This is a guest article by Mollie Birney, a Clinical Life Coach for high-performing professionals with an eye towards Mental Health. You can learn more about Mollie’s work and her coaching at https://molliebirney.com/, or follow along with her on Instagram, @mbclinicalcoaching.
I was 29 years old—way old enough to know better—and I stood in the blue corner of the ring with my heart pounding and my gloves taped to my wrists. My headgear muffled the voice of my coach and the shouting crowd, though I couldn’t have heard anything over my own heartbeat. Why I had bothered taking pre workout was beyond me—my adrenaline might as well have been rocket fuel. Fighting to slow my breathing, I clenched my jaw around my mouthguard, but I struggled to draw enough oxygen through my half-healed broken nose. “I might pass out before this nightmare starts.” I thought.
I’ve heard great athletes talk about that moment of clarity before competition, that Zen-focus where the mind quiets, alertness sharpens, and the athlete can visualize their muscle memory in action. I visualized faking a seizure.
If I’d said yes to boxing because I dearly loved the sport, this might be a different kind of story. I’d always been an athlete, and my siblings each excelled at their martial arts of choice. To this day, grappling, wrestling and ground-fighting are the love languages spoken among us all (usually while we were standing in line at Starbucks).
I wasn’t a bad boxer. My timing was sharp, I was strong for my weight class, and my amateur record was 3 and 1. But I always knew that my drive to fight was rooted, not in passion, but in pathology.
Remember that movie Little Giants? It was about this underdog pee-wee football team coached by Rick Moranis, whose daughter is a feisty athletic phenom nicknamed “Ice Box.” Ice Box was tough and gorgeous, and 10 year old me watched her with jealousy and admiration as she ultimately led her team to victory, outshining the cheerleaders, winning the respect of all the guys, and the heart of hunky QB Devon Sawa. My god, I wanted to be Ice Box SO badly—she found a way stand out from the other girls, prove her worth with athletic prowess, and still manage to look cute while sweaty. “A genius move,” I thought. I must’ve missed the part of the story where her drive to play was born of her genuine love of football, not a strategy for establishing self-worth.
If I look at the environment I was raised in, it’s no mystery why I’d idolize a tomboy. I grew up in Los Angeles where fitness and beauty were status symbols. My parents were actors; my mom was on the TV show Family Ties in the 80’s, and my dad did TV and Shakespearian theater. To say my dad wasn’t emotionally stable is an understatement, he was downright dangerous. But beyond his violence and volatility, it was his misogyny that was most scarring. Between LA’s expectations of women and my father’s, I got some rigorous training on what made a women valuable or dismissible. I learned early on what was expected of my body and how I’d need to present it to the world in order to be taken seriously.
To my father, a woman’s body was an outward demonstration of her internal character: being thin was a marker of superior self-restraint. Muscle tone showed dedication, and body fat indicated poor discipline. That piece of cake I was eating? I should just tie it under my chin because that’s where it would end up anyway. I was going to skip soccer practice that night? I guess I wanted to skip dessert too, huh? Maybe Mollie shouldn’t wear tank tops because they reveal too much of her armpit fat. (It was later deemed permissible to wear tank tops provided I also wore a bra to hold my fat in…also known as my developing breasts. But a plain bra— nothing lacy. What kind of message did I want to send?)
My father’s values were riddled with subtle traps and contradictions. For example, although being fit was to be admired, any further efforts to be attractive were to be mocked. Makeup indicated whorish desperation, tight-fitting clothing was considered “asking for it”, and “only bimbos wear their hair like that.” I was grounded the first time he caught me shaving my legs because he considered it “an invitation.” It seemed athleticism was the only acceptable expression of vanity that wouldn’t betray too much feminine self-obsession.
Women’s fragile emotionality was another favorite subject of his. “I can’t take you seriously when you’re crying.” He’d say, sounding bored. Or, following a violent outburst he’d hand over an ice pack with the words “This is unnecessary, pull up your socks, get on with it.” As though tears were an overreaction to his rage. I learned to take his criticism stone-faced; tears just gave him more to work with.
