I've long held the belief, at least intellectually, that weight was just a number, that mass media perpetuates an unhealthy and impossible body standard, and that the best anybody can do is strive to take care of their own body the best way they know how, and to try to love their body no matter what it looks like.
Unfortunately, putting that belief into everyday practice is kind of a giant pain in the ass. I've had little trouble being an encouraging force for other people, but when it came to myself, it was a different story for years.
Getting into a workout routine, I reasoned, would help me love my body more by helping me know it better. If I got physically fit, I could stop micromanaging my weight -– and, more importantly, I could stop thinking I was, in any way, a better or worse person because of the number on the scale. And the best way to stick to a routine, I've always known, is to find something fun.
It's true that you have to be a little bit insane to allow people to punch you in the face on the regular, but almost immediately I loved boxing like few other things I've ever loved. Initially I thought I'd go to the gym after a long day at work or a tense moment with a friend and vent my frustrations by beating the hell out of an inanimate object (and sometimes a person). In actuality, learning how to box demanded so much focus from me that I couldn't even think about the rest of my life in the moment –- which was even better, because it was a place I could go where nothing else mattered.
From the time I wrapped my hands until the time I unlaced my gloves at the end of a hard training session, I was 100% boxer, 0% anything else.
In this photo, it's more like 40% boxer, 60% trying to pose for a convincing action shot.
Over the course of three years of training, I've gotten much closer to achieving the comfort in my own body that I was trying to find. I'm now accustomed to the feeling of pushing myself physically and less afraid to do something that might be difficult. Generally speaking, I love my body for the things it can do, independent of whatever it might look like. And when my teammates nicknamed me "Jess Giant," I kind of loved it, because I totally AM a giant, and for the first time, I can totally own my 5'10", 170-ish-pound frame.
I think boxing might indeed have allowed me to never have to worry about my weight again, had I stuck to doing the workouts on my own, or taking a class, or working with a trainer, or even sparring with my teammates. But eventually sparring wasn't enough for me, and I realized I wanted to actually fight.
Unfortunately, and a little ironically, once you decide to compete, worrying about your weight is all you do, because weight is how boxers are matched up and classified. For the purposes of amateur boxing, you are the number on the scale.
It's not as simple as just weighing yourself and deciding you'll fight in the nearest weight class. There's also the field of competition to consider. Manny Pacquiao, for example, is famous for having won world titles in eight different weight classes –- every time he exhausted the competition at a certain level, he moved up to challenge new fighters.
For women in amateur boxing, where competition can sometimes be slim, there's an added layer -- the question isn't just what's the competition like in a particular division, but whether there are any women at your relative experience level, or even whether there are any other women in that division at all. It's not uncommon to move around between a few different weight classes, and to adjust your fighting weight according to where the good opponents are.
Most of us typically walk around anywhere from 5 to 15 pounds over our fighting weight, so in the weeks leading up to a fight, almost everyone has to change their diet, up their cardio, hit the steam room, and weigh themselves with a regularity bordering on obsession. You don't want to end up too heavy to compete, but you don't want to overshoot your goal and come in lighter than your opponent, either.
Boxers, meet your new best friend. Okay, not "best friend" so much as "co-dependent frenemy".
There are always a couple of boxers, male or female, wearing plastic sweat-inducing tracksuits or wide rubber "sweat belts" while working out in the 80-degree gym in an effort to squeeze out a little extra water weight, especially around tournament time. (And yes, it does sometimes happen the other way –- a fighter will frantically devour peanut butter and protein shakes to move UP a class.)
On the surface, this probably looks insane, even to (especially to!) people who are accustomed to losing weight for reasons of vanity, health, or "health." And as a onetime Weight Watchers devotee, I can say that this is definitely a far cry from tracking Points. But losing weight for purely functional and bureaucratic purposes, as boxers do, leads to a really freeing, matter-of-fact approach to weight.
Typically speaking, female boxers speak about weight with a candor that most women aren't used to hearing. In the locker room, "How's your weight?" is a perfectly acceptable greeting between fighters, and the answer isn't usually a simple "Fine, thanks," but an entire rundown of where she's at, what she's done to get there, and how much further she has to go, with the numbers laid bare for everyone to hear.
Shortly after weighing in at 152 for my first fight. I was extra mean because I hadn't had a normal meal in three weeks. 165 suits me much better, though I'd go back there if the competition was right.
Meanwhile, if I drop the exact number of my own weight into a conversation with a non-boxer friend, they react as though I've just entrusted them with a deeply personal secret. One friend, shocked and half-embarrassed, blurted out her own weight, like she had to show me hers now that I'd shown her mine.
Your weight should be, like any other fact about yourself –- your shoe size, your natural hair color, your tattoos, your favorite song, whether you have siblings –- something you can choose to share or not share with anybody else according to your own preference. But I've found through boxing that making the choice to put it out in the open has helped me to think of it as something just as neutral as any of those facts. It's not a bad thing, not a good thing, just a thing. It defines me for boxing, and it's part of who I am, but it isn't all of who I am, and it definitely doesn't define me anywhere else.
There are certainly still days when I can't separate my weight being a function of my competition-readiness from the awful, sexist idea that my weight is tied into my attractiveness and therefore my worth as a woman. For women, I think it takes a very highly evolved and independently-thinking mind to fully escape that world. But boxing is definitely helping me fight my way out of that mindset.