Cristina Gonzalez: Small, But Mighty


Photo credit: Sharon Attia

I've always been a petite person.  I weighed a mere five pounds, 15 ounces at birth, a full term baby in a premee’s body.  Growing up I steadily remained in the low 20th percentile for my height, and 10th percentile for my weight.  My mother loves to tell the story of a time I came home from kindergarten crying.  “Cris, what happened?” she asked, to which I responded through tears, “The teacher said I was the smallest person in the class.”  I didn’t like the implication of being the smallest, because to many it meant that I must be weak.  The statement bothered me because I thought myself pretty mighty.

As I got older, but not necessarily bigger, I continued encountering assumptions about my physicality, facing the usual offers to carry something that others thought might be too heavy for me, or little pats on the head as if I was some cute little toy.  All of this was made worse by the fact that I am female, which meant that the usual things that are assumed about a woman’s strength and capacity were simply magnified by my less-than-imposing stature.

It took 32 years for that to begin to change.  I started taking boxing classes as a challenge to myself to do something I didn’t think I was capable of excelling in.  I had just finished the season with my dragon boat team, finishing second in that summer’s dragon boat race in Flushing, Queens.  Dragon boating was a hobby I took up through a mix of curiosity and necessity—I had sprained my ankle that spring and couldn’t engage in anything physical that required my lower body, and dragon boating provided the perfect outlet for my aggression.  It was an incredible feeling to see our ragtag group go from novices to placing second behind the fire department team in a matter of a few short months.  So when this fun hobby ended, and my ankle mostly healed, I went searching for the next thing to take on.  Boxing felt like the natural next challenge.  It was for the tough, aggressive and badass, and it offered a great opportunity to a woman who balked at traditional gender norms.

I was pretty terrible at first.  Even though I was running some 15 miles a week, I would leave class in utter pain from the punching, squatting, lifting, throwing, and any other grueling exercise they’d throw at us to build up our stamina as boxers.  I’d keep coming back week after week, frustrated by my inability to naturally pick up the coordination required to throw punch combinations, chasing that elusive moment when it would all finally click.  And little by little it did!  One, two, hook, two! Two, slip, weave, hook! The snapping sound of my glove perfectly hitting the instructor’s mitt became my new addiction, and my motivation to continue improving.  Months passed and I became stronger, muscles showed up in places I never fathomed having muscles.  My most surprising accomplishment was finally having the ability to lift my suitcase into the overhead compartment of an airplane without any assistance.  No longer a short girl problem because I now had boxer girl strength. 

Boxing gave me the ability to finally display on the outside the way I felt about myself on the inside: strong, powerful, relentless, unstoppable.  I wanted to see what else I could dive head first into and master, and I wanted to use this newfound power and strength to affect change where it mattered most to me.  I wanted to be able to use what I’d learned in boxing to make sure other women and girls never thought of themselves as less than, or broken, or incapable.  I wanted to use that strength to fight the patriarchal system that leads to so many women and girls underestimating their own capacity.  If I could teach them boxing in the process, even better. 

And so She Fights Foundation was born.  I created She Fights to give other girls the opportunity to also feel strong, powerful, relentless, and unstoppable, and provide for them a safe environment in which they could match that strength with vulnerability.  We started offering free boxing classes to NYC girls aged 14 to 19 who come from low income backgrounds, first as a pilot program in May of 2016, and officially as She Fights in November of the same year.  Most of the girls start the program with the intention to learn self-defense, and I while I do want them learn boxing and self-defense, I hope the takeaway is much greater than that. 

I don’t want to say that our mission is especially germane now given the current political climate, because our societies have always looked to squelch the voices of strong women, to snuff out those who dare enter realms dominated by men. Our subjugation is not new, and our objectification is not novel.  But if our detractors feel more emboldened than ever to speak up, we must be louder, and our resolve to strengthen and lift one another must be relentless. 

I hope our boxing program allows our girls to see themselves as forces of nature, unstoppable in their resolve to become their strongest selves.  I hope it changes the way the world sees women, and starts noticing the power we possess in our ability to endure and overcome.   Ultimately, I want our girls to look at themselves in the mirror and ask, "What can't I do?"  I hope they set out to find the answer, and discover that there is little they can’t achieve. 

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