The world around me had taught me that as a woman, being of value required a delicately balanced formula of being attractive but not vain, being tough but not bitchy, being unique without being desperate, and being ambitious without being
off-putting. To falter in any of those areas was to discredit myself, open myself to ridicule, or risk invisibility. (Sound familiar, Hollywood?)
I’d learned to be disgusted by my inherent femininity: it made me soft, it made me weak, it made me average, and worst of all it made me a target. It would have to be sculpted and tamed. I used every strategy I could, starting with bulimia (surely you saw that coming, right?) For awhile, bulimia worked to punish and absolve myself
for cravings I couldn’t resist, but ultimately it still exposed the femininity I couldn’t starve away. In my mid twenties I began my serious romance with exercise, working out like a madwoman. Not to be skinny—skinny was too
fragile, too dismissible—I wanted muscle and definition that demanded to be taken seriously. GI Jane-level seriously. I tried to build a body that reflected all the discipline that my naturally feminine shape threatened to reveal that I lacked, but couldn’t swing it. I was still blonde with prominent breasts—liabilities that threatened my credibility everywhere I went. I even followed my own set of rules in an attempt to avoid being mistaken for one of the blonde bimbos my dad would mock. Dress plainly, baggy is better, minimal makeup, be articulate. It helped, but often I’d still have to overcompensate for my stereotype.
I didn’t intentionally seek out boxing. I had a gift certificate for a trial lesson, and afterwards the instructor asked if I’d ever considered seriously training to fight. Most likely he just saw me and my psychological baggage as an easy mark for the membership up-sell (no great feat on his part, my baggage was visible from the Lunar Module), but I was sold. I bought the membership.
And a package of individual sessions.
The lifestyle of training beautifully camouflaged my exercise addiction; there was so much technique to master, and so many new limits to push my body to! I worked at it daily, and within 9 months, the man who would be my coach saw me spar and invited me to join his amateur fight team in downtown LA.
Um, of course! I could already imagine the montage!
I was enchanted at the idea of being a fighter and eager to be a part of the team, but the other girls on it refused to run drills with me (I’m sorry, you mean you don’t
want to train against the chick clearly fighting her own internalized misogyny?) They claimed it was because I couldn’t control my power. I chose to believe this was a testament to my badass-ness (it was actually just an indication of my poor technique).
So my coach informed me I’d be sparring with the guys. The ten year old in me swelled with pride – I’d tamed my femininity enough to be taken seriously! “Excellent” I thought, picturing Ice Box bantering with hunky QB Devin Sawa as they tossed a football.
Training with men was a wake-up call. They made no accommodations for me— shortened no rounds, pulled no punches. They were never inappropriate with me, and they took this shit seriously. I had never worked so hard, and their intensity only drove me to work harder. But as training amped up in preparation for tournaments, I found myself regularly taking blows to the head, bleeding from the mouth, and suffering weekly concussions.
For the first few months I just took it. Don’t cry, don’t be fragile. You can bear this. But sometimes I began to panic in the middle of rounds. The danger I was (willingly!) putting myself in was sparking a trauma response. Flickers of my dad’s violent outbursts must have been lodged deep in my nervous system, and each time I put in my mouth guard and consented to taking punches from guys who outweighed me by 25lbs, I was reawakening the physiology of terror. In those moments I could only operate from survival. I’d freeze against the ropes with my guard up, absorbing blow after blow until the bell rang. I briefly fantasized of a rescue, of my coach stopping the round to make sure I was okay. Of someone yelling that it wasn’t a fair match—what a corrective experience that could have been. But I couldn’t be that girl. I couldn’t have them think I was a coward. So I held my tongue, and kept getting in the ring.
Each time I peeled off my gym clothes to shower I was confronted by the distinct scent of cortisol in my sweat—not that sweet post-yoga sweat or straight body odor after heavy weight lifting, I mean the literal smell of my fear. “It’s self abuse,” my boyfriend (now husband) told our friends, “it’s like she’s trying to get her femininity smashed out of her.” My exhausted body was in a permanent state of healing. My nervous system was constantly both fried and hyper-vigilant, and I
couldn’t sleep without Xanax. I was clear this was costing me. But look who I got to be in return!
