I Try Boxing To See If It Can Ease PMS
The Debrief: I went to an old school gym in Romford to find out….
Photography by Sophie Davidson
As my train pulls past the Greyhound track, all lit up like your boyfriend’s Ford Fiesta, I stand up, pull my sports leggings out of my arse and make my way to the door.
It’s a cold, dark Monday night in Romford and I am about to go smack seven shades of shit out of a large, ginger-haired man and several hanging bags of sand. That’s right. At the grand old age of 32 I’ve taken up boxing. Not fighting - I haven’t physically hurt anyone since pulling out Catherine Sprinter’s earring in a half-arsed scrum about who got first pick of the fancy dress box aged seven. But the ability to duck and weave, throw a decent set of punches, lift weights, do squats, not panic in the face of a large man flapping a pair of boxing pads at my face and perform a set of press ups on command? Yes please. Yes please indeed.
Walking into the boxing gym for the first time - past the little hardboard boxed-off toilet and into a small, brightly-lit room full of people jogging, shadow boxing, stretching and taping up their hands - I immediately felt intimidated. Maybe it was the smell of damp sweat, the sight of grown men and women throwing out fists like bullets, the weights the size of washing machines stacked against the wall, or, more likely, just the feeling that you’ve walked into a room where everybody knows each other better than you do. But then a small girl in a biscuit-coloured velour tracksuit and pigtails walked up to me, hopped onto the running machine to my left, and started jogging. Beside me, another woman, her short blonde hair mussed up on one side, was laughing about bum implants as a man in a grey t-shirt rubbed a brownish grease into her shoulder. I was introduced to a man, once trained by my boyfriend’s uncle, who said hello and gave me a wink with a lightly blackened eyed. The intimidation had turned to excitement, and I quickly pulled off my jumper and tightened up my shoelaces.
I have spent a thwacking great chunk of my adult life wondering about the relationship between hormones and mental health - and that includes adrenalin and testosterone. Like many women I know, I can experience a building sense of hopelessness, frustration, apathy, sadness and self-loathing in the run up to my period. And I wondered if, perhaps, the expression of aggression, a surge in adrenaline and testosterone, to admit that my body can also be violent, strong and quick-moving, may change the way I felt about it. And, I’ll tell you something right now: never in my life have I felt more welcome and less objectified than in that boxing gym. There is something entirely and gloriously beyond gender about being shown how to throw a perfect jab by a 46-year-old man in a pair of nylon shorts; about standing toe-to-toe with a 16-year-old fence erector who teaches you how to roll your shoulders into a left hook; to stare into the eyes of a total stranger as you thump upper cut after upper cut into his cupped hands.
At the start of each session, we do a little circuit training to warm up. That means 30 seconds each of jogging on the spot, star jumps, sit ups, leg lifts, the plank and something called Russian twists, which involves sitting on the floor and twisting your body to and fro, touching the ground on either side. At the end I look in the mirrors lining one side of the gym, and see that my head has returned to full Year 6 PE - hair frizzed with sweat, my face an alarming shade of beetroot, blotches creeping down my neck. But then I look at the giant of a man beside me - a man they literally call ‘Big Lewis’ - and notice that he too has flushed, that his curly hair is turning to frizz. And it doesn’t seem to be bothering him - so why should it bother me?
Sitting on the edge of the boxing ring, below a gently humming strip light and silver blocks of roof insulation - the closest I have ever got to all my Raging Bull and Rocky fantasies - it’s time to get my hands wrapped. It is strangely intimate having a large man - the sort of man who can knock people out with his fists - gently fold a length of fabric around your hands like a bandage. It reminded me of having my first sari wound by my auntie Lalilta when I was nine. Once my hands are all trussed up - this is to stop the bones in my hand spreading on impact when you hit something as big and as heavy as a punch bag - it’s time to put on my boxing gloves (they’re slightly damp inside from hours of other people’s punching fists) and go through the basics in the mirror. First, the stance: to stand like a boxer you basically have to bring your chin in like Lauren Bacall, stand with your legs apart like the hands of a clock at 2pm, bring your elbows in so they push against your ribs, bend your knees and lift your hands up so they’re just fluttering against your eyebrows. On the wall behind me there’s a spray-painted picture of Rocky Marciano (the real boxer, not the Stallone guy) holding his gloves up in just the same way. It immediately feels great - protective but full of potential. I don’t feel like a boxer. But I don’t not feel like a boxer either.
