When I first decided to write about female martial artists with cauliflower ear, I was filled with all sorts of high-minded ideas on the subject. Ever since I first started training at a mixed martial arts gym in my mid-twenties, I've felt like my ears were the battleground on which the conflict between the gym’s and society’s expectations for me as a woman were waged. To fit into my chosen subculture, I felt that I needed to prove that I wasn’t vain, girly, or protective of my virgin ears, that I was willing to risk having them hit and ground as hard and brutally as any guy and that I would bear the lumpy, cauliflower-shaped scars just as proudly as they did.
I loved the idea of that in theory, but I was also not immune to aesthetic pressures or the demands of the dominant culture outside the gym, and I knew that I’d be judged far more harshly for imperfect ears than any man ever would.
With that double standard in mind, I concocted a sweeping idea for a story that would use cauliflower ear as a launching point for a discussion about the unique blend of toughness and beauty-standard conformity that women in martial arts are expected to pull off as precisely as their triangle chokes and head kicks. But just as some scientists believe that ears are just as unique as fingerprints, after spending the past month searching for female fighters with cauliflower ear, I’m inclined to believe that the ways in which we smash and grind our ears, and the ways in which we deal with the subsequent swelling, blood, and pus, are just as different.
Here’s what four of the women I talked to had to say:
On the mat, my friend and former training partner Melissa Biscardi is a brown belt and a four time BJJ world champion (once in gi, three times in no-gi). Off the mat, she’s a nurse and an osteopath who is always the first to slap on a pair of latex gloves, grab a sterile syringe, and drain a teammate’s recently injured ear.
I contacted Melissa for this story because, of all the women I trained with, she was the most protective of her ears. When we were both white belts, she was the first person I knew to use an ear guard, an ungainly form of headgear that wrestlers and grappler use to prevent cauli, and she was incredibly vocal about the fact that she wasn’t going to sacrifice her ears for the sport.
Years of training and competition later, her opinion has mellowed a bit. She’s still not a fan of the look, but Melissa’s less vigilant and borderline paranoid about prevention than she once was. “I think there’s a scale where a little bit is all right, but if it starts to look like massive growths, like an actual cauliflower attached to your head, I don’t find that very attractive,” she tells me, adding that “for girls, I think less is better.”
Melissa finds that proper drainage (using an insulin syringe to draw any excess fluid that has built up in the ear before it starts to harden and become permanent), compression, and icing are enough to keep her ears healthy and as attractive as ears can get. She’s moved away from the ear guard for the most part because she finds that it can be distracting and sometimes puts her at greater risks of chokes.
Melissa does find that some of the men she’s trained with tease their female teammates for the fervor with which they protect and worry about their ears, while at the same time judging them for their cauli. “It’s like they think it’s funny or ridiculous that you would cover your ears,” she says, “but then if you have massive cauliflower ears, they would think it’s disgusting and not think it’s a sign of being bad ass.”
All in all, though, Melissa thinks that a little bit of damage has its benefits. “One thing that’s neat about cauliflower ear, I must say, is that when I was going to a tournament in the States once, the border guard had cauliflower ear. I told him where I was going and he wished me luck,” she says. “So it’s kind of like a secret hand shake, like ‘Oh! He or she trains.’”
I found Chelsea Bainbridge-Donner, a competitive (third at World and Pan Ams this year, second at Nationals in 2012) BJJ brown belt who currently trains under Andre Galvao in San Diego after years of competition in Asia, through her blog, on which she describes her training in great detail, including her adventures in DIY drainage after a cauliflower flair up this past summer.
The draining experiment was mostly a success. Chelsea does have a little permanent hardness remaining, but it’s in a place that isn’t noticeable. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world if it were visible, though, as Chelsea takes a pretty casual view of the phenomenon in general.
“I’m pretty neutral on it,” she says. “I notice when people have it because it’s something that most of my friends have. I can definitely see how someone outside the BJJ/MMA community would be grossed out by it, though. It’s something that’s pretty unusual outside of contact sports, and if I didn’t know what it was, I’d probably wonder if it was an ear tumor or something.”
Chelsea agrees that beauty standards and double standards can be an issue for women in martial arts, but she’s not particularly interested in worrying about them.
