Sport & the threat of female muscularity

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Overland #166, 2002


Holly ferneley and i would have been better off if we'd stripped naked and wrestled in jelly instead of trying to show our boxing skills in public. The NSW government would certainly have preferred us to do just about anything else, no matter how demeaning, than box each other, which was what we had been invited to do on the campus of Newcastle University in May 2001. The biggest crowd in recent memory had gathered on the student union courtyard to see what would happen. Would we fight or not? And if we did, would we get arrested? Danger and spectacle had lured people from all corners of the campus. Boxing is not only risky it is against the law for women in New South Wales, the only place in the world where this is the case. It is also, like some dying indigenous language, regarded as being primitive and outmoded when it is actually something of intricate complexity.

Holly Ferneley should be a household name. She is a Sydney-based triple world champion kickboxer and professional boxer with more than twenty fights and nine knockouts on her card. I am an Australian amateur champion boxer from Victoria. We had something to say, or at least our bodies did, in the special lexicon of pugilism. And that is: the fight is universal and has nothing to do with gender. Even when male insiders, traditionally against women being in the ring, witness highly skilled female boxers they often concede to the notion of equality. While it might be masculine, it is not about men. And if masculinity is so easy to imitate by way of two women boxing authentically, rather than flailingly, or as a joke, is masculinity indeed so inviolate? These questions and more were supposed to get an airing, appropriately on a university campus where such matters, at least in theory, are frequently raised. Whole courses are dedicated to the study of gender after all.

But even to box to such a diluted degree that would be so abstract you'd have to call it theatre would breach the NSW laws. The penalties are $20,000 and six months jail for us. Double for our promoter, Newcastle University Student Association President, Matthew Thompson.

Holly and I warmed up in our respective corners, shadow boxing, ducking and weaving, loosening our limbs, stretching our neck muscles. Limbering up to use the language that we had been using, until that moment, only in private like some hushed whisper between fugitives. We were wearing our satin fighting shorts and heavy 16-ounce sparring gloves for this momentous debut.

The gathered crowd was clearly hoping for something violent. The exhibition had been widely publicised as an illegal fight, not a sparring session, and the crowd, I suppose, was expecting blood. A boxer, Ahmed Popal, had already died in Melbourne weeks earlier and a woman boxer, Patricia Devellerez was lying in an induced coma in New Zealand after being knocked out in an amateur bout. The dangers loomed large. This may be what attracted the crowds - you can never really underestimate boxing spectators, the mob never helps when the sport is under fire. But their motives are quite separate from those of the participants in the ring, who shut out the shouts and cheers and boos. The inarticulate grunts of ordinary language. Often it seems that the greatest threat comes from outside the ropes. Inside, the rules are clear. The context is important here; the contest pure.

These days boxing only gets attention when bad things happen. In the hysteria surrounding the rare tragedies, the meaning of it for those who do it becomes trampled in the rush for higher moral ground. This sport is not just a potential means to an end for working-class people. That's a convenient cliche to appease middle-class angst. For the majority, there is little profit in boxing - they'd be better off buying a lottery ticket. It is more importantly a means of self-description and an expression of identity and this is the same for both genders.

But attempts to express these aspects of the sport are often drowned out by hyperbole like 'it's degrading' and 'out of place in modern society'. Dr Michael Wooldridge (federal minister of health at the time of the bout on Newcastle University campus) and the AMA's Dr Kerryn Phelps can get away with these simplistic attacks because the other side of the argument is not only complex it is also mute, by way of class, education and position. And in NSW, also gender. It is a sport too subtle and multi-layered for a sound bite. Great and important literary works by the likes of Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Joyce Carol Oates and Gerald Early have been dedicated to understanding the meaning of boxing from its myriad angles: class, gender, race. Together and separately these works seem to be saying that boxing very much has a place in modern society. It is one of the few activities that shows us exactly how civilised we are, and how much we are able to recognise and utilise our own aggression and not merely succumb to it like wild dogs.

But whenever it's the subject of public discussion, insiders sound punchy and outsiders sound like pompous seventeenth-century fops, squeamish about bodily fluids and physical risk. We never really get to understand anything about the sport, we only hear prejudice - from both sides. Back and forth like a series of disconnected non sequiturs. Because both sides are talking about different things.

