I’ve already written a blog post about how lucky I am in the fact that I have a lot of girls to train with at Kaizen Academy – there’s now about ten regular girls who do Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I recently read an article in the jiu-jitsu times that suggested that there is a lot of competition between girls who do the sport and not just the good kind that happens when we roll or spar. It suggested that girls can become territorial over mat space, their gym, their training partners, and other things when confronted with the prospect of a new girl joining up. This got me wondering two things; a) how true it was, and b) whether BJJ had the credentials to be considered a “feminist sport”. Stay with me on this one…
First off I want to clear something up; what is feminism? Some people recoil at the word and say “ugh no, I couldn’t possibly be one of those”. Well, in the words of Laura Bates (founder of the everyday sexism project and author of two excellent books), you are either a feminist or you are a bigot. Well now, that’s a fairly aggressive stance you might think, but all feminism is, is the belief in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes. Not a totally crazy concept, eh? 99.9% of the population (except the aforementioned bigots) could probably get behind that statement and say “yeah, sure, I do believe that, guess that makes me a feminist then”. I know, I know… it’s a scary word. If you want, shout it a few times whilst standing on a chair and it’ll become a lot less scary.
Right, now that we’ve got that cleared up, I can get on with the meat of this post. I guess that perhaps some level of territorial aggression can go on when confronted with a newbie. Especially if you’re used to being the only the girl at the gym, and that has been the status quo for quite some time, it can take some time to adjust to the change. Almost every girl I’ve ever met in the BJJ world, however, has been welcoming and friendly and I’ve made some fast friends whenever I’ve met with any new people. I guess it comes down to what sort of environment you’re used to at the gym in which you normally train. It’s probably going to be an intensely positive experience in the short and long term – another girl means another rolling partner who is probably closer to your weight and physique.
The other side of this how you’re supposed to act as a girl at the gym. The article does touch on this as well. You don’t want to be seen as the girl who wears too much make up and doesn’t take the sport seriously, but at the same time it can be difficult to be seen totally sweaty, no make up, and “jiu-jitsu hair” after a really hard work out. This is more to do with societal pressures on women to look good all the time (and that’s a whole ‘nother story) than anything to do with BJJ specifically. It has to be said, I have completely let this go, even though it was really hard to do so. It’s basically impossible to do four hours of training and still look decent, in any sense of the word. It is scary to do this because, believe it or not guys, it can make some women (including myself) feel very vulnerable to be seen this way. It takes strength and courage to shake of society’s preconceived perceptions on how we should look.
In a wider sense, however, I’ve been thinking about feminism and BJJ for some time and wondering whether the two can go together in any meaningful or comfortable way. So here are a few thoughts when thinking about the two…
BJJ is a sport dominated by men – There’s no denying this one. Between 80-90% of BJJ practitioners are men (it could actually be higher than this, but I’m being optimistic), although there has certainly been an influx of female players in recent years and the number is continuously growing. There is no barrier stopping girls from joining, however, other than it can perhaps be a little intimidating at first. Most gyms are very welcoming to anybody wanting to start. I’ve only experienced one example of machismo at a competition, where I was asked whether I “liked that” when walking past a shirtless guy in the process of changing his rash guard. *eye roll*.
High profile women in BJJ – Mackenzie Dern, Michelle Nicolini, Gabrielle Garcia, Luiza Monteiro, Hannette Staack, Kyra Gracie, Leoni Munslow, Dominyka Obelenyte, Tayane Porfírio… I could go on. What I like so much about BJJ though, is that in every article I’ve read about these women it has been about their sport, their technique, their records and their fitness. I’ve never seen an article that discusses their clothing, or their bodies (other than in a strength/conditioning sense), or their relationships (other than very briefly in passing). The BJJ world seems to be totally uninterested in what Kyra Gracie said about Mackenzie Dern at last week’s party… and for that I heartily applaud it. Perhaps I’m just not reading the right articles, but I can only go by what I’ve seen so far.
In a sense this differs from women in other sports. Even in MMA I’ve seen articles discussing what Ronda was wearing last week, or Miesha’s relationship with her coach, rather than focusing on the sport these women are involved in. Outside of martial arts it gets even worse, with women such as Jessica Ennis being asked about motherhood just days after winning Olympic Gold; Serena Williams being told her muscles made her look ‘manly’, or Rebecca Adlington feeling like she had to have plastic surgery because the media would not stop talking about her nose. She’s a swimmer for fricks sake! What’s her nose got to do with it?! Of course women of BJJ sometimes do have their bodies discussed, and a lot of them are very beautiful women, but it seems that this is not brought into focus as often as women seem to have to put up with in other sports.
The sport empowers women – by it’s very nature BJJ is empowering. It teaches women and girls that their bodies are powerful, strong and can do amazing things. On a more basic level it’s also teaching self-defence techniques which can make women feel safer and more in control of various environments, which can only be a good thing. It has taught me to be proud of my body because of all the awesome things that it is capable of. It teaches us that we can be just as strong as men, and that we have control of our bodies, something which can sometimes felt to be lacking in other areas of society.
The community is welcoming – As aforementioned, I have only met one or two people who have a hint of machismo about them, or been uncomfortable by the presence of girls on that mat. In my whole time practicing BJJ/grappling (nearly three years now for the latter) I’ve had two guys refuse to roll with me because they “didn’t roll with girls”. Aside from that the community welcomes people with open arms – it certainly did for me.
Having said all this it’s not all roses. There are of course elements that could be worked on. For example, some clothing companies thinking that women only want to train in pink work out gear (Bad Boy – I’m looking at you). Some companies are looking to change this, for example Rainha Fightwear has just released it’s first rash guard, and there’s no pink in sight! Not that pink is always a bad thing – if you wanna train in pink, go for it! It’s just nice to be given a choice. There are some other, less savoury things we sometimes have to deal with, such as the very outdated ideas held by some guys that women shouldn’t be on the mats. This is probably not to do with BJJ specifically, this is more to do with them as people, but it something that can still be worked on to a positive end. In my experience though, this has been extremely few and far between.
So, looking at all of these things, I think BJJ can be considered to be a feminist sport. It empowers women, and it treats it’s high profile athletes for what they are – athletes, whilst seemingly being uninterested in personal lives or personal drama. There is a welcoming community of both men and women within BJJ who definitely don’t care what gender you are, and are ready to open their arms and their gyms to you if you love the sport like they do.
Until next time,