Like many people, I wish I’d started jiu-jitsu when I was a kid. I came within throwing distance a few times — first, I considered signing up for karate because I was obsessed with Dragon Ball Z and wanted to kick people’s butts. But I didn’t because the class times were at the same time that Dragon Ball Z was airing on Cartoon Network. Then, from middle school to when I graduated high school, I was a scorekeeper for the wrestling team. I don’t know why I didn’t just, you know, sign up for wrestling myself. The idea started to appeal to me after a while, but when I asked some of the guys on the team if there were any girl wrestlers, they told me, “There are a few, but no one wants to wrestle them. They’ll forfeit first because if you win, you beat a girl, and if you lose, you lost to a girl. The guys can’t win.”
I wish so badly that young tomboy me — the one who cleaned horse stalls on the weekends, wore boys’ jeans to school, and rejected everything “girly” — had found jiu-jitsu back then.
Without realizing it at the time, I became hyperfocused on a perceived gender dichotomy. I didn’t have the energy or desire to be ultra-feminine, but I also didn’t feel like a boy. So instead I became a trope: the “Not Like Other Girls” girl. I was determined to ride the line that is made to look so popular in Hollywood. Thin, but could and would consume copious amounts of pizza (and beer, I swore, when I was old enough to drink it). Feminine, but not “high-maintenance.” Never high-maintenance. And of course, when a boy or man made jokes about “putting women in their place” or my boyfriend at the time made over-the-top comments sexualizing other women right in front of me, I just laughed it off. I wasn’t like Other Girls. I was cool. Low-maintenance. I exhibited just the right amount of femininity to appeal to boys and just the right of misogyny to push other women down so I could see myself as above them.
I thought about this today as I came across Ffion Davies’ post for International Women’s Day, struck by the similarities in our experiences we’d had:
When I was 8 I remember wishing I was a boy. Boys were good at sport, and always the hero. I wanted to be Goku from Dragon Ball Z.
I played rugby on the boys team but had to quit at about 10 because puberty was looming. I was rejected from the local boxing club because they didn’t take in girls. In judo a guest instructor told a friend and I, upon asking for help with a technique, that the throw ‘wasn’t for girls’. In my teens I wanted to be the ‘Cool Girl’. The girl who was different from the other girls in that I was ‘fun’ and certainly not a feminist. I’d laugh and say how girls are so bitchy, and even join in on crude jokes with the guys.
Today I’m very different. I love being a woman. I’m proud that I’m empathetic and feel too much. It’s my strength. I’m not as physically strong, but Jiujitsu makes me feel like a super hero every day. The girls I train with lift me up every day, my competitors push me to be better, and there’s a bond in chasing the same goal ❤️ Happy international women’s day ❤️photo by @shawna.rodgers 📸
Once I thought about it, I realized that I knew of a lot of women in jiu-jitsu who have been impacted in this way by jiu-jitsu, finding a soft place to land between enjoying womanhood and wanting to feel powerful in the same way that we’d seen men be powerful our whole lives. Sure, we had physically strong female heroes as well, but in popular media, they were often supporting characters in a strong man’s story. Thank goodness for Mulan and The Powerpuff Girls, honestly.
Jiu-jitsu was the first thing I tried that made me feel like I was the superhero. I was one of three other white belt women when I first started at nineteen, and they only came sporadically. Most of the time, I was the only woman in class. There were no female coaches or even upper belts that I could see dominating larger, stronger opponents. And yet, I still knew without a doubt that this sport was for me. It benefitted me to be strong, sure, but my flexibility and short limbs where what frustrated my male training partners. My relationship with food changed; I had always been a little chubby and resented myself whenever I ate something that I knew would make me even chubbier, and after jiu-jitsu, I started celebrating food and the energy it gave me. I stopped associating being thin with looking feminine and started embracing my muscles and bruises, watching my body begin to take on a form that I finally felt represented who I wanted to be: strong, resilient, powerful.
As more women started to sign up on my team, I felt the pull of my old shadow that didn’t want other women in my space. I felt like a lioness guarding my den, the one that I had worked so hard to feel welcome in. It was work to stop feeling threatened by them and to start welcoming them into the space that I felt I had dug for myself. But the work I’d performed on myself was well worth it. I started seeking out other women in the sport as allies rather than opponents in a competition we’d only imagined ourselves in. I started connecting with women who were so different from me, yet also so similar.
I came across plenty of women who were like me, feminine tomboys who rolled hard and had something to prove. I met women who were far more competitive and aggressive than me and had cut off most of their hair because it got in the way when they rolled. I met women who were literal models, some of whom only trained recreationally and never rolled hard, and others that shrugged off black eyes and bloody noses. I met moms (and grandmothers!) who brought their kids to the gym or could only train when they could get someone to watch their little ones. I met accomplished athletes who had been campaigning for better opportunities and representation for women in jiu-jitsu long before I’d even learned what “BJJ” stood for.
They were never one thing or the other — maternal or tough, fashionable or strong, bookish or athletic — they were one thing and the other.
It’s not that I didn’t know that all these different women existed. I just never thought I’d have anything in common with them. I knew I wouldn’t have any issues getting along with my male teammates, but after years of feeling like I was somehow never enough something to be the kind of woman I felt like I needed to be, it was restorative to learn, choke by choke, that the only person truly making me walk that line was myself. The mats held space for everyone, and it was up to each of us to make that space as welcoming as it felt for us.
Jiu-jitsu has helped turn me into the person I wish my younger self had as a role model. I want to go back in time and tell that confused child, teen, young woman that there was a place for her to be exactly who she was — that she didn’t need to tear anyone down to build herself up (though she could take them down if she stopped pulling guard for two seconds of her life) and she could surround herself with other women who were all tough and beautiful in their own way. I would tell her that her body could be so much more than something to look at — it could invert, it could break limbs, it could feel heavier or lighter depending on what she needed it to be. I would introduce her to all the incredible women I’ve met and rolled with, knowing that some would take her under their wing and others would make her fight to earn their respect.
And then I would tell her that she would need to be that woman for someone else just like her one day.
Featured image by Giulliana Fonseca Photography & Video