“It's hard to be a woman in the BJJ world,” she says. “And it's something that I talk about on my blog all the time. At first, I used to hate that society had all these expectations of me as far as beauty routines go, but as I got more embedded into the boy's club world, I started to really enjoy the little routines that I have for myself. But that's the thing--they're the beauty regimens I chose for myself, not the ones I let other people choose for me. I think my whole mindset on everything changed when I realized that I had to stop letting men tell me what it was like to be a woman, or how to properly be a woman, because they'd never done it, and they really had no reason to have an opinion on it.”
And she’s even less interested in putting on an ear guard to prevent any further brushes with cauli. “I refuse to wear the ear bra,” she quips. “What am I, a wrestler?”
Hilary Witt, a BJJ brown belt who’s won multiple Grapplers Quest and NAGA tournaments and medaled at the FILA trials, IBJJF Worlds Champion, and Pan Ams, first learned about cauliflower ear when a guy she was dating had it.
“He was healthy, hot, so I asked him about it,” she tells me. “At first, it seemed ugly and painful but after he explained the cause, in a way I found it attractive.”
In 2008, she learned a lot more than she probably would have liked about the condition when an accidental elbow during a match at a Grappler’s Quest tournament hit her directly on the left ear.
“I spent days trying to drain it on my own, but could never give it proper pressure due to the awkward location,” Hilary says. “First, I went to urgent care and they drained it and wrapped me up, but I didn’t even make it through the night. By the morning of the fourth day, it was starting to harden and totally filled the entire ear canal. So I went to an ear, nose, and throat doctor and he scheduled me for surgery the next day. I was put under general anesthesia while he sliced my ear on both sides and stitched it shut with a piece of clear rubber on both sides. This applied enough pressure to heal over the course of a week and has held up to this day.”
A year later, a training partner squeezed Hilary’s head a little too tightly and gave her a similar problem inside her right her. She took care of it on her own until her own ENT could see her. Given her history, he immediately scheduled her for the same surgery on that side.
Hilary doesn’t find cauli quite as hot on herself as she once found them on her date. “Now that I have it, I’m a little self-conscious,” she admits. “Truly, I don’t think something as small as ears can make someone more attractive or unattractive. I think it depends. On guys, it can be attractive. On girls, I think it’s neutral.”
But for the most part other people have responded pretty positively to her new ears. “Most people think it’s cool or badass,” Hilary says. “I remember Joe Duarte, who was on The Ultimate Fighter, touching them at the gym and being like, ‘Whoa. I didn’t know girls could get this.’ That’s the funny thing ... people like to touch them.”
“I’ve had these bad boys for years,” Misty Shearer, boasts of her set of heavily cauliflowered ears. “It all started with a pop trying to get out of a triangle on one ear. It kept getting bent over. I tried wearing headgear but couldn’t handle it, so ‘F’ it. The other ear mostly got it from my MMA fight. It just wouldn’t heal. I kept draining it, pulled almost 5 milliliters from it, but no luck. It would swell right back up.”
Misty, a BJJ black belt under Andre Terencio and Hannette Staack of Brazil 021 and a member of team Brazil 021, says the pain was unbearable at first, and she had to contort her pillow into a u-shape around her head in an effort to get the least painful sleep possible, but her self-confessed sick sense of humor got her through. When her injuries were fresh, Misty would amuse herself by shaking her head and feeling the fluid inside her ears slosh around.
“The biggest issue was that I was a full-time paramedic and my stethoscope wouldn’t fit anymore in one ear. What a pain in the ass that was,” she recalls. “And ear phones hardy fit. I have to get very specific ones.”
The ears are “all hard and nasty” now, which has making shaking her head less fun, but Misty remains fond of them. “I honestly do like the ears,” she says. “I wear it as a badge of honor. Luckily, I am not one for looks, nor do I care. I’m lucky to comb my hair when I am off to the gym.”
Misty isn’t the only one who likes them. The man behind one of the most iconic pairs of cauliflower ears in UFC history is a fan, too.
“I went to Vegas a few years back and went and checked out Randy Couture’s gym,” Misty says. “We were lucky enough to meet him. After we took a picture, he looked down and was like ‘Wow! Those are some pretty good ears you have there,’ as he rubbed it. It was so funny. Out of everything, he dials in for my ears.”
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