Even though it doesnt need to be said, Im 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, its 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, theres 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 youll 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 shes 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 dont 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, Im 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, its 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 whos pumped to have another female teammate and cant 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.
Ive 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 Id 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, shes pretty. Oh no, shes pretty and good. Oh no, shes really tough and is going to make me look like a wannabe.
Perhaps its 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. Weve 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 were just there for the attention). Weve all had to deal with the question mark that pops up when we submit our male teammates and makes us wonder if were 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.
Its 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 weve 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.
Ive noted a similar transformation in myself as Ive gotten further in jiu-jitsu. Maybe its because Im more confident that my blue belt is proof that Im somewhat legit in BJJ, or maybe its 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 dont know come into my gym. I also no longer feel the need to prove myself so much when I visit other academies. Id be lying if I said those feelings didnt creep in every now and again, but these days, it doesnt 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 well be just fine making it to the top on our own, its going to hurt everyone if you cant shake the belief that this is your hill and yours alone, or that the people following behind you dont 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 theres anyone who has a chance at chipping away at the (often true) stereotype that women are always trying to outdo each other, its us. Weve 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. Its 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, were even tougher especially when we band together.
If youve never felt the alpha female in your brain start to raise her hackles at the sight of an unknown woman in your gym, thats great. But if you have, just know that youre not a bad person unless you allow that part of you to take over. Just like in the rest of jiu-jitsu, were 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.