeks ago, a highly anticipated fight between Ronda Rousey, one of the reigning female stars of MMA fighting, and contender Liz Carmouche, a former U.S. Marine, took place. The fight (pictured above!) was important for two reasons: there was a considerable amount of fan interest, which bodes well for the future of female MMA business and it cemented both Rousey and Carmouce as MMA fighters with a bright future.
There are tons of studies that support female athleticism and participation in sports at an early age with professional success and higher income for women later on in life. And many of the qualities that make extraordinary athletes — endurance, teamwork, focus, practice, confidence, high self-esteem — carry well into anyone’s professional and personal life. But the societal pressure and stigma against women who look strong and own their physical strength is still quite intense. Pop culture has included some representations of strong women – Jessica Biel, Serena and Venus Williams, Madonna, and Kate Beckinsale — but these women are few and far between. Still, we are seeing some progress: MMA fighter Gina Carano made her film debut in the Steven Soderbergh film “Haywire” and has now signed on to be in at least three upcoming action films one of which is billed as the all-female version of “The Expendables.”
Still, the overall test of femininity is still, in part, determined by what Dowling terms the “strength gap” between women and men. MMA fighting, for me, is a growing venue for the future of media images of female strength and athleticism. My own personal journey of reaching the peak of my physical ability has been a largely fulfilling one, where I have defined my physical relationship to femininity not by size but by the measure of my strength, health and confidence. Even if it’s not while MMA fighting, I hope more women do the same.
Courtney Young is a freelance writer and entrepreneur living in NYC. She is currently starting her own consulting firm, Think Young Media Group LLC. You can follow her on Twitter.