• Expert By Experience

Tackling Toxic Masculinity Through Martial Arts

I am 18. It’s a Wednesday, and I’m using the weights set my brother purchased online.

I’m feeling very heavy, both mentally and physically, but I push on in denial; I have to get my last set done.

The idea of listening to my fatigue and opting to rest for the night doesn’t even enter my mind because quitting is simply not an option. It’s not an option today, and it won’t be an option on Friday, which is the last day of my workout cycle for the week.

I don’t quit; this is ‘what makes me a man,’ and it’s practices such as weights training that are seen as a vital expression of my masculinity during my teenage years, especially for someone so visibly slim like myself.

Looking back, my journey with exercise and weights training has been quite a complicated one. From what initially began as an obsessive measure designed as an outward display of masculinity, eventually developed into a means of self-destruction during periods where I was unable to verbalise or make sense of the fluid world around me. At this time, I simply reverted back to the world I knew. 

This world was one where most things I did were a performance, designed to fit into a narrow set of behaviours associated with wanting to be an ‘alpha-male’, many, if not all, of which were rooted in emotional repression.

I would go so far as to describe this early relationship I developed with exercise and weights as toxic. More specifically, this relationship was engulfed in the ideas and parameters of ‘toxic masculinity’. So, what is toxic masculinity? Well, toxic masculinity is a number of things, all of which are toxic to those who express it and those who are affected by it.

To growing teenagers like myself, toxic masculinity was something that manifested itself in the physicality of our changing bodies. I, like many young boys, became engulfed with the idea of being and looking ‘strong’ in a manner that reinforced the narrative of male dominance in opposition to female submissiveness, an integral element of toxic masculinity.

This idea of male dominance seeps into the everyday behaviours of boys and men. From our sexual aggression towards women to our general inclination towards violence and even our dietary consumption of meat which is capitalised on by the meat industry itself.

Over a period of 9 years I was eventually able to realise that physical exercise, in its multitude of forms, is a great form of expression, and it is only through becoming engulfed in toxic masculinity that it ceases to be so.

For me, the ability to critically question and challenge toxic masculinity manifested itself within martial arts, a practice I started at the age of 19.

My introduction to Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) was an involuntary one. Having found myself awkwardly immersed in the local nightlife as a teenager, I was left shamed over my ‘manhood’ on a cold October night after a verbal scuffle with racist bouncers who denied my friends and I entry due to our skin colours.

This was one experience that subsequently left me feeling stunned, and quite frankly, insecure, due to my verbal and physical inaction. In the eyes of toxic masculinity, this meant that I was far removed from the highly desirable image of the alpha-male. An image that is centred around characteristics of endless persistence, courage and most of all, the ability to defend oneself (and any damsel in distress) in a situation that warranted confrontation. Having pushed so hard to attain some level of proximity to the alpha-male image, I was back to where I started: by cursing myself through the use of labels such as weak, odd and unmanly.

After feeling shamed and humiliated, I began my search for local martial arts classes, whether they be in boxing, Muay Thai or kickboxing — not that I knew the difference. While my knowledge of martial arts was very limited, the one thing I did know at the time and felt sure of was of my naïve hope that any practice in a martial art would serve as quick fix remedy in tackling my growing insecurities.

Having finally found an appropriate Muay Thai class, I was ready to jump-start my journey towards becoming an alpha-male. However, what I walked into was something vastly different from what I expected, and was ultimately life changing.

Looking back now, in Muay Thai and other martial arts, I found myself immersed in a practice which allowed me to better understand my own emotional world. This meant that over time I started to question and challenge toxic masculinity’s role in making young men, such as myself, emotionally repressive.

My initial understanding of being emotionally balanced was sparked through the understanding of the ‘soft and hard elements’ of martial arts, which are so integral to them as forms of art and combat sport. The combination of both soft and hard elements that are proportionate to the situation is the application of techniques that require a mixture of hard elements, such as muscle exertion, to soft elements, like being reactive in your body as you sponge blows for a counter strike, at any given moment.

The importance of both softness and hardness lead to my understanding and development of varying emotional responses that I practised in Muay Thai. These responses were something which began to translate into my broader life, including the realisation that not every situation needed nor required an approach rooted in anger and dominance as the doctrine of toxic masculinity would have me believe.

As my physical body was changing due to the greater levels of exercise I was doing in Muay Thai, so too was my internal world changing at an equal rate as to how I saw these changes.

This was particularly evidenced in my developing ability to work through my emotions for a balanced outcome, which was something that eventually allowed me to unearth years of emotional baggage.

For the first time in my life, I found myself in a world in that, for the most part, was inclusive of many body shapes, sizes and weight categories. This realisation was apparent from my first session as I observed how lighter men and women were often revered for their lightning fast speed, agility and graceful footwork. Most importantly, I also observed how lighter fighters were celebrated for their weight rather than being perceived as ‘weak’ or ‘undesirable’, a narrative which is so common in an ‘alpha-male’ environment.

As a result, I was able to attach positive attributes to my physically changing body, all of which were positively reinforced in the Muay Thai environment.

Looking back to that period of my young life, it was one where I began to question the narratives of toxic masculinity specific to body narratives by allowing myself to let go of the burdening chase to have an aesthetically muscular body. At the time, a muscular body was for me the definition of a ‘perfect body’.

I now recognise that body insecurity rooted in toxic masculinity is a worry reported by growing number of men. Insecurities that are made worse by the inability of men to be able to communicate how we are feeling because ‘men simply don’t talk it out’.

I have been training in martial arts for 6 years now, and it has been quite a journey, not a perfect one either. Through martial arts I have come to the realisation that there is no single definition of what it means to be a man and that reclaiming my masculinity is the most liberating thing I can do for myself.

More importantly, I have also come to the realisation that I am not as isolated as I previously thought, because I am part of the growing movement of men, whether they be straight, gay, trans or cis, who are exploring our masculinities in our own beautiful and wonderful ways.

Simply put, I am part of a movement of men who are pushing back against toxic masculinity by fighting against the patriarchal violences it would have us enact on ourselves and on women. Rather, we are pushing back against toxic masculinity by simply being comfortable in our bodies and skin which is just about the manliest thing we can ever do.