I remember being flabbergasted when a female friend who competed in traditional martial arts at a high level told me that there was no way you could turn up at a tournament and compete in kata without makeup. You were judged on your overall presentation and impression, and your face was as much a part of that as your performance and a properly worn gi.
While I can’t say whether this was a generalisable experience or due to the specific martial art, region or association she was competing in, one thing is for sure: being judged by their looks – whether exclusively or as one factor among others, whether implicitly or explicitly – is nothing new for women. Many, if not most societies place great value on female beauty and femininity, expecting women to look better, be neater, better dressed and better groomed, and frequently holding women to beauty standards that are impossible to achieve. Not surprisingly, women spend a lot more time on their appearance than men and undergo plastic surgery and other treatments at much higher rates.
Women are also generally required to behave better than men: they’re expected to be friendlier, nicer and more accommodating, less ambitious and more polite, to swear less and smile more – in a nutshell, they’re expected to be submissive rather than aggressive.
That’s not to say that there isn’t any beauty pressure on men at all, but in general, men can ultimately expect to be judged by their actions rather than their looks. From childhood, boys get comments on the things they do and learn that the focus is on how they act, whereas girls get compliments on how "pretty" they are and learn that the focus is on how they look.
None of this is new, of course, but it all comes to a head in fighting, which is traditionally associated with "masculine" traits like physical aggression, muscularity, "alpha male" posturing, physicality and proving you’re a "real man" by way of dominating in a fight. That means that for men, fighting and gender expectations align, whereas for female fighters, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. This naturally presents a whole range of issues, many of which Tim Bissell’s brilliant series The Male Gaze in Women’s MMA describes and discusses in detail.
Take the example of women being deemed "too pretty" to fight. While few people seem to be worried about Steven Thompson ruining his face, female fighters frequently face the question of why they would fight when they could use their faces and bodies to make money in other ways: the external perception of their looks deemed more important than what they decide to do with their lives; objectification over agency.
Consequently, women have long faced wide-spread opposition to fighting. Famously, UFC president Dana White said women would "never" fight in the UFC, and over the years, male commentators and fighters have also chimed in. From Khabib Nurmagomedov and Fedor Emilianenko to Stephen A. Smith, men haven’t been shy to tell women what to do with their bodies and their lives in a field where they themselves take making their own decisions for granted.
Depending on where they live, their culture and their chosen martial art, women often face opposition from parents, friends and society in general before they ever make it to an MMA or boxing gym, and female fighters often struggle to be taken seriously or even admitted to training. Ronda Rousey famously had to fight hard for her spot with Edmond Tarverdyan, and while that may have more to do with Tarverdyan’s prejudices than anything else – after all, many other, bigger and better gyms presumably would’ve happily taken Rousey on, and who knows what that might have done for her career –, it still shows that women face obstacles that simply don’t exist for men.
As a consequence, being in the minority in training is a given for most women, and even in the absence of open discrimination and in places where they are actively welcomed, they will often experience an intense sense of not belonging. When I trained in martial arts, I was never treated with anything but respect, always "one of the guys", never belittled or treated differently, but I still ended up dropping out eventually. Granted, there were other factors at play as well, but in an environment that already forces you outside of your comfort zone and can be as difficult to deal with mentally as it is physically, frequently being the only woman among ten or twenty guys undeniably takes a toll. It’s an additional stressor because it requires that little bit more effort and energy to keep overcoming or ignoring the feeling that you don’t belong, and it can wear you out in the long run.
Add to that the blatant sexism professional female fighters regularly encounter. Commenting on women’s looks in a work context may be unprofessional, but it keeps happening, with Kayla Harrison calling out an interviewer just one recent example. And while (most of) the commenters and in particular the writers on BE are very good at not making a fighter’s looks the focus, TV hosts, reporters, commentators and interviewers frequently do.
The end result is a world with relatively few women, as evidenced by the lack of depth among many (if not all) of the women’s weight classes in the UFC. And those who do make it find themselves facing the question of how to resolve the conflict between fighting and femininity.