My body had been transformed into something formidable. My shoulders were broader and more defined. I had biceps you could see through a long-sleeve shirt. The unconscious hunch that we large-breasted girls learn to walk with to avoid catcalls had been corrected by the the new musculature in my back, which changed my posture from a mild apology into a bold “I dare you.” I literally took up more space in the world, and the results were undeniable.
I found when I walked into a room of men I wasn’t a sex object first, I wasn’t just another blonde, I was taken seriously because I was a walking manifestation of discipline. I rarely boasted about boxing myself, that would’ve been too vain, but I was proud to let others do it for me, and the respect and admiration it was met with was literally everything I’d dreamed of. I was brave and I had proof. I had a tournament record. I was finally in the body that allowed me to be a woman AND retain my credibility, dignity, and my boundaries. I’d mastered the precarious recipe for acceptable femininity, and all it took was a daily sacrifice of my body and neurological system at the altar of self-abuse! But that’s how valuable that identity was to me. And for a time, it was worth it.
There are no universally courageous acts; what one might consider an act of bravery, another would consider a walk in the park. For some, getting in that ring would have been an act of courage. For me, ultimately, the courageous act was getting out.
While I was busy boxing, the rest of my life was also, somehow, still in session. I’d transitioned my career from therapist to clinical coach, my boyfriend was now my fiancee, and now that I was the ripe old age of 31 we were talking kids. My OBGYN suggested it was time to start preparing my body to try to get pregnant, which meant getting off the pill. But when I did, no period came.
“Well that’s normal if you’ve been on birth control for years,” she reassured me. “Just give it a few months.” Months passed, no dice. So I went for testing and the results came back. I had Hypothalamic Amenorrhea.
“I should’ve guessed,” my doctor said, “with all your training, your system is flooded and your brain thinks you’re in distress.” She went on to explain that as far
as my nervous system knew I actively was being chased by dinosaurs, and it wasn’t safe to settle down and procreate. “You’re in fight or flight and you don’t even know it. Your brain thinks you’re at war.”
“I shut down my reproductive system?”
A million years ago when I went to treatment for my eating disorder they’d put me on exercise restriction. That meant they tagged me as someone who sought to compulsively burn calories, so I was forbidden from going to the gym or doing anything that even looked like working out. I think I lasted just over 24 hours before I’d snuck out into the stretch of desert behind the dormitory and was running wind sprints with rocks in my hands in 100 degree heat—I couldn’t let the calories go un-burned. I couldn’t just sit there in laziness with my plebeian metabolism and not do something about it. When the woman who would turn out be my therapist caught me she said to me as she walked me back to the main campus “You know, it takes a lot of will to make your body do what it doesn’t want to.” Yes, I remember thinking, proudly missing her point. Yes it does.
As I listened to my doctor speak, I could feel my brain trying to twist her news into some kind of accomplishment, something to be proud of, but I couldn’t connect the dots. Something had shifted, and I was surprised to find that what I kept landing on was…grief. I had, indeed, succeeded in smashing the femininity right out of me.
Well what’s the treatment?” I asked, bracing for impact.
“Rest.” She said. “Stop everything. Your nervous system needs time to figure out that the war is over and it’s safe. While you’re at it, put on about 10lbs and we’ll reevaluate. Your body needs to relax and soften.”
It was the dirtiest word I could have imagined.
I’ll admit I’d been fantasizing about toning down the boxing—I’d been dragging my feet on letting my coach get me more fights. I was still training like a maniac, but overriding my fear in the ring on a daily basis demanded more will than I could sustain and I was starting to become depressed.
But fully stopping? Boxing had defined me, literally and metaphorically. And letting my body rest, let alone adding 10 lbs of “softness”, meant abandoning this version of myself that I’d literally fought to construct. Without the intense training structure and the high-stakes of potential injury holding me accountable, I could only imagine I’d be a lump of bimbo.