Boxing communities are small, close-knit and loyal. They are the kind of grass-roots places that have been steadily eroded by modernity, reconstituted, corporatised, branded and sold back to the people. Like football. Boxing gyms are like artists' studios, where craft and skill are valued alongside courage and toughness. They are refuges for wayward youth and adult males alike in which bonding is cross-generational, and more and more, across genders as well. I have had many conversations with male boxers in which we both identify with the same paradoxical cluster of emotions that come to the fore in this environment. Boxing gyms are all much the same in configuration; heavy punching bags, speed balls, skipping ropes, mirrors and at the centre of it all, like a stage in a small, avant-garde theatre, sits the ring. Conversations about fights and fighters bounce from one to the other like Chinese whispers, linked through common values and associations.

"The gym", writes sports ethicist Michael Burke, "is seen as a small-scale civilising machine to avoid uncontrolled violence." They are often the very opposite of what the sport is accused of being. "How", Burke goes on to say, "can the small and relatively powerless practice community, gain a voice so they are not threatened with redescription by people who do not understand them in ways that they understand themselves?"

Perhaps part of what is missed by outsiders is that these are places of work in the traditional, blue-collar sense, where work carries with it considerable personal pride. The gym is also a space for creativity, self-determination and learning and importantly, autonomy. They are not just bloodhouses where cavemen beat each other to a pulp. In fact as much time is spent learning not to get hit as in delivering the blows. An unschooled observer cannot see the full vocabulary of a highly skilled fight. They seem to know only one word in relation to what they see and that is 'punch'. Yet many, or most, aren't even aware of their own ignorance, mainly because they're educated. They're taught to have a higher, not lower, opinion of their own intellect in cases of doubt. This is the very opposite of your average, toiling boxer, who is inclined to believe that his lack of education and opportunity is actually his own fault.

As Joyce Carol Oates has written:

Because a boxing match is a story without words doesn't mean that it has no text or language, that it is somehow 'brute' or 'primitive' or 'inarticulate', only that the text is improvised in action; the language a dialogue between boxers of the most refined sort . . .

What Phelps and Wooldridge know of boxing is the ten seconds before a knockout that they might've seen on the TV news, in a fight that may have been going for forty minutes, in a career that may have lasted a decade, in a culture that is so far removed from them it may as well be on Mars. It's like pretending you speak Italian because you can order a cappuccino. Boxers are baffled by the ignorance of the attacks on their sport. And they frequently point to other dangerous sports and their death and injury rates as a defence. But it's not the right kind of defence. What they need is the means to explain the pleasure of the struggle and the work, the respect they have for their sparring partners and opponents, the very visceral way in which boxing engages them and drives them and gives them a greater sense of themselves and their place in the world. But the practice of the sport itself is the only language they have. They are foreigners in their own land.

In our respective red and blue corners Holly and I were also poised in a silent place, separate from the cacophony of arguments that circle the sport. It's a place safe from hysteria about injury and degradation. It's one that values the courage required to step through the ropes and the willingness to put one's entire existential being on the line.

It is about the fight in which every talent must unfold. "For boxing really isn't the metaphor," writes Oates, "it's the thing itself."

Boxing is also powerfully addictive. As Thomas Hauser, author of The Black Lights has written, boxing is like a narcotic. Once it's in your blood it never leaves your system. And there's no gender test in that. The addictive forces are as strong for women as they are for men because they are so fundamentally human that they seem to defy conditioning. The engagement in this sport is intimate, sometimes profoundly so. Your focus on the other is as unwavering as it would be if you were in love. Your eyes are never off each other. There are emotions you feel as a consequence of boxing that you can't even get close to in day-to-day life.

Melbourne professional boxer Baydon Beddoe has written of one of his encounters: intimate insight into my opponent also provided me with another insight. The fight can be seen as a mutual agreement where the opponent is not seen as an obstacle to be overcome, but rather as a partner there to aid in testing and drawing out my own capacities . . . It is possible then to consider that in the heat of the competition, together boxers can construct an intense, immediate and total friendship.

Women, traditionally, only enter a boxing ring wearing G-strings and high heels and hold up cards with the round number on them, which apparently is less degrading or out-of-step with anything modern.

