Four weeks ago, my roommate mentioned that a women’s boxing gym called Striking Beauties had just opened up off the corner of Thayer and Angell. Not only was I guilty about being so out of shape, but there was also a gritty allure to the pop of a proper punch. I weighed the possibility of publicly humiliating myself against my desire for Million Dollar Baby shoulders and ultimately decided to give it a try. Pumped up with visions of myself in a hardcore fighting montage, I hit the gym.
The place was tiny and U-shaped, with long punching bags hanging from the low ceilings. It smelled like stale sweat, rubber, leather, and general badassery. The instructor, a morose looking but scruffily handsome man in a baggy hoodie, got started right away. We all struggled in vain with the 180-inch-long wraps. Our hands eventually wrapped, he lined us up on the wall and walked us through the basic punches: jab, cross, hook,
and uppercut. A half hour went by and I left, feeling surprised that my biceps hadn’t quadrupled in size. I guess a part of me had been expecting to emerge from my first class a fighting beast, but despite my disappointment, I decided to return.
We started the next class with more traditional calisthenics: ten minutes of jumping rope, followed by a draconian ab circuit, squats, and punching bag exercises. After the first three minutes I was huffing like I’d just run a marathon and my calves felt like they had been run over by a truck. But as I walked out the door, my fatigued hands shaking uncontrollably like an addict in withdrawal, I felt good. I mean really good. And it’s exactly that feeling that owner Dena Paolino counts on to bring in customers.
Paolino founded Striking Beauties, whose main outpost opened in North Attleboro, MA in 2009 after realizing that women around the world had nowhere to box besides their boyfriends’ gyms. In a phone interview, Paolino noted that women “were either getting hit on or not taken seriously” at male-dominated gyms. After teaming up with 4-time world champion Jaime Clampitt, she designed an authentic boxer’s workout that could be tailored to women of all fitness levels and opened shop in North Attleboro in July of 2009. When demand proved to be high, she opened the Angell Street location in November of 2010.
Paolino says she hadn’t always planned to open a boxing gym. A practicing lawyer, she had always known she was an “entrepreneur at heart,” and years ago, she started formulating ideas about opening a gym, a health club, or a salon. Ultimately, it was the buzz on the fitness blogosphere that led her to open a women’s boxing gym.
Paolino is petite and tan, with impeccable highlights and a rock on her finger—the size of which makes me suspect that she boxes just to stay buff enough to support it. She talked about her three children and how she hopes Striking Beauties will help give girls like her daughters the confidence to be “strong and sexy.” She boasted that her gym was a place where women could go for a serious round in the ring while the other women in the class watched their children ringside. In many ways, Dena herself seems to embody the odd paradox that defines the gym’s culture: she is at once a zealous feminist, a nurturing homemaker, and a fierce (and wellmanicured) fighter.
The gym flaunts its female empowerment elements—the business cards are silver and pink and feature a woman flexing her biceps à la Rosie the Riveter—which is almost a necessity for women’s boxing gyms. Though Title IX continues to permeate the public discourse about athletics, boxing appears to be trailing behind many other sports. USA Boxing, the national governing body on amateur boxing, didn’t lift its ban on female members until a 16-year-old female boxer filed a lawsuit in 1993. The first Women’s National Championships weren’t held until 1997, the inaugural World Championships until 2001, and while men’s boxing has been an Olympic division since 1904, women’s boxing won’t make its debut until the 2012 London Olympics.
The intense, unabashed physicality of boxing and its longstanding image as a masculine activity have made it quite difficult for women to be considered “heavyweights.” Clearly, there is some catching up to be done before women are seen as serious contenders, and Striking Beauties is doing its part to help narrow the gap. Not only does Paolino introduce women to the sport and provide a uniquely welcoming place to practice, she has also upped the empowerment quotient by creating events such as “A Night of Knockouts,” New England’s first all-female boxing event, and “Wonder Woman Wednesdays,” which feature presentations by female business owners every Wednesday at the North Attleboro location. Whether it’s fostering healthy competition or encouraging entrepreneurial ambitions, behind its punned names and sugary exterior, Striking Beauties espouses a strong feminist agenda that extends beyond the ring.
However, the gym doesn’t always restrict itself to excessive “girl power” dogma. From the moment I walked in it was clear that some of my peers hadn’t come seeking feminist emancipation by means of kicking butt. I’d be lying if I said I don’t sometimes wonder if Striking Beauties isn’t just a glorified weight loss program. Its generic fitness classes resemble pseudo-feminist boot camps where well-to-do college girls pay to have somebody yell at them about “feeling the burn.” The emphasis on calorie burning is something of a contradiction to the gym’s stated goals about feeling confident in one’s own body. That’s not to say that we don’t all worry about our love handles, but the duality of having to obsess over calorie count while trying to nail the perfect right hook is almost as confusing as the side-by-side portraits of Audrey Hepburn and Muhammad Ali hanging on the wall.
Thankfully though, this worrisome contradiction doesn’t overshadow the gym’s broader goal of female empowerment. Most of the women I’ve met there are strong and determined athletes who simply love the catharsis of wailing on a bag. Evgeni Tzvetkov, one of the instructors and a competitive boxer himself, even confided that he finds women to be much better students than men, since men tend to get discouraged and quit when their arms feel like Jell-O after one round on the bags.
The slight dilution of the gym’s feminist leanings and its painfully cheesy name aside, it’s undeniable that there’s something about boxing there that makes you feel like you’re on top of the world. The contrast of painted nails against black wraps and the pride of being a bruiser in a sports bra is intoxicating.
KATY ENG B’11 floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.