Wrestling the Standards

There is an illogical stigma around women’s wrestling.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Like 7.6 million other high school students, I am on a school sports team. And while 3.2 million girls played on high school sports teams in the 2021-22 school year, a mere 31,654 girls competed in the sport I do: wrestling. This pales in comparison to the 231,874 boys who wrestled last year, making it the sixth most popular male sport. So why do so few girls wrestle?

Most of the time when I tell adults that I wrestle, I am asked, in hushed tones, if I have to wrestle “the boys.” I enjoy responding in the affirmative; Stuyvesant does not have a girls’ team because the school has too many sports teams, and thus, I, along with eight other girls—a big improvement from the three girls that competed last year—wrestle on the boys’ varsity team. Many girls are not inclined to participate for this very reason: this year, there are 39 boys in comparison. In addition to the harmful stigmas around women’s wrestling, such a large gender disparity within teams makes it difficult to recruit girls for the team. I will admit, being the only girl at practice can be tough: most boys are taught from a young age that it is unacceptable to hit a girl, and thus, they “hold back” when wrestling a girl. This makes practice unproductive for both parties. At any rate, being unable to hit a girl is a sexist mindset. Instead, hitting anyone should be considered unacceptable.

Wrestling matches are organized by weight, so wrestling requires one to constantly be conscious of their weight. The weight loss culture, where wrestlers attempt to lose a lot of weight quickly (known as cutting) in order to be stronger than the average person in their weight category, can be physically draining and harmful. Wrestlers drop to an unsustainable weight by skipping meals, avoiding water, and sweating as much as possible. In high school, my coach (who prohibits us from doing this under any circumstances) would drink honey mixed with water in the days prior to his matches. For teenage girls, who are more prone to body dysmorphia as is, constantly monitoring their weight can be an additional stress. In terms of physique, many girls are also concerned about gaining muscle because being muscular does not align with conventional beauty standards.

I have also been told many times to quit because I would ruin my face or get cauliflower ears (disfigurement of the ears caused by repetitive injury). I have been asked how my mother could possibly approve. I have even been told that wrestling is not a woman’s sport.

I know I am not what comes to mind when people think of high school wrestling, and that is part of the fun. I am five feet three inches tall and quite light. In a sport so well known for using sheer strength to cause injuries, I am often asked if there is even a weight class that can accommodate me.

But wrestling against men proves that women are just as capable of being mentally and physically strong. It may be more difficult to compete against men. After all, they are able to have much more muscle mass than women. However, this idea only perpetuates the sexism around the sport. Once, I overheard a coach slamming his hand against a wall and yelling at a kid after our match because he “lost to a girl.” Students trying out for the team have laughed that we have a female captain. They have laughed that I, a girl, am part of the starting lineup. Just because I am not physically as strong as they are. It is true that strength can sometimes win a match, even when you are better. But it is your mindset more than anything else: through the long practices, you learn discipline and determination.

Having a team provide support is also crucial. Wrestling can be both mentally and physically tough, and a team helps a wrestler stay dedicated. Because practices last almost three hours after school every day, teammates develop a special bond. In such a physical sport, you learn to trust that your training partners will take care of you and not injure you. Wrestling has helped me become more productive, too, and the training has helped me stay committed to tasks. There are two main components to practice: drilling and conditioning. Drilling is repetitive and requires patience and focus. Conditioning, especially running up and down stairs, prepares you for a match by teaching you to push through both physical and mental hurdles.

But while many adults seem to disapprove of co-ed wrestling, for the most part, there seems to be genuine respect for the sport from all my peers. This indicates a shift in the perception of women in wrestling, as well as other traditionally male sports.

In addition to wrestling, I do judo outside of school. Somehow, adults seem to approve more of this because it can be justified that it is self-defense and everyone should learn self-defense. I do not disagree with this—I also believe learning self-defense is crucial—but it seems illogical that boys should be allowed to participate in combat sports for fun while girls cannot. Why are adults impressed when I tell them I do judo yet horrified when I add that I wrestle? They are both combat sports, and while I find judo to be more elegant, they are equally exciting to watch. To me, both sports are equally good at teaching self-defense: they require you to protect your body while adjusting to a more advantageous position.

While wrestling is one of the oldest sports in the world, women’s wrestling was only added to the Olympics in 2004. Even though women’s wrestling is becoming more popular, it is still largely unavailable on the college level. In November 2020, the head coach of Columbia University’s wrestling team wrote a letter explaining that Columbia was hoping to be “the first Ivy League school to sponsor women’s wrestling at the Division I level.” Not only does this help break the stigma that wrestling isn’t for academics, but it is also a great step toward improving perceptions of women’s abilities in sports. Women’s wrestling is currently only a club sport at most U.S. colleges, and an increase in the number of women’s teams at the high school level would allow many more women to consider serious wrestling opportunities.