Boxing has long been considered the red-light district of mainstream sport. The critics would rather see it banned for men than made legal for women. So there is not much chance that the law will change against any weight of public opinion. Yet despite the ban, women fight in Sydney - they box and kickbox in gyms all over the state. They are probably more enthusiastic than they are in other states. Women compete in unsanctioned underground fights or 'club spars' in preparation for sanctioned interstate competitions. Many of them are exceedingly good at what they do. All the ban does is shield their activities from the public like some Victorian veil of modesty, covering offences against femininity, making it a crime to be unladylike.

I went to Tony Mundine's Redfern gym where Holly trains, for a practice spar the day before our trip to Newcastle. When I suggested we go through the motions without appearing to fight so as not to break the law, she looked disappointed, even insulted. So we went ahead and sparred without any inhibitions. Any restraint was dictated not by law but by mutual respect. This is how most boxers train; a collaborative exchange of modulated pressure.

We attracted the attention of some of the other boxers and trainers in the gym, which was a good sign. People in boxing gyms don't stop and watch unless there is something worthwhile going on in the ring. Two of them became our unofficial corner men, giving us strategic advice between rounds. If we had done what we did that night in a public forum we would have risked prosecution. And yet on the mean streets of Redfern outside the gym, people are routinely mugged, drugs are sold and consumed and fear lurks in the eyes of any taxi driver brave enough to take you there.

At Newcastle the next day Holly and I touched gloves and retreated to our corners. As we shaped up to each other ready to begin, the black-clad figure of our erstwhile promoter, Matthew Thompson, flew between us and stopped the bout before a single punch was thrown. He grabbed a microphone and announced that the University had prohibited the bout from taking place and had threatened to ban student association activities for all time if we went ahead. They had even threatened to cut off the power.

Almost immediately we lost about 50 per cent of our audience. The rest politely listened as Holly and I took turns to speak like a couple of suffragettes in boxing shorts, squeaking away to a diminishing crowd who really wanted sensation and spectacle, not another bloody lecture.

Later when most of them had gone Holly and I decided to make use of the full-sized ring and so shadow boxed with our gloves off in different corners. Then by some boxers' radar we found each other and began to spar - our separate monologues becoming, by instinct, a dialogue.

Without making contact we moved around the ring as we had wanted to do in the first place. But by then it had become a private matter, between the two of us and so we were safe, somehow, from the long arm of the law. But this was when we were at our most eloquent, doing what we had trained to do, something not quite as degrading as jelly wrestling.

Late last year Holly applied in Sydney's Federal Court to have the law changed. But much to everyone's shock the application failed. In handing down his decision Justice Murray Wilcox said the NSW Boxing Authority was exempt from section 18 of the sex discrimination act because it was a state institution.

Holly's case had a precursor in the UK a few years ago. There, women were banned from professional boxing because they menstruate and therefore were regarded as too emotionally unstable for the sport. The rule was challenged by a female welterweight champion, Jane Couch - better known as the Fleetwood Assassin.

This concern about the feminine disposition in the boxing ring I find quite amusing in light of Mike Tyson's infamous ear-biting and even Oliver McCall's in-fight nervous breakdown in which he burst into uncontrollable sobs during a bout against heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. The litany of drug abuse, violence, criminality and generally unhinged behaviour displayed by an array of top-line male professional boxers from Jake La Motta to our own coke-snorting Shannon 'the Bulli Blaster' Taylor, makes a bit of pre-menstrual tension pale by comparison.

Not surprisingly, the Fleetwood Assassin's challenge succeeded.

An emotional edge is just another ball in the eternal juggling act of pugilism that requires hot rage and cold precision to work in unison. No matter how much technical accomplishment a boxer displays, for some reason it's the emotion that is the most palpable - and not just to untrained observers. The emotion is of course aggression - the problematic love child of a romanticised masculinity.

As Norman Mailer wrote in The Fight: "Prizefighters do not, of course, train to kill people at large. To the contrary, prizefighting offers a profession to men who might otherwise commit murder in the street."

In Mailer's mythologised masculinity, murder is always lurking covertly yet proudly beneath the surface. The view does nothing to make boxing comprehensible to those who condemn it as barbaric.

There are plenty of examples of boxers who make a laughing stock of Mailer's assertion and any claims that it takes psychotic doses of certain emotions to succeed. Sugar Ray Leonard, Les Darcy, John Famechon, Ambrose Palmer, Kostya Tszyu - all solid, sane and grounded athletes. So at the end of the day, emotional disposition seems hardly even relevant. But the problem boxing has with women is that they are invading emotional territory that was once exclusive to men.

