It’s Time To Put An End To The OTHER Kind Of Competition Between Women In Jiu-Jitsu

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Photo Source: Issys Calderon Photography/ Instagram

Even though it doesn’t need to be said, I’m going to say it anyway: being a woman in jiu-jitsu is hard. Between the obvious physiological disadvantages, the stress that comes with participating in a heavily male-dominated sport, and the lack of representation we get at tournaments, it’s honestly a wonder that so many women participate in jiu-jitsu in the first place. But when we talk about all the hurdles that women have to make it over if they want to progress in BJJ, there’s one that we often forget about: other women.

Those who say that men are territorial have never gotten inside the head of a woman at a jiu-jitsu gym. We might be the nicest people you’ll ever meet, but the moment we see a new girl step onto the mats, something weird and primal clicks on in our brains. Whether we try to or not, we start analyzing this girl from head to toe. Is she one of those girls who looks like she put on makeup just to come train? Or is she one of those girls who looks like she’s trying to reinforce the stereotype that all female martial artists are “manly”? Does she even take this sport seriously? Is she just here to try to get attention from all the fit guys? Is she here to try to show-up all the other girls?

It sounds insane— no, it is insane— but even if you’re a woman and don’t have these thoughts pass through your head, I guarantee at least some of your female teammates do. Whether you want to blame it on society, the media, or biology, women seem almost hard-wired to compete with each other over just about everything. Middle school girls get bullied for their bodies that are developing “too quickly” or “too slowly,” depending on who you ask. You see it in supermarket tabloids, the headline “Who Wore It Better?” plastered over side-by-side images of two beautiful celebrities wearing the same outfit as though only one of them is allowed to look good in it. This sense of “girl vs. girl” follows us everywhere no matter how old we get. As much as we’d like to think that such cattiness gets tossed aside when we step onto the mats, it sometimes manages to creep in when we’d least expect it.

Like most women in jiu-jitsu, I’m all about gender equality and supporting my fellow ladies in learning how to whoop some butt. Whether that makes me a “crazy feminist” or a “decent human being” is your call, but either way, it’s awkward for me to admit that even I get weirdly possessive of my gym and teammates every time I see a new girl come in. At the front of my mind is someone who’s pumped to have another female teammate and can’t wait to be a part of her journey. But at the back of my mind is a growling lioness who is not thrilled about someone new entering her den.

I’ve come clean about the weird conflict in my head to my female teammates, telling them about how it took a little more effort than I expected to swallow my territoriality when I’d first met them. To my relief, just about all of them admitted to feeling the exact same thing towards other women in the sport. One by one, their confessions revealed their first thoughts upon meeting various New Girls over the years: “Oh no, she’s pretty.” “Oh no, she’s pretty and good.” “Oh no, she’s really tough and is going to make me look like a wannabe.”

Perhaps it’s a bit obvious to other people, but the conversation put into words what that strange feeling in my stomach had been telling me since I started jiu-jitsu: this possessiveness, jealousy, whatever you want to call it that creeps into our minds has more to do with our own fear of being invalidated than it does with anything another woman does or doesn’t do. We’ve worked so hard to get where we are in this sport, not only when it comes to improving our jiu-jitsu and winning tournaments, but also in gaining respect from our teammates. We’ve put so much pressure on ourselves to not only be good, but also to be good while looking pretty (so no one can make jokes about how we’re “kind of a dude, though”), but not too pretty (so no one can say we’re just there for the attention). We’ve all had to deal with the question mark that pops up when we submit our male teammates and makes us wonder if we’re actually getting better or if he just let us have that Americana so we’d feel good about ourselves. At some point, we might have had to reject the romantic advances of one of our teammates, which then makes us question if he actually sees us as a viable training partner or just a viable way to get laid.

It’s a crazy, impossible balancing act. It’s no wonder that so many of us fear that some other girl is going to walk in and start juggling all the same things without breaking a sweat, sending everything we’ve worked so hard to build up crashing to the ground. Or maybe we fear that she doesn’t take BJJ as seriously as we do and contributes to the negative preconceptions about female jiu-jitsu practitioners that we’ve worked so hard to tear down. We end up projecting a similar balancing act onto her, hoping she falls directly in the middle of being good, but not too good. 

The good news about this fear is that it seems to break down the more you train, just like the rest of your ego. When I was a white belt and trying out different gyms, the unwelcoming vibes I got seemed to radiate more from other female white belts who had two or three stripes. The blue belt women were a lot friendlier and seemed to make more of an effort to convince me to join their gyms.

I’ve noted a similar transformation in myself as I’ve gotten further in jiu-jitsu. Maybe it’s because I’m more confident that my blue belt is proof that I’m somewhat “legit” in BJJ, or maybe it’s because many of the bad parts of my ego have been sufficiently broken apart, but either way, I no longer feel quite as competitive when women I don’t know come into my gym. I also no longer feel the need to prove myself so much when I visit other academies. I’d be lying if I said those feelings didn’t creep in every now and again, but these days, it doesn’t take much effort to push them away.

Jiu-jitsu is a constant uphill battle for everyone by nature, but the road that women have to walk is undeniably a bit steeper. While we’ll be just fine making it to the top on our own, it’s going to hurt everyone if you can’t shake the belief that this is your hill and yours alone, or that the people following behind you don’t deserve any help because you made it this far without anyone offering you their hand.

Jiujiteiras are strong women by default, and we need to utilize that strength by lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down. If there’s anyone who has a chance at chipping away at the (often true) stereotype that women are always trying to outdo each other, it’s us. We’ve all seen first-hand how powerful the BJJ sisterhood is, and if we want to help nurture it and build a stronger female presence in the sport, we need to be active participants in its growth. It’s not enough to tolerate your new female training partners. We need to offer to teach them new techniques. We need to reach out if we notice they stop showing up to class. We need to show them that no matter how tough this martial art is, we’re even tougher… especially when we band together.

If you’ve never felt the alpha female in your brain start to raise her hackles at the sight of an unknown woman in your gym, that’s great. But if you have, just know that you’re not a bad person unless you allow that part of you to take over. Just like in the rest of jiu-jitsu, we’re allowed to have feelings, no matter how confusing or negative they may be. However, we have to focus on using them to transform us into better people not just on the mat, but everywhere we go.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I’m blue belt in Paris, it’s this exact feeling, you said it so clearly.
    The injuction for women to be perfect make such an impossible competition between us all.
    But we change and we learn confidence with jujtsu, this confidence help us to be more friendly.

  2. I honestly can say I don’t feel this way. Every new girls, I think, maybe this one will be my best training partner, however, most of em are too soft, too Whiney, too scared, too giggly to be a team asset. Thank god it’s an INDIVIDUAL sport. Learn from every partner, keep your feminism off the mat. Don’t sexualize yourself or others. Be in the moment. Shut your inner and outer voice. Do your best and have fun. You are over analyzing. That ruins everything

  3. My cats got in a fight while I was reading this, and now I can’t shake the image in my head of the dominant woman at the gym growling and hissing at the new woman, and then peeing on the mat while glaring in her direction. Terrible, I know.

  4. Thank you thank you for this. I think you nailed the subtleties exactly. Just talking about this with one of my (male) classmates last week. Men have NO idea that this goes on, and a lot of them would benefit from knowing it. I have read SOME AWFUL HORROR STORIES from other women about their schools. I am lucky in that I have a wonderful studio and instructors, and being the lone woman for some time now, pretty much escaped my notice until recently, because there were a few amazing women there when I started. One of our instructors has recently begun Women’s mat to get the women from various affiliates together, so I will definitely share this with her!

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