I do Taekwondo. It is a Korean martial art, closer to karate or kung fu than to Mixed Martial Arts or boxing. I’m on the Brown Taekwondo Team and we are the national champions at sparring. That means we go into the ring, bop around and try to kick our opponent in the head or on the body. We wear helmets and rigid chest protectors wrapped around our torsos, and it is all very respectful and safe. The tournament this past February at Princeton was the opposite of Fight Club.
Before every fight, you pass through the valley of the shadow of death. The night before a taekwondo tournament I never sleep well. I can’t stop visualizing my roundhouse kicks. I check to fake her out, switch out at a 45-degree angle, and nail her right in the ribs with a big satisfying smack that earns me one point in the match. I imagine my opponent’s body: will she be tall and skinny, or short and muscular? Will she be aggressive or timid? Will she cry when I kick her one too many times?
When you are a woman, it can feel like your body is public property. The female form is constantly analyzed and discussed. I could talk about Kim’s ass, Pippa Middleton’s arse, Angelina’s lips, Elizabeth’s violet eyes, Scarlett’s boobs, Keira’s jawline, Jennifer’s hair or Julia’s smile and you’d know which fleshy protuberance or sculpted bone I’m talking about. This level of scrutiny carries over into everyday life. For some reason, the way I look seems to be important to a wide variety of people. Bizarrely, it can feel like parts of my body are sending messages that I don’t endorse, like in the Middle East where my light hair telegraphs, “I’m a Russian prostitute,” or when my breasts shout out, “I’m fertile. Fuck me.” Those aren’t my words, but my body is part of an established discourse that I cannot control.
Part of the performance of femininity is to give pleasure to others—visually, emotionally or physically. I learned that in “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.” Anyway, I spent a lot of time feeling like my mortal coil was a thing for other people. I don’t want to say male gaze, but to have a successful body means being appreciated by someone else—to get a compliment on how it looked in that shirt, in those trousers.
I know my feet belong to me, even when my body feels like it is for someone else. There are few cultural expectations for feet beyond basic cleanliness. In contemporary Western culture, there’s no idealized foot. We don’t remember celebrities’ feet and we certainly don’t notice other people’s feet—that is, until a teeny tiny girl is slamming her foot against me during practice, twisting her hips in order to send all of her body power deep into my solar plexus.
I go watch my opponent fight someone else. She’s got longer legs than me and she’s quick and powerful with one signature move: when her opponent moved in, she snapped up her front leg and scored on her first. I’ll have to go faster than she does, block the kick and respond with two or three while she’s off balance. Watching her, my coach Master Park leaned in and said, “Look. She’s not really fighting. You go out there and you fight with your heart. Show her you want it more.” I gulped, “Yes, sir.”
When I started doing Taekwondo, I began to think about my body differently. Instead of a souped-up pleasure vehicle, I realized my body could actually feel like a supreme killing machine. So that was new, delicious and decidedly unfeminine. To have a successful body in Taekwondo is to be flexible, so you can reach that foot up higher and rake your toes down your opponent’s face. It’s shifting out of a kick’s path and thinking three moves ahead so you can smack her back. It’s tensing your abs so you can take a hit without getting winded. It’s fighting for a minute without vomiting or passing out. It’s bowing, eyes lowered to the mat in one smooth and graceful motion. It’s a whole new way of using myself.
You don’t have to be strong to be powerful; you can be a big muscular dude and have feeble flapping taps for kicks. The trick is learning how to put all the power and torque of your body into a few square inches of your foot. There are at least twenty different kicks that use different parts of your feet: sometimes the ball of your foot, the blade, the heel or the hard part on top. When you do kick properly, it feels like swinging a tennis racket and nailing a perfect shot as the ball sails over the net. It’s hard, but it feels easy because you’re not straining your leg muscles to generate that power; you’re twisting your torso in the most effective way. It can be a little scary to effortlessly kick your partner in a drill and have them cry out because you hit them too hard without realizing. So you apologize and try again with control and finesse, a flick instead of a lash.
Last round, forty seconds to go. I’ve cracked her pattern and I’m two points ahead and I’m throwing the most beautiful combination. I’m turning my hips all the way over to drive my body power into my foot when she loses her footing and falls. I kick her directly in the face as she goes down. She hits the ground, rolls over and doesn’t get up when the referee hollers for a medic. My imagination spins. I feel like I’ve either killed her or gouged her eyeball.
I’m unspooling into martial arts lyricism here. The feet are great. I like my feet. I can do cool things with them. They’ve transformed from useful appendages into little weapons. Through Taekwondo, I take control of the messages my body sends and the functions it performs.
After a several minute delay, it turns out that she’s fine but she’s mad and comes at me hard. Now she’s fighting and I can feel that rage and frustration as she pounds my stomach and ribs. Master Park is hollering at me to reach further with my kicks, to punch her off-balance. But she overwhelms me. I guess my foot in her eye was just what she needed. By the end of the second round, I’m hyperventilating and might just throw up. Worse, the score is tied. “Breathe. Reach forward, don’t bounce up. It’s sudden death and you only need the one point,” intones Master Park.
It’s funny to see who feels threatened when they find out what I can do with my body, especially heterosexual males. Guys asking, “What do you do besides school?” is pretty common, but when I say “Taekwondo,” they get freaked out. I get a lot of aggressive responses: “Can you beat me up?”, “Let’s fight!” and “I bet you can’t do shit.” It’s rude. Once my friend’s flatmate asked me to show him a kick. Reluctantly, I got up and did one that stopped short of making contact. He grabbed my foot and pushed me backwards onto the floor. “Not so great, are you?” he laughed.
I’d like to say I used my brilliant technique to reach further than my long-legged and enraged enemy to score on her in the last few seconds. But my heart was sinking and she lost on a technicality. Ironically, she kicked me in the head by mistake—an illegal move at our level.
I was with a boy once who got off on how petite I was compared to him. He held my feet and said, “They’re so dainty. I can’t believe that you do all that with these little things. Show me.” So I rather awkwardly got up and did an axe kick. He smiled. “You can kick as high as my head,” he said. Then we went back to kissing.
But I won.
B: Katie Sola, Contributor
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