It is perhaps because of such transgressions that femininity and sport have always been a fraught pairing; boxing only helps illuminate the prejudices and contradictions that exist in more subtle ways elsewhere.

The ideals of the traditionally feminine and those of the supremely athletic are so diametrically opposed it's astounding that so many female athletes have overcome this Catch-22 in order to excel. And it probably helps explain why the media, and to some extent the sportswomen themselves, keep ducking for cover under the skirts of girlishness - e.g. by posing for magazines like FHM, Ralph and occasionally Playboy - and why the reportage often focuses more on their feminine attributes than their sporting abilities.

Sport is about strength, speed, aggression, power, physical supremacy - not just at odds with femininity but certain strands of feminism as well. In the mid 1980s theorists like Lois Bryson suggested that in a truly equal society, competitive sport must disappear. "Sport", she wrote in 1987, "is so thoroughly masculinised that it seems unlikely it can be reclaimed to serve women's interests."

I wonder what the 44.6 per cent of women who take part in organised sport would think of that and how much that idea might lurk in the shadows when they have to call upon aggression and a competitive streak. How do Cathy Freeman, Tatiana Gregorieva, the Hockeyroos, Lauren Burns, Karrie Webb et al. deal with the unspoken implications that their success is also a betrayal of their gender?

The best they can do is constantly reiterate that they have not compromised the feminine for the sake of sport, that all the strength, aggression, competitiveness and agility is only for the sporting field. Off the sporting stage their femininity is still intact: Gregorieva's nightwear range, the Hockeyroos' nude calendar, Cathy Freeman's sweet, unthreatening modesty. There seems to be an unabating, vigilant effort to hold on to notions of innate difference, even as the gap narrows. The more successful the athlete, the more she has to emphasise that these masculine qualities are only for the sporting field.

As Bryson's views show, it hasn't always been men who uphold gender-based differences as reasons for women not to take part in sports and therefore not to be taken seriously as athletes. Women have invested a good deal in maintaining the myth that they are substantially, rather than marginally, weaker and slower than men. These perceptions have allowed them to be more covert in their aggression and more cunning as competitors in other ways. But it has also possibly denied them the pleasure of a pure and direct contest with one another in which what they do with their bodies takes precedence over how those bodies look.

In a bizarre way the views of certain strands of feminism follow the trajectory of a Victorian-era masculine supremacy that valued women first and foremost as incubators.

Women today are only starting to break away from the combined inhibitors of starry-eyed essentialist feminism and the treachery of Victorian masculine insecurity. As more women compete in sports once denied to them, like weightlifting and boxing, we are seeing the gap between male and female strength narrow.

A significant shift, for example, in women's marathon times took place last year when a Kenyan woman, Catherine Ndereba, became the fastest woman in history over 42 kilometres, running in a time of 2 hours, 18 minutes and 47 seconds. Ben Kimondui won the Chicago Marathon 10 minutes ahead of her.

Dick Telford, marathon coach at the Australian Institute of Sport, told The Australian's Nicole Jeffrey: "People have to recognise that the top women in the world will be very good from now on. I have male runners in my group who aspire to run a 2:15 marathon. Now they know a woman is getting close to that it's a seismic shock."

Last year only three Australian men ran faster than 2:18, including Steve Moneghetti.

The improvement in these times makes you ponder how severely this collusion between chauvinism and feminism has actually retarded the physical progress of women athletes and delayed those improved performances. How might it have stunted the athletic expectations and progress of women who are only now allowing themselves to build the kind of muscles that male athletes fifty years ago would have envied? Marion Jones lined up beside a sprinter from the 1956 Olympic games or Serena Williams serving those rockets at Bobby Riggs? They'd both make the men of another era look like pipsqueaks. They also would most probably have been ridiculed and humiliated off the track; accused of being female impersonators or freaks. And yet contemporary women are not entirely free from such accusations. Far from it. Ordinary women, who don't compete on an elite level in sport, have a somewhat more problematic relationship with overt strength and its varying connotations. Muscle on a man is a pure statement of his validity as a man. Muscle on a woman is something else altogether; regardless of how men might see physical strength (and many of them admire and are attracted to it), women still regard it as de-feminising - a way of repelling men.

