Any woman in jiu-jitsu will tell you how tough it can be to find opponents in your division, and this struggle is amplified for women who compete in the upper weight classes. Many female BJJ athletes show up to tournaments only to have an otherwise empty division, and even in practice, they may struggle to find rolling partners. For all the advocacy for women in jiu-jitsu, the specific challenges that heavyweight women face are often ignored. But one organization is trying to change that, all while promoting body positivity within the martial art.
The Mighty Dames was founded in 2017 by BJJ purple belt Torrie O’neil, who started jiu-jitsu in 2014 after needing something to do after grad school. “I started looking for a gym that taught freestyle wrestling. I was a huge pro wrestling fan as a kid and transitioned into watching ‘real wrestling’ once I had the crushing realization that it was fake,” she says. Her search led her to Grappling Mastery, which taught both wrestling and jiu-jitsu, and after staying for a BJJ class on her first day, she was “instantly hooked.” She’s continued to train ever since and has also achieved big things in competition, including taking home gold at American Nationals last year. Still, though, she considers The Mighty Dames to be her greatest accomplishment in the sport to date.
O’neil says that The Mighty Dames started as a “whim” and was largely inspired by the feedback she received on a blog post about the challenges she faced as a female super heavyweight in jiu-jitsu. “To my surprise, I got a lot of feedback from other female ‘heavys,’ which prompted me to create a space that could continue the conversation,” she told the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “Over the last three years, it has become a place to go to for advice, tips, recommendations or just to vent. Also, it has become a place for women to connect and meet up off the mat, at competitions or open mats.”
The purpose of TMD is primarily “to foster a community of encouragement and camaraderie for female heavys.” O’neil says that the experience for many women in the upper weight divisions can be isolating, as their numbers are smaller in comparison to other divisions. “Our group is a space for women who are searching for people to relate to, who may need a cheerleader or encouragement to keep on their BJJ journey,” she says.
To reduce the Mighty Dames to a group that only focuses on this one aspect, however, would be a mistake. “Our main goal is to shatter the negative attitudes toward being heavy by spreading the importance of healthy body image and body confidence,” says O’neil. “Poor body image and self-esteem affect women of all ages and body types, and we saw a need to create a platform for that within the BJJ community.”
The group achieves this through representation, highlighting female BJJ heavyweights through a variety of mediums. “We love to highlight fellow female heavyweights across all platforms, by resharing photos and videos, or interviewing fellow Dames in our Roll Call interview series. We also try to share positive quotes, articles, and videos from a range of topics such as health, body confidence, and self-esteem to help provide them with the tool to make their lives and their BJJ journey run a bit smoother.”
The topic of representation is particularly important to O’neil, who is a “trifecta of awesome” as a Black, queer, heavyweight woman. She says her own identity has made her want to speak up and show up for others like her in the BJJ community. “Especially in my area, there is not that much diversity on the mat, and that can be intimidating for someone looking to enter the sport,” she says. “Growing up, there were always certain activities, music, or even styles that I stayed away from because I didn’t think it was for ‘people like me.’ I limited myself or took a backseat to avoid sticking out or making others uncomfortable.”
Now, O’neil is done avoiding the spotlight and is embracing her role as a ‘roll’ model. “As an adult with a platform, I feel as it is my responsibility to speak my mind and to speak my truth. To plant my flag and say ‘I’m here.’ Representation is critical to helping minorities feel like that they are heard, that they are valid and have a place on in this community and all walks of life.”
The Mighty Dames has proven to be an effective platform for O’neil. What started as a “side project” has become a self-sustaining group, though she still puts a few hours into it every day to update social media, create merchandise, and conduct interviews.
Her efforts have paid off, though O’neil didn’t initially think the group would have a grand effect on the BJJ world. “I had a few women reach out and let me know that the Dames is what keeps them training or encouraged them to try to compete. Or something as simple as them being able to have a rash guard that fit, made them more confident on the mat. We’ve been making lots of little impacts on different people, which still blows me away.”
That impact has reached everyone from young girls to older practitioners. “Perhaps my most proud moments are when I have the mothers of younger BJJ girls reach out and tell me how their daughters are motivated by The Mighty Dames. Just the idea that there are younger girls who are looking up to this group blows my mind. It gives me hope that maybe they will not fall prey to some of the issues with self-esteem and body image that I did in my teen years,” says O’neil. “I’ve had women reach out fearing that they were too old or big to start up the sport but after chatting in the group decided to give it a go.”
“Perhaps the best way to support the women in large weight classes is to treat them like others in the gym. Yes, some of the large women may have limitations, but instead of bypassing them, show them another way. The number one thing women are looking for in our group is moral support. Some of the women just get discouraged when they cannot do certain moves or feel uncomfortable or out of place in their gym. Some of that is an integral dilemma which the individual must work on, but gyms, coaches, and teammates can always be more encouraging to the larger girls. Also, stop the use of backward compliments! There is nothing more annoying than feeling like you’re not really skilled, just big.”