Better to be a boxer than to be bullied to death

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The Independent Online
When we heard that 13-year-old Emma Brammer planned to pull on big gloves and risk her beauty in the ring, the public condemned her. But the death of Kelly Yeomans, a teenager taunted into taking an overdose this week, demonstrates how important it is for young girls to feel strong and confident. Jojo Moyes reports on the making of two victims.

"When they smash gloved fists into each other's heads and faces, the mainly male audience will be cheering. But this is no ordinary contest. The two opponents are 13 year-old schoolgirls wearing nothing but a skimpy vest and shorts."

Thus Emma Brammer's first attempt to win a flyweight title was sensationally publicised this week in one newspaper. "This seems a demented extension of equal opportunities," said Dr Bill O'Neill, of the BMA. "I am totally against it," said Henry Cooper, former heavyweight champion. "Women are made for loving and not hitting." These were some of the more restrained comments.

Attitudes to women's participation in contact sports have always been ambivalent. But rarely have they raised feelings to this level. Boxing is one of the few spheres in which the specific aim is to damage one's opponent. This sits uncomfortably with what we expect from a young girl. While there is a kind of beauty in the battered face of the male boxer, a woman bearing the scars of battle is more likely to prompt thoughts of a "punchbag"; her scars are somehow uglier - and more readily associated with victimhood.

Emma didn't see it that way. She felt strong. "It's not about going into the ring to hurt your opponent. It's about style, making sure you avoid getting walloped and scoring points with technique," she said. "I wear a breast and groin shield and a protective helmet. It's not as dangerous as judo, karate and kick-boxing, and it's a brilliant way of keeping fit." Despite reservations, her parents were supportive. All sports, said her father, Derek, carried a risk - but boxing meant Emma could defend herself; a view her mother shared.

Encouraging a 13-year-old girl to be assertive is no mean feat, according to Anita Naik, an agony aunt who has just published Respect Yourself, about instilling self-esteem in teenage girls. "Girls lose their self- confidence by the time they reach puberty, and some never regain it. Unlike boys, they disguise any triumphs they may have, but they'll always tell you all the things wrong with them. The girls that get their self- confidence back tend to get it from whatever makes them feel stronger. Physical arguments aside, if boxing does it for her, then good for her. Banning girls basically suggests that they're fragile little things who can't manage anything physical."

It is hard to make an adolescent girl feel comfortable in her own skin. Most, says Ms Naik, leave school "hating PE", where they feel painfully exposed and often ridiculed. They don't exercise again regularly until their twenties, when they find it gives them physical confidence. "The women I know who do contact sports are not aggressive, but they do feel good about themselves."

Compare Emma's experience with that of Kelly Yeomans, also 13. Kelly fulfilled all the things we want from a teenage girl. She was "bubbly and charming", worked hard at school, visited old people, and played tambourine in the Salvation Army. "Kelly was a lovely girl who would help anybody," said her mother, Julie. Kelly's problem was that she was too sweet, too nice. Last Sunday she took her own life, unable to cope with incessant bullying. They had called her "Fatty", and poured salt over her lunch. For a clumsy, plump teenager, PE was a particular ordeal.

At home in Allenton, groups of boys, roaming around in search for victims, found Kelly. And found that she wouldn't retaliate. Kelly was bullied for precisely that reason, according to her father, Ivan. "I suppose it's because we are quiet, and turn the other cheek. But, if you turn the other cheek, they just come back and give you more," he said. "It hit Kelly badly. It tore her apart. She said, `I'm frightened, Dad.'"

Anita Naik says that no matter how supportive they are, parents cannot instil self-esteem in the young - their daughters "simply don't believe them". Kelly's family thought she was wonderful; they told her not to worry, that they had the law on their side. But the amorphous, intangible "law" seemed very distant to a 13-year-old who nightly had to endure taunts of "Fatty" and "Smelly", and had butter and eggs pelted at her bedroom window.

Look at Kelly's omnipresent photograph this week, and you see a victim. You can tell she knew that, when you look at the serious little face and those magnified eyes, to which her attempted smile does not carry. You wish she had been encouraged to do something like boxing; not because she could have hit back, but because the young women who do so, say it makes them feel strong. If Kelly had felt a little stronger, perhaps she would be here today.

For all the hype about "girl power", Ms Naik says her postbag is still filled with letters painfully lacking that one ingredient. "We have to encourage these girls to see their own good points and highlight all the things they're good at," she says. "That is the only way we give them a sense of worth."

The irony, of course, is that on Thursday evening Emma Brammer announced that she was pulling out of her boxing match. She couldn't cope with the criticism that had been heaped upon her since her 270-second fight was publicised.

Her mother, Elizabeth, said she was very upset. "The critics were saying things like `boxing is not for girls', and saying I should grow up and get back to my senses," said Emma. "I didn't expect anything like it."

Emma hadn't even wanted to become a professional boxer - she said she wanted to be a photographer. But in the rush to condemn, no one really listened. We took the happy, strong, fulfilled one of these two young girls, and bullied her out of doing the thing that made her feel good about herself. And in doing so, we made sure that two girls became victims this week.