I'm surprised at the number of women who say that they are afraid of gaining or demonstrating too much strength - often expressed as an almost pathological fear of building too much muscle bulk. You see them in gyms lifting weights so far within their capacity it's hard to imagine what they might hope to gain. These women go on power walks with half-kilo dumbbells in each hand. They'd build more muscle lifting their shopping into the car! And yet these small weights signify the uneasy relationship ordinary women have with physicality. The appearance is the problem, certainly not the strength itself. The anxiety focuses on the masculinity that the muscle represents and the way it might challenge the needs of certain men - the ones who require women to be significantly weaker so that they can feel strong. These women would probably be surprised to discover that rather than being a repellent, many men are in fact attracted to a female physicality that embraces strength. This includes young men and even teenage boys who surprisingly want to meet girls on more equal footing.

And yet, the muscle-free woman is still the fashion magazine preference where women with arms that look like sticks of spaghetti are served up as someone's notion of the ideal. This construction of heterosexual femininity merely maintains the myth that women are weak and men are strong. The smaller the gap is in reality, the more feeble the fashion models appear.

The objection to and the focus on these models has always been on their lack of fat, yet their lack of anything resembling muscle seems to pass without comment. Perhaps an explanation for their emaciated appearance is that they are actually too weak to lift food to their mouths. In reality, low body fat is healthy and obesity a more serious problem than anorexia. But lack of muscle is more closely aligned to an actual physical disability - a kind of wilful, deliberate degeneration. Yet this is ignored in the endless and tedious commentary about female body image neurosis that seems to offer a predictable binary of skinny and abnormal versus fat and normal. Neither of which are healthy. Strength doesn't rate at all as a mainstream issue in the narrative of femininity. And yet on the margins female strength exists as a fetish.

A magazine called Fighting Females offers a parade of images of muscular women in bikinis, wrestling and play fighting with one another. But it also includes pictures of women engaging in conventional boxing and wrestling with cover lines like 'Catfight madness hits backalley gym' and 'School of submission'. All a bit creepy and perverse at first glance.

But then in one issue is a feature article on one Evil Kitty, a muscular, dark-haired woman flexing her tattooed biceps for the camera. She says she sees herself as a healer.

I think when you allow someone to come into a space where they've been oppressed and they haven't been able to say they want to be squeezed by a strong, powerful woman, I think that's healing. Somewhere our society has said that's wrong and that we're supposed to feel bad about it.

It's an odd society that forces female strength onto the margins while it valorises disfigured and emaciated women. Evil Kitty has a point.

In an essay called 'On the Muscle', Laurie Schulze says that popular culture is forever dragging the female bodybuilder back into the realm of what is acceptably feminine. So while the fetish publications revel in muscle size and power-posing, women in the mainstream have to modify themselves for popular consumption.

The sport itself has had to adjust its idea of the ideal female body to emphasise more feminine proportions over bulk. But female bodybuilders continue to push the boundaries despite the emphasis on body shaping rather than building and fitness displays rather than heroic poses.

In a similar way, women who do boxacise for fitness are regarded as acceptable, while women who actually fight are often considered to have gone too far. Watching a physically weak woman hit bags with girly ineptitude is kind of endearing. When she does it competently it's bound to arouse confusion.

I've often been aware of male eyes watching me as I punch a heavy bag or spar aggressively with a man or another woman in the gym. Sometimes I feel an almost mesmerised gaze.

I'm guessing hopefully that it is a new way for them to see femaleness which isn't necessarily perverse or worrying. I think they're interested in my displays of aggression and skill as well as my capacity to take a punch in the way of a boxer - without acknowledging its impact. These are qualities that men admire in each other and it has been important to exclude women from opportunities to also display it.

At one stage I had a small but loyal male following where I trained and I don't think they were subscribers to Fighting Females and if they were, so what! These men, mostly young, fit and strong themselves, offered me nothing but encouragement and respect. Those who find my physicality threatening or unpalatable, generally keep their distance, which is exactly where I'd like them to stay. It's a good way to sort out the wheat from the chaff - or should I say, the men from the boys! Popular culture, which lags behind changes rather than leading them, is still stuck with the old dichotomies. Magazines frequently feature women in boxing training garb, wearing boxing gloves and often not much else. But it is important that these women display no actual technical ability or strength. In a way this image modification reflects concerns about the diminishing boundaries between the sexes. Biology, says Schulze, is invoked to prove that there is no threat to the difference by confirming that women cannot attain the same kind of bulk as men.

