For about the first year and an half of my time practicing lucha libre, I was the only woman who trained at our gym. While I was limited by the physical reality of being the smallest person in the gym, the social dynamic was largely the same as if had there been no women present. Nobody made a big deal of me being a woman, and I was basically (in so far as that is ever truly possible) accepted as “one of the guys.” Humorous conversations in questionable taste, heckling, competitions of who could slap each other hardest across the chest, and other normal gym antics abounded. Even when another women started training seriously at our gym, the general atmosphere remained largely unchanged. Eventually she reached the point in her training when she could begin attending the advanced practices, which meant she would get a chance to work with me on a regular basis.
One day our turn came to get in the ring and practice the prescribed training sequence. What happened next surprised me. A lot. Hence why I’m still thinking about it several months later. In this particular instance the social atmosphere of the gym immediately changed as soon as another woman hopped into the ring. No longer was this a training sequence between two luchadoras, but rather two women. We became “the girls” (read with a decidedly diminutive tone). The shift was palpable.
Within a minute of us entering the ring, nearly every male in the gym was fixated. Most were cheering, whistling, and tossing around surprisingly lewd remarks that had virtually nothing to do with the athletic content of the sequence. The occasional lewd comment isn’t at all unusual at the gym, but these were far more pointed and took on a notably more sexual connotation than even the raunchiest heckling aimed at male/male or male/female pairings. Had this suddenly become a bra-and-panties mud-wrestling match without my noticing? I continued on as if we were the only two people in the room, as I would do with any other noise from an audience during a show. But mentally I was cataloguing every weirdly gendered comment (and there were several) that flew our way in two separate languages. We completed the sequence, exited the ring, and everyone returned to their own business. Practice went on as usual.
A few minutes later I spoke with one of the male luchadors who hadn’t participated in these shenanigans. He had noticed the marked shift as well, but it seemed that almost everyone else in the gym was oblivious. We agreed that this was a supremely odd occurrence. Perhaps the strangest thing is that this was a completely isolated event. The other woman and I had been in the ring together before, and nobody has made an issue of it since. Why did the male gaze make itself so evident in this one instance? What had temporarily transformed my friends, the generally respectful and accepting males of the gym, into objectifying frat boys? I still puzzle over this occasionally, because, as I said, it has never happened again. As quickly as it happened it was over, and the normal gym antics resumed. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Now, I don’t aim to assign blame to any of my gym-mates in this particular case. I am a firm believer that cultures have a death-grip on the script for how people are taught to perceive and interact with women, and it would appear that, at least when at the gym (or perhaps because I am a close enough friend) most people I interact with are decent enough to ignore that script 98% of the time. But I am reasonably certain that this societally-enforced script is what caused the comments that were made on that particular day. I also suspect that those comments reflect what is always running through most audience members’ heads on some level, no matter the context.
I hope that the people who see me wrestle (regardless of who my opponent is) respect me (and all other women, for that matter) enough to appreciate me as an athlete and performer rather than simply a sexual object; that they can recognize talent and hard work in an athletic and theatrical performance rather than focusing only on their own fantasies. This is not to say that there isn’t a place for appreciating that aspect of a person, but the ring isn’t that place–unless that is the character you are trying to portray. The incident I described above reminds me of how strongly cultures have ingrained the inclination to sexualize and objectify women, regardless of how those women present themselves to the outside world. As a luchadora in the ring intentionally placing myself on display, I am always conscious of how an audience perceives me. As a woman, I feel that this awareness necessarily extends into my day-to-day life because society teaches that women are always on display, whether they want to be or not. This is why I do my best to try and defy gender roles and stereotypes, both in and out of the ring. But even that tactic has its limits. At some point it lies in the hands of the audience to judge what they are watching.
It’s an uphill battle. Everyone, myself included, is tired of hearing that “women should be valued for more than just their bodies.” However, that is only because it should already go without saying.