Once I’ve learned a few basic shots - a left jab, a right hand punch, a left hook, I’m ushered in front of a large blue and red punching bag. It hangs from the ceiling on a large metal chain, wrapped in gaffer tape. A thumping dancehall tune comes out of the speaker behind me. One of the trainers is getting smacked and punched by a female former-kickboxer while that little girl in the velour tracksuit is ducking and weaving around a man wearing so much body padding he looks like a marshmallow pine cone. I am so short that, with my knees bent, I just about reach the very bottom of this large, torch-shaped bag. As I whip the jab out and back, the bag moves all of about 2cm. ‘Go from the shoulders,’ says the trainer behind me. ‘Don’t just punch the bag, punch through the bag.’ I give it another go. I give it several goes, in fact - the old one-two. Absolutely nobody laughs. Nobody criticises me. Nobody tuts, or looks at their watch, nobody giggles or stands behind me taking the piss. Compared to all-girls PE at a comprehensive school this feels like an absolute walk in the park.
Over the next week, I am shown how to duck and roll under a punch; I watch a man have vaseline smeared across his cheekbones before heading into the ring; I watch a tiny boy spar with a professional fighter who not only encourages but actually hugs him; I go through that all-too-familiar worry that, mid-way through some star jumps, I’ve got my period and am leaking all down my legs (I wasn’t); I got a medicine ball gently dropped onto my stomach as I did sit ups; I lift kettlebells; I try to do repetitions with a barbell but my muscles start to shake so much my trainer actually unscrews the weights and lets me just do it with the bar; I am told that the best days to come and during West Ham home games when the gyms empties out; I watch men zip up holdalls full of paint-splattered builder’s boots and boxing gloves before hugging their friends goodbye; I listen to trainers talk their fighters through each round of their fights; I watch husbands and wives jog on the spot side by side to warm up; I even get to go into the ring just at the moment the Rocky soundtrack comes onto the stereo, and throw all my punches at the man who’s spent the last two hours picking apart my every move. I feel incredible. I ache like I’ve never ached before. I start making weird noises when I bend down to put my shoes on. I turn a colour of red previously only seen on cardiac patients. I get patted on the back and hit in the face (gently, by something not unlike a floppy, padded oven glove). I feel invigorated in the morning, walk through the backstreets of Romford confident in my body, I watch veins emerge from my soft, dough-like arms and find myself really, really wanting to punch a bag of sand as hard as I can.
It’s very easy to complain, to criticise and misunderstand the sort of men who drive vans, go to boxing gyms and call each other geezer. I hear people - people who have genuinely never tried talking to the very people they’re dismissing - wilfully stereotype them as thugs, as misogynists, you know - ‘those men’ - cue eye roll. It is as reductive, as offensive and as unhelpful as any yawn-worthy ‘feminazi’ cliche. It also overlooks the large number of women who now regularly and impressively train every week in boxing gyms all over the country; the women competing at a national level; the women who think nothing of sparring in a ring with men who’ve been boxing for ten years or more. In truth, those hours I spent in the boxing gym were some of the friendliest, most respectful and most physically comfortable I’ve known in years - where else but a boxing gym can you ask a total stranger to push up the strap of your vest, or have water poured into your mouth by a grey-haired labourer, or stand shoulder to shoulder with a man twice your weight as you practice left hooks in the mirror?
As to whether boxing helps with PMS, for me the answer is: it doesn't hurt. Actually, it hurts quite a lot. You'll ache, you'll sweat, you'll make weird noises when you stand up, you'll feel the odd twang going down your arm when you lift something up, you'll get sore days later, your breathing will hurt after a minute of doing burpees, your back and shoulders and neck will ache. But, if you're looking for a remedy for PMS - a way to lift your black mood, add some pep to your state of utter hopelessness, an outlet for your aggression, an expression for your frustration - well, it wouldn't hurt to give boxing a go. I certainly found it helpful. And I didn't get blood on anything.
I would love to see more women exploring their potential for strength, agility and aggression in the safe, controlled, respectful confines of a boxing gym. I would love to learn to point my toes and dance across the ring like the men who train me. I would love to see more women in their twenties work out their frustration, their anger and their irritation by punching a sack of sand rather than bitching about their loved ones. And I would love to stand toe-to-toe with any one of you and see what you can do.
Forget what Rocky says. Women don’t weaken legs, but we can learn to box.
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