The Hardest Part of Being a Female Fighter

By Kaitlin Young

In countless conversations and interviews over the years, I’ve been asked about the difficulties I’ve come across in my profession, and, more specifically, the difficulties of taking on fighting as a female. There are times where blatant sexism, managing weight loss in a body with inconvenient hormone fluctuations, or finding a top that won’t cause a wardrobe malfunction in the cage are monumental pains in the ass, for sure, but they can be overcome. The real answer to that question came to me while on a run yesterday afternoon, when I was thinking about the sometimes subtle and sometimes outright resistance we receive from friends, family, training partners, and even coaches. The hardest part is not the weight cut, the training, or the time away from home. The hardest part of being a female fighter is that our suffering makes other people uncomfortable

Suffering is an Important Part of Development as a Fighter

In a long career, you will have to make weight and fight hurt, sick, or otherwise compromised. It is very important that your first brush with that sort of difficulty is not on game day. It must be a habit, and habits are developed through repetition. Struggling is what makes all of us, fighters or not, strong. This is true of our bodies, but more importantly, our minds. The old adage about fighting being 90% mental is 100% true.

In our culture, people do not like to see women suffer. I’m not just talking about men, either. Women will try to get in the way of it, too. Many of them do not recognize their interference and comments for what they are. They believe they are just being “nice”. The problem with this is that it robs women of their ability to become strong. It takes away our important moments of practice against adversity. To a female fighter, it’s a theft of the worst kind.

The Problem with Some “Female Friendly” Gyms

I can’t tell you how many “female friendly” gyms I’ve visited only to see a different standard in place for the men and women on the competitive teams. I’ve picked up weights for a run only to be told that women fighters don’t have to run with weights. I’ve been dropped by a well-placed body shot only to have my (pro fighter!) training partner start crying because he feels so bad. Meanwhile, I’m on the floor trying to reassure him between gasping breaths that my agony is no more important than anyone else’s, knowing full well that if he is made to feel worse I’ll likely have trouble getting paired up the following session. I’ve witnessed very few practices where a female has been pushed past her emotional breaking point and forced to keep going, as is routinely done with males. As soon as the threat of tears is present, the pressure eases. It’s absolute crap. I’m not talking about unintelligent training that causes injury, either. The fact is, that in most cases, pressure for women is optional, not mandatory, and will be pulled immediately as soon as she begins to struggle. People are too uncomfortable making a woman sad, angry, or frustrated, even when it is in her best interest.

In order to receive the same pressure a male fighter endures, a female fighter must be willing to put the pressure on herself. That takes a special person. She must not only be able to carry a heavy load, but to demand that nobody help her lift it. There aren’t many male fighters who would be capable of this, either; fortunately, for them, they don’t often need to shoo away do-gooders who would take away the very thing they need most. It’s normal to want to take an easy out when reaching those levels of difficulty. Our brains are wired to seek comfort. In doing uncomfortable things, of course we want reprieve. Completion of the task becomes that much harder when relief is constantly being offered. In many cases, if a female fighter wants to continue to be pressured, she must police her own expression in such a way that it doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable enough to try to intervene in her process. Going through a hard training camp sucks sometimes. It’s physically and mentally trying. It sucks even more to have to reassure people that you are happy all the time and wear a smile for their benefit, so they’ll shut up and allow the training/weight cut/etc. to commence.

We See This in the Assessment of Athletic Competition as Well

If a female fighter loses to a bigger or more athletic fighter, the opponent was “too big” or it “wasn’t fair”. It’s seen as sad. Oh, the poor girl. Add blood or injuries and it’s even worse. It’s viewed as though she is a victim unable to do anything about her circumstances. Yet, we don’t hear the same pity directed toward a male who was simply outmatched. If his opponent was bigger and still made weight, he is regarded as a stud for the weight class, not a cheat looking for an unfair fight. Athleticism and size are overcome regularly in fighting. Painting a fighter as a victim, rather than a competent athlete that has simply lost, is insulting.

Viewing female athletes through this lens is not exclusive to combat sports. We’re seeing it replicated in women’s soccer right now during the World Cup. The US Team is so mean! Why would they want to embarrass the other teams by blowing them out of the water?! First of all, this isn’t rec league soccer. They aren’t playing for participation trophies. They are playing for their livelihood. These are the best players in the world. The teams who are getting whooped don’t need white knights on the internet to stand up for them against their opponents. They need to have the experience of losing badly and grow from it. They need to be embarrassed and pissed off, and then go home to push for change. They will train harder and demand better support and funding for women’s soccer in their home country. The enemy to their success is not a superior opponent showing them they can be better. The enemy is those trying to take away their pressure, including those who have been doing it all along.

The Retirement Question

I believe this is the main reason that female fighters are constantly asked about retirement, even after big wins or fights when they’ve emerged unscathed. Males, on the other hand, are often asked when they’ll return, even after hanging up the gloves. The retirement question is not out of concern for the fighter. It is out of that person’s own desire to no longer witness the struggle.

This aversion to female suffering, and how it is perceived, has stopped fights early and robbed women of experience and money. It has thwarted the careers of who knows how many female fighters, because they were inexperienced with pressure in training before having to deal with it in a fight. It has hurt many relationships, romantic or otherwise, with women in this sport. There isn’t a more direct way to tell someone you don’t believe they are competent than to suggest they stop pursing their goal. If people stopped to think about this for a moment that would be obvious, but we fallible human beings so frequently speak before we think.  A person going through a tough time should be offered encouragement, not asked to help manage another’s emotions regarding their going through a tough time. In the gym and outside of it, learning to navigate this societal hang up has been, by far, the most difficult part of being a female fighter.