When I first started combat sports training, one of the ways in which I found it a liberating experience was in the way that it changed my relationship with my body.
As a teenage girl, like so many other teenage girls, I had been taught by the people, role models and the media influence around me that my body was an object that existed for the pleasure of other people. I was defined by the reaction that my body elicited in others. If it elicited repulsion, I was Ugly. If it elicited desire, I was a Slut. Like all girls my age, I walked a fine line. I needed to be “pretty” but never a Slut.
Unconsciously I gravitated towards Skinny, because that represented the ideal moral “Switzerland” between the two. Girls who had curves elicited desire. Girls who were fat elicited repulsion. Girls who were merely thin elicited admiration, but never desire. Clearly, if I were to be a “good” girl, Thin was what I needed to be.
Training changed all of this for me because I discovered that I could end the game by being Powerful, something that I had never considered before. I didn’t care what I looked like or what reactions this elicited in others if I could kick people in the face. So you think I’m Ugly. But what are you going to do about it? Initially, this freed me of my fear of being Ugly, and eventually it freed me from me fear of being a Slut, too.
Lately though, I’ve noticed a trend in combat sports which threatens to bring this game – this “Hunger” game, as it were – back to life, and that is the obsession in Mixed Martial Arts with weight, weight categories, body fat percentage, “clean eating” and everything that goes along with it. The old-school ridiculousness that pervaded Muay Thai, while being responsible for a lot of badly-manged concussions and chronic over-use injuries, used to provide a protective buffer against all of this “scientific” bullsh*t. Perhaps it’s also the culture of wrestling, long associated with a high prevalence of male eating disorders, that has allowed this obsession with body image to prevail in MMA.
Which brings me to my point, which is that I have started to find an unlikely role model – and Anti-Hero, if you like – in Roy “Big Country” Nelson. There is a place and purpose to weight classes, but Nelson is refreshing in his absolute refusal to pay homage to the “image” of MMA. In my mind, he represents that original liberation that I discovered in my burgeoning abilities to hurt people when I was a teenager – the liberation that came with believing, for the first time, that skills and abilities were more important than physical image and the reactions that evoked in other people.
Some have suggested that Roy might be more successful if he were leaner, could fight in a lighter weight class, and in addition attract extra sponsorship. They may be right. But he also might be a hell of a lot less happy, and waste a great deal of time and energy obsessing over every calorie on his plate and gram on the scale. Power to him for telling the whole dynamic to go f*ck itself, and for reminding us that sport – especially combat sport – is about performance, not aesthetics.