Eye of the Tiger. (The photographer told us to look aggressive. My attempt wasn't convincing.)
My decision to join the middle school boys’ wrestling team was, like many of my life choices, an impulse decision motivated by a desire to piss off some fat old white guy on a sexist power trip.
I was 13 and in eighth grade at a combination middle/high school in the middle of an Indiana cornfield, where--I shit you not--one of the theme days during school spirit week was “Drive Your Tractor to School Day” (six students participated) and where my history teacher would go on rants about how the queers needed to be put on an island and how the red dot on the Japanese flag represented communism.
Anyway, I was wandering the halls during lunch, and a man seated behind a folding table made eye contact.
“Wanna join the wrestling team?” he asked, then chuckled and folded his arms, clearly pleased with himself. This irritated the shit out of me.
“Okay, sure. I’ll try it,” I said. I went over and signed my name on the sheet. The man’s expression faded into a scowl.
“It’s very popular among the boys,” he said.
“Great!” I said, smiling.
Three other girls signed up, completely independently. I am still not sure which one of us was the first.
* * * * * *
Title IX, if you’re not familiar with it, is a great little piece of legislation. It mandates that, if there are girls wanting to play a school sport but no separate girls team to accommodate them, they must be allowed to play on the boys’ team. Interestingly enough, it was introduced to Congress by Senator Birch Bayh, a senator from my home state of Indiana.
The irritation from our wrestling coach--a wiry little man with a Hitler moustache--about being legally compelled to have girls on his team was palpable as soon as my female teammates and I set foot on the mat. Coach Hitler was stuck with us, but it definitely didn’t mean he had to treat us as equals.
The girls were segregated off in our own little corner, receiving little attention or instruction. Occasionally the assistant coach, the chubby man behind the table, would soften and give us some pointers. At the end of the season, it almost seemed like he liked us.
We got no such treatment from the head coach, however. He rarely, if ever, interacted with us--the few times he actually paid us any attention was when we made a mistake, but only so he could roll his eyes. At matches, he made us wear unitards from the 70s that smelled like a combo of mold and hoarder home. The logic was that these unitards covered more, though it hardly mattered when we wore T-shirts underneath.
The other girls weren’t always as bothered as I was when we were treated differently, but the unitard issue united us in misery.
“This is the fucking nastiest,” said Whitney, as she scrunched up her nose at the onesies. Whitney was in eighth grade like me, though we weren’t friends. She had a habit of saying, “I don’t give a fuck!” She was also a fan of putting on make-up before her matches, especially against boys from other schools. She claimed she fought better when she did. I could spend a few weeks unpacking the significance of that, but whatever. Anything that gives a fighter a confidence boost is fine by me. Whitney also got white-girl cornrows in 10th grade. In retrospect, she was kind of awesome.
Whitney was also lighter than I was, in the 120-pound weight class. She was usually teamed with Emily, a curly-haired seventh grader who was in 135. I alternated between the 145 and 152 classes, so I was teamed with another seventh grader named Melissa, who usually bracketed in 160--that is, if we were both at practice. If one of us didn’t show up, we were stuck with Robby.
Robby was a 170-pound, 15-year-old seventh-grader with a patchy beard. He also smelled terrible, like rotting cottage cheese. I can’t prove that pairing us off with him was a deliberate slight, but it certainly felt like it.
We didn’t wrestle with many of our male teammates because our coach hated the idea and also because we were, in general, taller and more muscular than they were. Most of them wouldn’t hit proper growth spurts until sophomore year, which meant 15 of the 20 members were in the 100-, 110-, or 120-pound class. That puberty gap that makes middle school dances universally hilarious was what enabled the genders to compete on a relatively level playing field.
Not that our coach really cared about that aspect of competition--we were still girls, with female sex characteristics, and therefore opposite-sex contact was totally inappropriate and society-destroying. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a ton of sexual tension. We were 13 or younger, so our romantic interaction hadn’t progressed much beyond having our friends tell our crushes we liked them and feeling mad embarrassed about the whole thing.
It’s very interesting to me that so many people have an objection to women fighting men in combat sports, or women in combative roles in general. And by “interesting,” I mean “completely fucking stupid.” The same logic that tacitly endorses spousal abuse is the same that is creepily preoccupied with “protecting” women. It’s the same female-as-property crap we’ve been trying to shake off since it was written into basically every religious text: “No one’s allowed to beat the crap out of my wife but me." The ones who think women should be barred from the front lines or banned from reporting from pro league locker rooms--lest something bad happen--are the same ones who seem like they’d try some fucked up shit behind closed doors.
“I would never fight a woman,” these types say. “They’re, like, sacred.”
Avoid those motherfuckers. Guaranteed creeps, all of them.
* * * * * *
My friend Natalie, who used to teach high school math in the Bronx, once told me that when two male students are engaged in a fight, calling them out or stepping between them is usually enough to get them to stop, as most of the time they’re just looking for an excuse to end the scuffle anyway: The point has been proven, no one’s a coward bitch, etc. With girl fights, however, the advice for teachers is to keep a safe distance and to wait for security to pull the fighting students apart. Once a conflict has escalated past a good month of shit-talking, stealing friends, and spreading rumors, you best believe bitches aren’t settling for anything less than blood drawn. (My ex, who got me into MMA, said once that he wouldn’t watch the female leagues because they were way too brutal--he saw a match where a girl’s leg was broken and that was it for him.)
That’s not to say I did as well as women who are in it to win it. We did compete against other middle schools in the area against boys who were willing to wrestle with a girl. I didn’t win any of those matches, but I did pretty well, considering how little attention and training we got. My years of yoga served me well--I could remain super comfortable in holds and locks that would make my teammates wince. But the boys from other schools willing to wrestle with a girl were few and far between. I guess they saw no upside in it: If you win, you beat up a girl; if you lose, you lost to a girl.
If there were no takers, we wrestled each other after the official matches. Our coach would take the rest of the team to the locker room while the girls had their matches, even if they wanted to watch us. They missed some shit--at one home meet, I went up against Emily, and five seconds into the match I lunged into her for a hold and my hand hit her in the nose and nearly broke it. Blood spurted everywhere.
More than all the other petty insults, our teammates being prevented from watching our matches was the most insulting. Sure, some of the boys weren’t terribly supportive of our presence on the team, but at least half of them had a more progressive outlook than the coach, and the ones who had become our friends wanted to root for us.
It’s a shame they weren’t allowed to.
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