Walk that fine line or refuse to play the game
Proving yourself as a fighter – with all the physicality, ambition and aggression that entails – and at the same time proving your femininity means walking an almost impossible fine line, with steep, dangerous cliffs on either side. Since objectification is a given, each fighter faces the challenge of finding her own way of dealing with it. Naturally, the spectrum of solutions is as broad as the range of individual fighters, with their backgrounds playing a role as well – after all, beauty ideals differ widely between cultures and subcultures.
When an interview with Julianna Peña prior to UFC 193 turned towards her pre-fight "beauty" preparation (incidentally not something I recall male fighters ever being asked about), she rolled off an entire list of things she gets done before a fight. While I’m a bit hazy on the details, I seem to recall waxing, painted nails, hair and make-up. Summing up her motivation for doing all that, she declared: "Look good, feel good, fight good."
Now, the issue here is not that boosting your confidence prior to a fight is a bad thing, because confidence obviously plays a huge role in fighting. The issue is that confidence, for women, is so often strongly tied to how they look, much more so than for men. After all, when was the last time you heard Max Holloway talking about getting a full body wax so he could feel good in a fight? When did we ever discuss whether a beauty accessory could get in the way during a fight between men or whether it’s dangerous for men to fight after having plastic surgery?
Just to be clear, this isn’t a knock on women who decide to do any of those things, nor do we need to debate whether an individual fighter should or shouldn’t do these – after all, telling women what they should be doing is a large part of the problem to start with. We’re not interested in personal choices here, we’re looking at the background against which those choices are made. And that background is a sexist society that objectifies women and prizes their looks above all.
As we see with female celebrities in other areas, it’s possible to play with the rules within this context, to exploit them for your own benefit, to gain at least some control over the extent and manner of your own objectification, but we also see time and again that it’s not an easy balance to achieve. Yes, you can decide to pose for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue or not, you can decide to post footage of you gardening naked on Instagram or not, but your choices are made within a given context and it’s all too easy to lose control.
That is not to say that promoting yourself, skilfully handling social media and so on isn’t a tricky road for any fighter, but men can typically focus on choosing how to act or what to say instead of how they look, and they very often get away with pretty bad behaviour to start with.
Paige van Zant is a great example of how to make the most of your looks (and your abilities) while largely keeping control over your image, and no one can argue that she isn’t doing very well financially out of how she’s handled things. And the UFC, of course, is more than happy to hype people based on their looks, which usually means white, straight and appealing to mainstream audiences, with performance often relegated to second place. However, we have also seen that those hype trains can end up derailing badly if performances don’t hold up in the long run.
And what about those whose looks, age, skin colour or sexual orientation don’t fit that profile in the first place? What about those who refuse to play along and decide to do their own thing instead?
After all, not every female fighter shows up to the weigh-ins in a body-hugging dress and full make-up or fights with fake eyelashes or a full body wax. Just like in wider society, there are women who opt out of these pressures – as much as that’s possible – and decide to carve out their own space. Lesbian culture in particular has found a way of defying the male gaze and ditching large parts of traditional definitions of femininity. As Sadhbh O'Sullivan explains: "The beauty of butchness is that it creates its own category, one that stands apart from patriarchal standards and celebrates new versions of womanhood and non-binary identity."
However, given the mostly male audiences in MMA – and Dana White’s machismo and tendency to play favourites –, women who refuse to conform to traditional ideas of beauty and femininity tend to pay for it in general appeal and marketability, with consequences ranging from less exposure and fewer sponsors to less income from side hustles like social media and the like, all of which ultimately boils down to less income.
While there seem to be exceptions to the rule – moving away from long hair and make-up doesn’t seem to have particularly hurt Rose Namajunas’ career, for example –, the questions remain: does Amanda Nunes get less UFC attention because she’s gay? Do fighters like Lauren Murphy or Angela Hill get hyped less (or not at all) because they don’t look like Paige van Zant? And when and how is that going to change?
The answer is that it’s probably not going to change fundamentally until we manage to change it across all of society. But every female fighter who ever fought or is fighting now is pushing towards that goal, that change, acting as a role model and an agent of change. Let’s support them in doing so.
If you liked this article, also check out my previous post On Transphobia and the Illusion of Fairness.