Left, left, left… right, right. I feel the thud of my boxing gloves against the heavy pads. My coach yells combinations as I punch. “Bend over, protect your core, keep moving.” I’m also told to keep my eyes on my opponent — in this case, my own reflection in the mirror.
But I look away. I look away to glance at my coach for signs of approval. I look away to stare at parts of me that I find unattractive – thighs, calves, stomach, arms. “Look yourself in the eyes!” I snap back to attention. Left, left, right, right.
I’ve been fighting myself long before I started boxing.
I started skipping meals and dieting after a woman patted my stomach, smiled, and said “Oh you gained a little weight. Been eating well?” I was seven years old. As I got older and played violin more on stage, I found that it wasn’t just my performance that would be criticized, but also my acne, my glasses, and my weight.
My insecurity has only increased since college. Stress from school is ordinary, but I push myself into toxic cycles that intertwine and threaten to topple me over the edge. Sometimes I struggle to get out of bed, plaster on a smile, and go to class, because all I want to do is hide and stop doing anything. Because I don’t want to look into the mirror. Because what I often see is a girl with acne, gaining weight, failing to live up to expectations, and believing she failed those around her. Instead of exercising or studying, I become lethargic and sleep to avoid the stress. Simultaneously fearing failure yet finding no joy or motivation in work, I push off deadlines and hate myself for it. Then as I stay up to make up for lost time, I overeat from stress and starve myself later in regret.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
I didn’t feel in control of my image or self-confidence. Harvard felt foreign and hostile. I faced one too many close calls here, with people touching my body without my consent, whispering “Oh come on, you know you want it.” By Science Center Plaza, a stranger groped me as I was on my way home from class, walking away before I recovered from the shock to formulate a response. Others catcalled me in the Square, spitting words of how ungracious I am whenever I ignored the whistles, winks, or comments “complimenting” my body. Being objectified by these “praises” made me feel small, unprotected. Each incident, self-inflicted or from others, became another punch, another bruise, another scar added onto all the others that came before. And with each one, I felt myself getting weaker, shrinking away, unable to even face obstacles that are seemingly unrelated.
I push away friends and family because I find they give unwanted “advice,” trying to analyze why I feel certain emotions or failed to reach set expectations, with an air of superiority, rather than understanding individual differences in personality and culture. Or that I just need an ear to listen. There are weeks I cry almost every day, not just because something was hard, but because I feel tired and alone. At times I wish everything could just stop and end.
I have searched in vain for a way out of this cycle, one moment wanting to escape and end it all, but pulling back the next to try one more time, just as unhappy as before. Sometimes, though, my ears open up to those who care and take the time to check on me, who understand the balance needed between boundaries, timing, comfort, and advice. Their words ring with their concern over my self-criticism, their faith that I’ll find my own path, their assurances to catch me if I fall, and their promises to give me time to figure it all out. And through these people I’ll continue to try to find hope, and give things another chance.
So I box, to protect and to strengthen the me who had weakened over the years. Through this sport, I hoped to become stronger and more in control of my being – physically, emotionally, and mentally. Actually, I’m skipping boxing right now for this speech…so this might be counterproductive to that goal. I’m getting better, but I’m still a long ways off from where I want to be.
But I hope to one day look at myself in the mirror and throw a punch that shatters the weak version of me. I’ll shatter the one who relies on others’ approvals and hides when scared of failing. I’ll reveal someone who believes she is beautiful and is happy by my own standards.
By NaYoung Yang