But a fertile lump. A lump that didn’t have to sacrifice her body, psyche, and dreams of a family in the name of Will and Grit, just so no one would think she’s a pussy.
What was slowly dawning on me was the reality of my relationship to this identity I’d built. If I couldn’t choose to relinquish it when it no longer served me, when it was actually hurting me, then I didn’t have it, it had me. I was its hostage. Until then, the concerned voices of my friends and family had only registered as vague, indistinct sounds of worry, almost indistinguishable over the static of my own noise. But some imperceptible shift of my antennae finally allowed me to hear their transmission clearly. They’d been voicing what I was just now coming to understand: There was nothing to prove. I had permission to rescue myself.
No more fantasizing that my coach would call the round. My so-called solution to my femininity only served to validate my father’s premise and trap me further in it. If I wanted freedom, the courageous act was not about proving my will and my worth by and absorbing more pain. The courageous act was choosing not to anymore, accepting the possibility that others would think it was because I couldn’t. Freedom meant giving up the fight.
The months that followed were excruciating. The depression lingered, and without a routine to be accountable to I watched myself work through the other stages of grief, grappling with denial one day as I lifted weights at home (“I’m not technically in the gym!”), anger as I read about athletes who trained all through their pregnancies, and bargaining (“light weights are basically rest, right? Maybe I’ll only need to gain 3lbs.”) It was when I finally cut out exercise entirely that the volume on my self-judgment cranked up. The noise was constant, but for the first time, I could identify specific thoughts rather than just a cacophony of shame. I dared myself to put them on paper, just to see the individual threads that wove the credo I’d been strangling myself with. They were cruel, rigid and one-dimensional.
This was not my voice. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was even my shame, or whether I’d just inherited it.
As I slowed down I could feel my body changing. My shoulder injury began to heal. My neck and jaw muscles relaxed. My anxiety subsided. And I slept. I ate pancakes again, and kettle corn, and all the cheese. I waited for my weight to balloon, but the exchange of a little muscle for some softness didn’t actually move the scale much.
I waited for the day I’d wake to find my credibility and confidence had vanished in the night, unwilling to stick around for someone who’d abandoned her discipline for a life of lazy. But the desire to be healthy enough to have a baby was my lighthouse, and as I settled begrudgingly into acceptance—the land of restorative yoga and slow neighborhood walks—it granted me the courage to stay the course, and discredit my father’s voice in my head. I wasn’t losing credibility. He was.
This was just a different kind of discipline. Testing the validity of my shame and internalized misogyny required a muscle I’d never had the courage to strengthen before. And slowly by slowly, over months of rest, yoga, dogged self-examination and more than a few waffles, it grew strong enough to support my own self-worth.
I began to notice I was walking through the world with a sense of inherent value and dignity that was independent from my body, my vanity, and even from comparison to other women. Getting cat-called no longer felt like commentary on my own moral turpitude, but merely an indication of some dude’s baffling misinterpretation of how to relate to women. In day-to-day interactions realized I was actually forgetting to track whether or not I was dismissible! This quiet pride, forged in the fires of radical self-honesty, humility and compassion, was somehow rendering me “enough.”
It’s a work in progress of course. Over these last few years, my own expression of femininity has slowly revealed itself, though I’m still no princess. At 35 years old, dresses and heels still aren’t my thing, but dressing nicely no longer feels like a dangerous part of town. I still prefer a hoodie any day, but as a function of coziness, not hiding. My makeup game is limited to mascara and cherry chapstick, but I no longer see my vanity (which TOTALLY exists) as something to be apologized for. I still prefer a little more muscle on my body, but lately I only lift a
few days a week and yoga fills in the gaps. At the moment I’m 32 weeks pregnant, so even that can be a herculean effort. Let’s be honest though, the real heroic act for me would be a nap.
This will be an ongoing mission for me. I still have miles to go before I can passionately embrace every element of my femininity, but I can say that who I am these days is completely, unapologetically authentic.
I suspect that’s what Ice Box was going for all along.