As a woman in the male-dominated sport of grappling, I have experienced sexism of every stripe: the angry, defensive kind; the flagrant, that’s-right-I-said-it-and-I-don’t-give-a-sh*t kind; the casual, I-don’t-have-a-clue-how-insulting-I’m-being-and-in-fact-I-fancy-myself-the-sensitive-type kind. While I won’t say I’m used to it, I will say that by now it’s not surprising. There is all kinds of evidence to support the idea that we live in a sexist world – if you don’t believe me, try a quick Google search on “sexism research” and see what you find. It can be an exceedingly complicated issue.
Grappling adds yet another layer of complexity. By its very nature, grappling taps into the aggressive and dominating aspects of the human psyche, and while men and women have these kinds of instincts, it’s arguably more socially acceptable for men to express them. This leads to sometimes fascinating and sometimes frustrating dynamics, as individual grapplers (of both genders) work on navigating social influences, differing beliefs about what constitutes appropriate behavior for men and women, the environments in our grappling academies, and our own varying levels of self-awareness.
I’m not writing about this to put anyone on the defensive. For every negative experience I’ve had, I’ve had dozens of positive, supportive experiences. I’m also not implying that I’m above the law, so to speak. Indeed, the purpose of this article is for me to share some difficult home truths I’ve learned about myself that I hope will help me improve my ability to first do no harm and second be a force for good when it comes to gender relations in grappling. I have made grappling the guiding principle of my life. It gives me countless gifts. But there’s always room for improvement, both in that world, and in me.
So here are three things I’ve learned about the intersection of grappling, gender, and myself. Maybe some of them will resonate with some of you.
1. I am physically weaker than most men.
This seems obvious, but it has taken me a while (and the help of trusted others) to understand how I’ve balked at accepting it, how this balking has affected the way I train, and how that has affected others. About five years ago, I started weight lifting and doing conditioning work (in the form of CrossFit) to supplement my grappling. I originally added them to my workouts because I felt I needed something extra to be able to compete effectively in grappling. I needed help staving off the muscle fatigue and “gassing” that can accompany the adrenaline dump I experience when I compete. And these training methods did/do that quite well, not to mention giving me psychological benefits in the form of confidence and the certainty that I can surpass my current limits with hard work. But somewhere along the way, I started to believe that this strength training was also helping me level the playing field – that it was making me as strong as the guys. I did become significantly stronger. But I never became stronger than most men, or even nearly as strong. And yet, I trained as if I were, and I’d get frustrated when I wasn’t.
The strength differential between me and most men is a reality. Acknowledging it isn’t sexist, in my opinion. Acknowledging it enables me to strategize better, because I know I have to figure out how to work around my strength disadvantages, instead of trying to force them to work where they won’t. It’s also self-preserving; if I come at a man as if I’m as strong as he is, he might sense that energy and come at me the same way, thinking I can handle it, because I’m acting as if I can. And since we’ve established I’m not as strong, I’m going to be on the losing end every time, in a potentially dangerous way.
2. I am capable of sexist behavior and beliefs.
This has been a tough one to own. In the abstract, if we live in a world where gender inequality exists, it stands to reason that my actions and beliefs would be correspondingly influenced. But in practice, it’s not an enjoyable thing to acknowledge about myself. One example of such behavior/attitude is that back in the day, when I had been training for maybe two or three years, I used to like to be the only woman – or one of just a few women – in class. I may not have had the capacity to admit it to myself then, but I liked being unique and different. I liked being a woman who liked doing something that not many women did, and I didn’t want to make room for others. When a new woman came along, it kind of upset the apple cart. I would get annoyed because I’d have to work with her, and I’d also get annoyed if she didn’t know very much, conveniently forgetting that other people had been willing to work with me when I was brand new and floppy. Further, I wouldn’t expect much of her, either that she’d persist or that she’d amount to much technically, conveniently forgetting how hurtful it was when people did the same to me.
I can’t remember how I justified this to myself. Actually, I doubt I was even aware I was doing it. Fortunately, this example is ancient history, and for many years I’ve been smart enough to really love training with other women and to have a clear understanding of how much I benefit from it. And perhaps nowadays I’m making up for it karmically by trying to empower women through the grappling camps (for women) I co-lead with my (female) business partners. (Did I mention we cater to women?) The point is, I have to be the change I want to see in the world, or however the saying goes, by acting right. And I have started with the (wo)man in the mirror. The fact that I am capable of sexist behavior isn’t my favorite thing to know about myself, but knowing helps me prevent it.
3. I could be one of the reasons others buy into gender stereotypes.
This is a corollary or potential outcome of realization number two. Traditionally, since there have been fewer women in grappling, there are fewer models for people to refer to. In some ways, this is good for me: since there are still relatively few female black belts, the way others view me may influence how they view female black belts in general, so I can act how I think is “proper.” But if that’s the case, one thing I know I need to work on is acting my belt. What I mean is, I think I’m pretty good at demonstrating how to put my ego aside and be a perennial student. But what I’m not as good at is giving myself credit for what I know, and conveying to others that I give myself that credit.
Part of this has to do with the fact I have spent the past year or more dismantling and rebuilding my game, which means my I have also dismantled my confidence and am rebuilding that as well. Part of it is because I respect the grappling pecking order and routinely marvel at how much there is to learn and how far I have to go. So I try to strike a balance between the two, but I know I err on the side of self-deprecation. So if the grapplers I come into contact with have little contact with other female black belts, and if I tend to be overly deferential, well, you do the math about the impact that might have.
So there you have it, three dirty little secrets about me related to gender issues. I truly believe that acknowledging them to myself has helped me – and will continue to help me – improve my ability to have a positive impact in my grappling circles and in my life. And since the things I’ve mentioned here just scratch the surface, I’m sure I’ll have lots to keep me busy forever and ever.
What about you? Does this prompt any thoughts? Post them to comments below.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.