On the Chin

Reviewed by Jessica Fontaine

In Seconds Out: Women and Fighting, Alison Dean invites us to consider the mental, emotional, and physical challenges that arise from throwing a punch “without anger or provocation” (7) in the context of combat sports. Working against the popular assumption that combat sports and martial arts are masculine endeavours, Dean seeks to shift the conversation and investigate how female fighters—herself included—negotiate the social and cultural conditions of combat sports, particularly boxing and mixed martial arts. Over twelve chapters, Dean weaves together her own experience, ethnographic research, and fighting literature and history to attend to critical questions of gender, race, embodiment, and belonging. She asks, “How are different bodies regulated in combat competition and training? How do we both learn from and fight the systems that form us?” (9). In doing so, Dean carefully describes, examines, and sweats out what it means to be a woman who fights.


Seconds Out is both intimate and analytical. Dean, who holds a PhD in English and lectures in English literatures and histories of photography, turned to amateur combat sports in the aftermath of her doctoral studies—a time she recounts as defined by rigorous intellectual work and physical inactivity. She was practiced in being “coachable” (179), but out of touch with her body. What emerges in Seconds Out is the cogent and evocative writing of someone who has both buckled down through a dissertation and soaked her blood-blistered feet. Her engagement with fighting literature is apparent, and threaded and queried with experiential and embodied knowledge from beginning to end. At one point, Dean reckons humorously with the ways that Hemingway’s macho shadow looms over boxing as metaphor for writing, asking, “If we accept that you can write about punching . . . then is the inverse true? Can you punch about writing?” (69). In answer, after attempting to live out a “Hemingweek” of fighting, writing, and unsustainable drinking with a group of friends (70-71), Dean offers an exacting and reflexive analysis of how literary narratives about boxing—including Joyce Carol Oates’ On Boxing—have romanticized the sport as an innately manly practice. She contends with what it means to be, like Oates, a woman drawn to this masculine-dominated space. How is she positioned there? What are the dynamics of power?


Overall, Dean’s work resists and refutes popular feminist narratives of the exceptional, individual woman and frameworks of a linear progression to equality that often structure narratives of women in sport. Rather, Seconds Out draws a long history of women in fighting: from women’s wrestling in ancient Greece and Rome, through early-twentieth-century “boxing girls,” to female boxers demanding New York State boxing licences in the 1970s and 1980s, and the highly visible stars in the UFC women’s division today. She details the ways that women have long engaged in training, developed technique, and competed within the ring, at the same as they have fought for the respect, compensation, and supports to do the work. At each turn, Dean investigates the marginalization of women in combat sports as she unfolds the social and cultural barriers and restrictions women fighters faced and continue to face. Her argument throughout is nuanced, giving space to consider how women negotiate fighting spaces, including gyms and regulatory organizations, and to women’s broader experiences of sexism and violence. She is careful to note that many women come to amateur martial arts for self-defence training, but that this is not the only reason. Self-discipline, self-awareness, and self-empowerment are all aspects of training to fight that Dean finds and experiences herself, but that are learned with trainers and fellow fighters.


Vulnerability and toughness are also conjoined and recurring themes that are teased out in relation to the body, gender, and fighting ethos. At one point, Dean thinks through the ways a fighter’s mental toughness and endurance are embodied and signified through “the chin.” She writes, “The chin is durability, the capacity to take a hard hit (or many hard hits) and keep going. ‘Chin’ can also be used synonymously with having ‘heart,’ but it’s not the same thing” (139). It is not the same, because the chin has limits. Concussions, we know, have cumulative effects. There are only so many hits a fighter can take. In explicating the metaphor of the chin, Dean attends to the precarious conditions of fighting and sets up further investigation to how the bodies of fighters and women’s bodies specifically are regulated in ways that uphold broader structures of feminine beauty standards and body management. Headgear, which women are required to wear in Olympic trials and competitions, are meant to guard against facial cuts, rather than head injuries (149). Although blinding blood on a fighter’s face can cause a fight to be stopped, the requirement of headgear clearly aims to protect women’s beauty by shielding against scarring. Until 2017, “the UFC refused to open a 145-pound weight division,” and, therefore, required “taller and heavier” women to make significant weight cuts in order to compete (83). The ultimate female fighter was still obliged to be small and thin. As Dean writes, “Bodies, we are repeatedly reminded, are always political” (36).


Seconds Out opens and closes with Dean in the ring. In the final pages, Dean meditates on the team of “seconds” who support a fighter, slow her breathing, and offer water and instructions in the corner between rounds, before she must once again step to the centre alone. This ending is fitting. Seconds Out draws on her extensive, arduous athletic and intellectual training, and acknowledges gracefully the rituals of care and spaces of instruction that have shaped her understanding of combat sports. But in the end, the text is clearly Dean’s work. It is Dean who delivers a crucial and captivating narrative of a woman who fights.


This review “On the Chin” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 3 Nov. 2021. Web.

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