Finding femininity in the Muay Thai ring

Alejandro De La Luna

In July and August, espnW's weekly essay series will focus on body image.

"Ugh. You dress like a boy," I remember my mom complaining during numerous department store visits. I felt more comfortable in jeans than in itchy tights and a skirt.

Growing up, I resigned to filling the role of the "bro-chick" archetype and never allowed myself to explore my femininity. Now, I'm more aware of my gender. There's nothing like training in Muay Thai -- which involves striking with hands, shins, elbows and knees -- to make you realize you aren't "one of the guys."

As a female, navigating spaces populated and designed mainly for men can be difficult. After all, fighting is heavily associated with masculinity. And long before Muay Thai was the national sport of Thailand, the physical exercise was developed for hand-to-hand combat in actual warfare. Muay Thai requires mental doggedness.

We all know there is a certain challenge with being a woman in this world. Not surprising, women remain a minority of combat sport practitioners.

In November 2015, I started Muay Thai. I outgrew the cardio-focused, no-contact gyms. I wanted to train to fight at a combat gym that developed professional Muay Thai fighters, as opposed to a fitness center that just offered workout classes.

When I joined New World Combat gym in Fort Worth, Texas, I knew I was entering a predominately masculine space, but what I didn't realize was how, somewhat paradoxically, doing so would ultimately allow me to fully step into my feminine energy.

While training at the gym, my daily interactions constantly reminded me of my womanhood. I had to tell my male training partners to strike harder, as it was obvious they reduced their power. They "didn't want to hurt me," one man once told me.

Well, they did kick harder than I did, but you best believe I was able to take a strike. I can kick pretty damn high, too. I am motivated to train twice as hard as the guys.

As much as I practice Muay Thai, because I love it and not for the approval of others, any athlete can tell you that there exists an underlining desire for the esteem of your coach. I am no different.

While I continue to notice an ever-growing respect from my gym mates, I often can't help but feel my coach is more dedicated to the success of my training partners, for the sole reason that they are males.

I have cried in my car post-training, wondering what I have to do to gain his respect. Every now and then I am overwhelmed with frustration, feeling like my technique is up to par with my male training partner's tactics. I've felt my coach was holding me back because he didn't believe I could hang with the boys.

I wanted to be viewed as a fighter, but like I once held on to the tomboy label, I now welcome the title of female fighter. As one of only three women at the gym, I feel a responsibility to represent what women fighters are capable of doing in the ring.

I cater my training to account for the realities of my slender body type. When I was younger, I worked to hide my feminine traits in hopes of receiving some sense of acceptance and validation in male-centric spaces. I now openly embrace my femininity in and outside the ring.

Gender is fluid and not a spectrum with tomboys on one end and girly girls on the other. I love shoes, but I also love taking off my shoes and kicking people in the face.

Yvonne Cruz is a freelance writer, designer, and blogger based out of Fort Worth. You can follow her Muay Thai journey and work on both Instagram and Twitter follow @TejanaMaluca.

Related Content