Long Reads

“How a women’s wrestling night changed my view of my body forever”

Stylist’s Moya Crockett didn’t think watching women wrestle would radically shift how she thought about her body. She was wrong. 

I was born in the early 90s, and I have two brothers, which meant that wrestling was an unavoidable part of my childhood. Around the turn of the millennium, it was impossible to walk across a British school playground without seeing boys ‘chokeslamming’ one another into concrete, or passionately debating the merits of the atomic leg drop vs the spinebuster, or shouting: “OK, OK, you be The Rock and I’ll be Stone Cold Steve Austin!”

This was entirely thanks to the American company World Wrestling Entertainment, which was an inescapable presence in 90s childhoods. Known as the World Wrestling Federation until 2002, the organisation underwent a rebranding push in the 90s following allegations of steroid abuse and sexual harassment. It worked. Children around the world, mostly boys, fell hard for the costumes, insults and dramatic violence on WWF TV shows. Wrestling games were eventually banned at both primary schools I attended, thanks to the sheer volume of injuries they caused. Wrestling was cool.

But it never interested me. I was a girl, for a start, and WWF was quite explicitly marketed at boys. Besides, I was an uncoordinated child who squeezed her eyes shut during violent scenes in films. Even if my brother and his friends had invited me to join their wrestling games, which they never did, I simply couldn’t imagine hurling myself into a pile of bodies. My own body was not a tool I felt comfortable using, and the joyful, unrestrained physicality of wrestling made me nervous. Secretly, like bookish children the world over, I suspected this made me morally and intellectually superior to the wrestlers on the playground. 

WWF SummerSlam, 1999
The WWF SummerSlam, 1999

I hadn’t thought about wrestling for years, until an email dropped into my inbox in early August inviting me to an Eve Wrestling event. I knew that women’s wrestling was experiencing something of a resurgence: my colleague Hannah wrote a feature about Eve Wrestling last summer, and I was aware of the popularity of the Netflix show GLOW, which is set on the US women’s professional wrestling circuit in the 80s. But were it not for the fact that an old friend from out of London was visiting me that weekend, I probably wouldn’t have thought about booking tickets to Eve.

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Eve bills itself as a place where “punk, feminist, empowered, women superheroes come to life”, a blurb I took with a pinch of salt given how often the words “empowering” and “feminist” are tossed around indiscriminately. If nothing else, I thought it would be an interesting way to spend a Saturday night.

I didn’t expect to find myself open-mouthed and wide-eyed at the end of the night, trying to articulate what watching Eve’s wrestlers in action had shifted in my brain. No part of me anticipated that a women’s wrestling event would radically shift how I thought about my body. But it did.

Glow Netflix
A still from the Netflix series GLOW, set in the world of women's professional wrestling

A bit of context: I have gone to great lengths over the years to not give my body much thought. Following a few typically wobbly adolescent years during which I hated almost everything I saw in the mirror, I made a conscious decision in my late teens to stop obsessing over my physical form. I returned to the belief I’d held as a child: your brain was far more important than your body.

This was partly because, by 18, I was becoming aware of all the ways in which I am physically privileged. I’m white. I’m able-bodied. I’ve never been thin, but I’m slim enough to have never experienced fatphobia. With this understanding, it seemed almost shameful to spend time contemplating what was ‘wrong’ with my body.

I had also become intensely preoccupied by the fear of having regrets later in life, and spent a lot of time wondering what my older self would wish she’d done differently. It seemed clear that I’d regret spending so much time hating my body – and this knowledge ultimately proved more powerful than any self-loathing. This is the shape you are, I told myself sternly. Stop it.

And so I did. It was like I simply shut a door one day and refused to open it ever again. 

Rhia O'Reilly Eve Wrestling
Wrestler Rhia O'Reilly dives into the ring at Eve Wrestling

Without realising it, I’ve long lived by something close to the philosophy of body neutrality. While body positivity – a radical fat-positive movement that has gone mainstream, which is a good thing or a bad thing depending on who you ask – encourages people to celebrate their bodies, body neutrality suggests we can live respectfully in our figures without having to think about them all the time.

Of course, it’s easier for some people to be body neutral than others. It’s hard not to think about your body when others are constantly offering unsolicited opinions about your weight, health and appearance, a common experience for many plus-size people. And many women whose figures don’t prompt extreme reactions from others still struggle to feel at peace with their physical selves. I know it is a luxury to be able to ignore your appearance. 

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But I also know my refusal to dwell on my body often results in me feeling disconnected from it. I think of a line in Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, in which she recalls how she viewed herself as a teenager: “I’m just a brain in a jar. It doesn’t matter about the other bits.” I don’t dislike my body, but I’ve never thought of it as something that could be seen as strong or sexy or anything much at all. I am my brain. My body is the other bits. 