But it's not just the tough, macho sports in which these issues are played out.

In 1999, Amelie Mauresmo, a champion French tennis player, seemed to embody the contradiction of sport and femininity. Playing in the Australian Open, Mauresmo initially took as a compliment then world number one Lindsay Davenport's comments that she 'played like a guy' after beating her in the semi-final. The tanned, rather statuesque Mauresmo was said to be proud of her strength and worked at it for two hours a day in the gym. Then Martina Hingis, who was to play her in the final, was reported as saying that Mauresmo was 'half a man' because of her muscular build and her openly stated lesbian relationship. These comments by Hingis and Davenport (who later said she was taken out of context) were read as 'bitchy' by the media. Mauresmo was always photographed from her most masculine angles, playing the power shots. The French teenager was even mocked in her own country. Then at the 1999 US Open, Serena Williams was accused by male commentators of making women's tennis boring because she was hitting the ball too hard, serving at speeds that equalled the men's. It was an interesting contradiction because it implied that men's tennis was also boring and that, in turn, makes you wonder why they are justified in earning so much more money than women.

Hingis won the final and the tabloid headline was 'Three times a lady' for her three Australian Open victories. The real victory, it seemed, was for traditional femininity, although the implication was that if you play women's tennis 'like a guy' then you do not deserve to win because you might be somehow cheating. And if you do win, as Williams did, going on to win Wimbledon that year, you are then accused of ruining the 'ladies' game'. It was reminiscent of the furore over transsexual women's tennis player Rene Richards in the 1970s and her perceived unfair advantage over 'normal' women. Hingis was photographed looking pretty and petite in a short, red dress, kissing her cup against the backdrop of the colourful Brighton Beach bathing boxes. One commentator said of Amelie Mauresmo that 'the problem' was the clothes she wore, the singlets that made her look more muscular. The 'problem' presumably being her failure to conceal her muscles. Some journalists were ashamed of the way the story had been covered, and they said so.

Female muscularity and strength clearly created disturbances in a sport in which women have always taken part, even at times when most nice middle-class ladies did not play sport. Whether or not this kind of media coverage discourages women from trying to attain physical strength is unclear, but I have no doubt that it has some effect.

Fortunately the Williams sisters, with their girlish obsession with clothes and their sweet, giggling off-court personalities have somehow managed to make muscles acceptable on the tennis circuit in the intervening years. But this also raises issues of race, in that the Williams sisters' muscle may appear more acceptable to the mainstream because they are black and therefore differently constructed, both physically and culturally. Perhaps because of this Serena and Venus have managed to balance muscle and cleavage in a way few women would be able to. But despite their impressive physiques, shots of them in action seem to fixate on their bustlines and, on occasions, show them with neither a racquet nor tennis ball in sight. It's Laurie Schultz's argument in action - convention dragging female strength back to a more acceptable zone. They've got impressive biceps? Well let's have a good long look at their tits instead. And the sisters play up to this in ways that all professional sportswomen do - for sponsorship, publicity and profile. If they dressed like male players, the story, I have no doubt, would be entirely different. Female anxiety about appearance is one of capitalism's most crucial pillars and rather than dismantle it, men have been encouraged to join in. They are now boosting the ranks of the bulimic and doing their bit to bolster the cosmetic surgery industry. They too will learn to allay their fears with a vast array of expensive but useless unguents, liposuction and facelifts. Female insecurity about appearance is crucial to so much industry it is hard to imagine how capitalism would function without it. The idea that a female body is one that gains sensual pleasure from its own activity, from what it can do, rather than from how it looks or is adorned is almost unheard of. Running costs nothing. You can't market movement. Modern men and women alike are becoming passive consumers first and foremost - creativity and activity are nothing if they cannot be packaged and sold. Even men have to fabricate the kind of bodies that once only came naturally from physical work. Holly ferneley ended her year with a double blow. Not only did she lose her Federal Court application, she also lost a fight in Queensland against Australia's world champion boxer Sharon Anyos, a woman she had lost to twice before.

I lost my Australian title to an Aboriginal teenager from Palm Island on a split decision. Maybe we'll both have to take up jelly wrestling!

Mischa Merz is a Melbourne journalist and author. Her book Bruising - a journey through gender was published in 2000 by Picador. She is also the 2000 National Women's Welterweight Amateur Boxing Champion and 2001 Victorian Female Boxer of the Year.