By Lynda Gronlund
When I was a teenager, I was (and still am) a passionate feminist. Back then, my views were very black and white. No one could bring up differences in the sexes around me without provoking a rant. Equality meant men and women were the same in everything of import. Then, when I entered college and at the same time got involved with martial arts, predictably everything got more complex.
As someone who had always loudly and angrily rejected the idea that women were the weaker and meeker sex, I was very excited to learn to be a fighter. I embraced the training and worked hard – but as a perfectionist I often beat myself up whenever I felt I had fallen short. Sometimes the perceived shortcomings were physical skills that I felt I wasn’t mastering fast enough; at other times they were psychological. I struggled often with fear — fear of getting hurt, fear of hurting others, fear of failure. I hated that I struggled, because to me it meant a failure in being the strong, fearless woman I was striving to be.
My teacher at the time pointed me toward a book: The Armored Rose by Tobi Beck. It’s a bit obscure because the martial art Ms. Beck taught was a bit obscure: European sword & shield, the same art I was learning then. But many of the ideas translate well to any martial art, and it has been a touchstone for me throughout my now 18 years of training and later teaching in both Western and Eastern martial arts.
Beck laid out the many ways in which female martial artists are different from our male counterparts. Physically, our upper bodies are smaller, the structure of the hands and arms subtly different. Women statistically hurt their anterior cruciate (knee) ligaments more often than men do, possibly because of the wider hips affecting the angle of the knee.
Of course, everything falls along a scale. I’m taller and heavier than some men I know even at my fittest, and can lift more too. I know women with narrow hips and women who can knock out 100 pushups with ease though that seems impossible to me. We are all, of course, individuals and unique. But as I came to understand, generalizations can be useful sometimes. Admitting that women have smaller, weaker upper bodies in general seemed at first disheartening to me, until I realized that our strong, flexible lower bodies and lower center of gravity could be embraced as advantages. Women can be outstanding martial artists and athletes, but sometimes we might have to do things a little differently from the guys to best take advantage of our own physical makeup.
Beck’s book also detailed psychological differences. Boys in our society tend to roughhouse with each other, and it’s encouraged or at least tolerated. Girls tend to be discouraged from such play. Women are told in a thousand subtle and unsubtle ways through their families, friends and media that they are valued as nurturers and as objects of beauty. Whole lines of fitness products are marketed to women with pastel tones and no weights over 8 pounds because anything larger would be too heavy, or even cause them to “bulk up” and be too “manly” (as an experienced personal trainer I can unequivocally state this is ridiculous, but still pervasive in our culture). In our current renaissance of superhero stories, we have yet to see a full-length Wonder Woman movie! It’s understood both consciously and unconsciously that women are supposed to be “nice,” to care for others, to be pretty and maybe a bit shy and definitely not want to fight. To be fair, gender role messages are just as strong for men, who are supposed to be strong and unemotional and a good protector and provider. Just look at the personal care aisle in the supermarket – there are special black bottles with “masculine” fonts because the marketers figured out a lot of men might buy lotion for their dry skin, but only if it was as separated from anything “girly” as possible.
In the context of martial arts, all of these unconscious internalized messages, no matter how much we consciously may reject them, take a toll. Beck used the metaphor of the “lizard brain” – that internal voice that whispers or screams to us that we will get hurt, that we will hurt someone else and feel awful, that we’re no good at this anyway, that we shouldn’t even bother to try. The metaphor spoke to me, and personifying my fears and doubts in such a way helped me to fight and overcome them. Knowing that others struggled with it too encouraged me.
When I teach women who are starting martial arts as adults, or who are even just taking a self-defense class, they often express doubt about being able, or sometimes willing, to defend themselves. Some feel they aren’t strong enough; others feel they could never be okay with hurting someone else, even if they were justified. I ask them who they need to get home to. Who is depending on them: a spouse, children, pets, parents, friends. When I tell them if they feel they can’t fight for themselves they need to fight for those people, who would be devastated if their mother or wife or daughter or friend didn’t come home, a fire lights behind their eyes. Women are warriors, just not always for the same reasons as men.
The martial arts are good for almost everyone, and almost anyone can strive toward their potential in the martial arts. Knowing how to effectively defend oneself is an important skill, and imparts a confidence that little else can. As I’ve learned over a period of years as a student and teacher, acknowledging that women and girls may have different needs, strengths and weaknesses does not mean they are unequal, less worthy, less talented and hardworking, or less capable of being a force to be reckoned with. Acknowledging and working with those differences can make us better students, teachers and fighters.
Lynda Gronlund is the owner and an instructor at PKSA Karate Ann Arbor as well as being a Certified Personal Trainer. She has been training in different martial arts for 18 years and is a 3rd degree black belt in the Korean martial art of Tang Soo Do. She also writes the What’s New in the Community Column for the Crazy Wisdom Community Journal.