When we arrived at the tiny club in Bethnal Green where Eve is held, I was surprised to see how many men there were in the queue outside. I thought about WWE in the late 90s and early 00s, when “bra and panties” matches – in which the winning wrestler was the one who was able to rip off her opponent’s clothes first – were commonplace. Why had all these men paid to watch women wrestle?

But most of my misgivings were blown away when Emily Read, who co-founded Eve in 2006 with her husband Dann, stepped into the ring. “There are some things that aren’t allowed here,” she said, by way of introduction. “Racism. Homophobia. Transphobia. Misogyny… Any of that, and you’re out. Got it?” She spoke seriously, but there was a twinkle in her eye. I suspect Read knows her shows are not generally attended by misogynists and transphobes.

Mercedez Blaze and Rebel Kinney at Eve Wrestling
Wrestlers Mercedez Blaze and Rebel Kinney at an Eve Wrestling event

First up was a match between the Diamond Vogue Collective, aka wrestlers Jinny and Mercedez Blaze, and the Stonewall Rebellion. The Diamond Vogue Collective were as bedazzled as you’d expect, their hair enormous, smoky eyes immaculate. Their rivals, wrestlers Rebel Kinney and Skye Mitson, had a different aesthetic: Rebel wore knee-length shorts and a black cut-off vest bearing the slogan BUTCH PLEASE, I’M THE PSYCHO DYKE, while Skye swaggered into the ring in a black catsuit and leather jacket, hair slicked back to reveal the shaved sides of her head.

When the fight began, the crowd went wild. Clearly, the Diamond Vogue Collective were the villains, and everyone was rooting for Stonewall Rebellion (this is common in wrestling, where athletes often willingly play the roles of goodies and baddies). But it wasn’t just the way that Jinny and Mercedez embraced being booed that struck me. It was the fact that these four women couldn’t have looked more different, but they were all treated with absolute reverence by the crowd. They were all rockstars. 

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And these women didn’t just live in their bodies, they revelled in them. Over the course of the night, we saw plus-size women and petite women in the ring; black women and white women and Asian women; women who looked like conventional muscled athletes and women who looked like voluptuous cabaret stars. The only thing they all shared, beyond their obvious skill as wrestlers, was an apparently rock-solid belief in their own strength and sexiness.

Dan Murphy, the co-author of the book Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling has said that part of the draw of women’s wrestling in the 40s and 50s was the fact that other women were inspired by it. “It was empowering to some women,” he told Jezebel in 2017. However, Murphy also acknowledged that the idea of women’s wrestling was “titillating to some men”.

This may still be the case, but at Eve, the wrestlers’ sex appeal never felt specifically aimed at the male audience members. Rebel Kinney, she in the PSYCHO DYKE T-shirt, projected just as much swaggering charisma as Debbie Keitel, who wore a shimmering silver sleeveless bodysuit and fishnets. And the men in the crowd were wonderful, to the extent I felt guilty for ever questioning why they’d want to watch women wrestle. They roared their support for the women in the ring. They started chants. I didn’t spot a sleazy-seeming one among them, and I was looking. It felt revelatory.

Why did all of this blow my mind? I wasn’t shocked by the fact that plus-size women could seem powerful and sexy, nor women with narrow hips and muscled shoulders. What startled me was the realisation that if all of these different kinds of women could radiate such confidence and power, and revel in their bodies with such delight, then so could I

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The wrestlers at Eve reminded me that there is power in feeling neutral about your body, but there is also power in rejoicing in it: in using it to project whatever defiantly non-neutral attitude (gorgeous! Intimidating! Silly! Scary! Bold!) you want. They reminded me that a person who fully inhabits their body is just as impressive as someone who utilises their mind. They reminded me that you can have an ‘average’ body and still be spectacular; that you can look like anything and be jaw-dropping. I knew all these things intellectually. But it took a night at Eve to make me understand them emotionally.

As it turns out, I’m not the only person to leave Eve feeling like a switch had been flicked in my brain. When I tell Emily Read how the night shifted my thinking, she says that she and her husband “regularly get women messaging us with words as wonderful as yours. It’s so rewarding, as this was one of the key reasons we created Eve in the first place.”

“Women are strong, powerful, versatile and varied and they belong to nobody but themselves,” Read continues. “It’s about time the world was reminded of this.” At the very least, Eve has reminded me.

Images: Dale Brodie; Getty Images; Ali Goldstein/Netflix; Roger Alarcon