merican wrestler Adeline Gray sat at the Olympics the other day, thanking a fighter she’s never met for making her feel beautiful. Ronda Rousey, with her vicious scowl and balled-up fists, who rants about not being a “do-nothing bitch,” has changed the world for women like Gray, shattering the mirrors that say skinny only matters. For a girl who grew up wrestling boys, and the notion that doing so made her less feminine, Rousey’s words were a beacon; a punch in the air with a call to follow.
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“I think it takes someone to shine a spotlight, and I think she did that,” Gray said, laughing nervously about the unprintable words that fill Rousey’s soliloquies. “I don’t agree with how she went about it, that’s not how I would have done it, but I thought she did it well. I think there’s definitely a more tactful way she could have done it, but at the same time there’s a lot of bigotry that goes on in women’s sports and women’s combat sports.”
Until Rousey stormed from Olympic judo bronze to the top of the UFC, fighting women didn’t have a powerful mainstream voice. To the 25-year-old Gray, a 75kg medal hope who wrestles on Thursday, it felt like strong women didn’t have a forceful voice. Rousey gave the nod that said it was OK to be tough, to fight and be proud of the feminine identity that now comes with that notion. Until Rousey, she might not have come to Rio thrilled with the strength she feels in her shoulders. Before she wore her doubt everywhere. Did she look too muscular? Did she seem too big? What did people think?
Back in high school she wrestled boys. This is the path for any woman who wants to reach the elite level of wrestling. In order to get to the Olympics, they first have to be those girls who wrestle on a boy’s team. In many places where old-fashioned notions want to keep teenage girls off the same mats as boys, the idea of a young Adeline Gray is outrageous. But she was lucky to live in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, Colorado, where the coaches welcomed her and taught her and gave her a chance.
And yet even in that safe environment the idea of being a wrestler jarred. She was obsessed with being thin, because that’s what girls did in those days. Her influence, she said, was Britney Spears. But as a 5ft 8in wrestler, she couldn’t look like Britney Spears. She battled the notion of trying to be skinny when her sport demanded she have big shoulders and strong arms. She thought she fit in with her friends at school, but it was only later that she found that those same friends were scared of her. She had made herself so powerful they were afraid she’d hurt them.
“I was always afraid of people mistaking me for a boy,” she says. “I never really had high body fat. I had slim hips and I had, like, obviously not very big breasts, and so through childhood, my concern was that I put a singlet on and people thought I looked like a boy. And I know the opposite happens when you get to high school and you get hips and a chest, and things start to get a little fluffier where boys are getting muscles. And then you are concerned on the other side of it. You are concerned that your feminine curves and cellulite is so negative in our society. And it’s terrible.”
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She sees what she calls “beautiful young girls” coming to her wrestling club and growing horrified at the sight of themselves in the wrestling singlets. She finds herself running to each one and telling them to ignore the negative thoughts.
“I’m like: ‘The singlets aren’t made for us!’” she said. “This is not fair! I mean, these girls are 16 and 17, and their bodies can’t be any more perfect for what they are. They have hard work and dedication, and they have such a negative connotation to seeing any sort of difference that’s not muscular, but it’s still in a range. The girls who are too buff have a lower body fat and big muscles, [they] have the concern that they are too masculine. And so it’s this constant kind of tethering that you are never really pleased with your body, and it’s a concern for all women, no matter if you are 16 and a non-athlete, all the way up to being an athlete. You have that kind of middle range that is perfection and never really reach it because it’s constantly changing, and depending on who looks at you it’s constantly changing,”
Which is why she thinks Rousey has changed everything. She sees it in the way women flock to weightlifting classes and proudly display their muscular backs. She feels that women are not judged as being too masculine if they are strong. Recently she has been mentoring a teenage wrestler from Nevada, a girl who she thinks could someday be good. A few weeks ago, the girl came to stay with her for a while. Until then, the girl had looked something like what Gray calls “a tomboy.” At first Gray thought that’s just how the girl wanted to be, but as they talked she realized that’s what the girl thought she had to be if she was going to wrestle.
The day after the girl returned home, she wore a skirt to school and her mother called Gray in tears, thrilled that her daughter had learned she didn’t have to look like a boy to be a wrestler.
“It was good for me to teach young girls that you don’t have to shy away from combat sports because you don’t want lose your femininity,” she said. “I don’t feel like I lost any of mine.”
This is why, when ESPN magazine asked Gray to pose naked in Body Issue, she agreed. The experience was unnerving. It’s not easy to stand with strangers while not wearing any clothes. At times she worried how she’d look. Would she have too much fat on her hips? Then she stopped. She has what she calls “an athletic female body” and that’s what she wanted to show. When the magazine came out she was thrilled. The photo they published made her appear strong and graceful and elegant, which is exactly the way she sees herself.
“I think it portrays all my hard work and the dedication, and what a real female body looks like,” she said. “I’m not a Greek god by any means, with 0% body fat, with unrealistic, I guess, female proportions from a Victoria’s Secret model. It’s just who I am in those pictures, and I love them. It’s never a bad thing when people tell you you are good at things and you look pretty.”
She laughed. She loves this world of Rousey, this world of powerful women who are free to be themselves and not feel self-conscious about their strength. And yet she always wonders about the double standard, this notion that women like her will never be fully accepted, that they will forever be trapped by surface judgments. As she sat there, in a room, at the Olympic park, she thought about the US’s male wrestlers, who had been in the room only a few minutes before, doing interviews behind a big table. She watched them sitting there regal in their Team USA jackets, and marveled at how easy it was for them to look purposeful and dominant, with their stoic expressions. They appeared deep in thought.
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She wondered about her own expressions, and lamented that she, too, couldn’t look the same. And she thought of the phrase “resting bitch face” and how this is too often how women are judged. It annoys her that she has to be conscious of her expressions when she is sitting before people, knowing that if people see her staring seriously that she must somehow be angry. Why does it have to be like that, she wondered.
For this, too, she admires Rousey, because Rousey doesn’t worry about how her face looks. Rousey’s serious face is her powerful face and she seems not to care what people think of it.
“We aren’t used to seeing a strong confident female like Ronda Rousey,” Gray said. “And she gets this negative connotation. She always has this bitch face on when it’s probably just her normal face.”
But now they are used to the strength. Thanks to a Olympic judo medalist turned MMA superstar there is a place for Adeline Gray, a place for the girl from Nevada, and a place for the other American women wrestlers who sit in this room beside her.