Sexism and My Path to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

For some reason people hate it when they hear this, but when they ask me how I first became interested in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I answer honestly and tell them that it was through watching UFC fights. Maybe there's a classier response or something, but hey, I never claimed to be classy.

I went through a UFC phase toward the end of high school, which was about ten years ago. I loved watching the fights, and I loved watching people train. I'm going to REALLY embarrass myself here, but I even had a "I <3 UFC" T-shirt. I was a bit of a cardio bunny and loved to run, but always thought MMA was so cool. I'm not totally sure what to accredit this interest to, because I didn't grow up having to fight off any brothers or anything, just a younger sister who I was always able to pin down and tickle if needed (I wonder if this would work in BJJ? Are BJJ guys ticklish? I'm going to have to try this). 

Anyway! During my UFC phase, after hearing Joe Rogan mention Brazilian Jiu Jitsu all the freaking time, I decided to actually figure out what the heck Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was. Besides, anything Brazilian just sounds sexy, am I right? (Don't hate me). 

There is power in seeing people who look like you engaged in a sport; it’s about unconsciously defining what is within the realm of possibilities for yourself.

WELL. There I was, watching a YouTube video of a BJJ match, thinking, "I can't do that. It's like wrestling! They're not even punching each other!". I didn't see the point of "fighting" without striking; I thought it seemed incomplete; it looked boring, and perhaps most importantly, I didn't see girls doing it. Any media that I had encountered about MMA or BJJ was clearly geared towards guys. I want to be clear in saying that I don't necessarily think the lack of visibility of women in the sport was/is a problem per se; this was about 2005 and there didn't seem to be as much excitement as there is today about women fighters, at least from a purely spectator point of view (and if I'm totally mistaken on this point, please let me know). Here's the chicken and the egg scenario: It's understandable that there wouldn't be as much attention on women in MMA/BJJ because proportionately there is a much smaller pool from which to draw; but I wonder if there is a smaller number of women entering these disciplines because of the lack of visibility in the first place. In our culture, there really is power in seeing people who look like you engaged in various disciplines; it's about unconsciously defining what is within the realm of possibilities for yourself. 

You've probably heard a lot about this idea of visibility in the media. It has to do with a little thing I like to call epistemology - how you know what you know. How did I 'know' that BJJ wasn't for me since it looked to me like wrestling, and I didn't see women doing it? I 'knew' I 'couldn't' train BJJ because of several codified assumptions that I learned along the way:

1. Wrestling is for big men with big muscles who sweat a lot.
2. Women do female things, which certainly does not include wrestling. Go do art or read a book instead. 

In our culture, we tend to equate the act of 'seeing' with the revelation of truth, or understanding. Think of these examples:

  • the saying "seeing is believing"
  • the symbol of a lightbulb to signify an idea
  • the Age of Enlightenment; aka the Age of Reason, during the 17th & 18th Centuries
  • the saying "I see what you mean"

Western culture holds the idea of seeing, of visualization, as representative of understanding reality. Therefore, we must take seriously the images we encounter throughout our day. The images we encounter help us construct and understand our reality. So when I'm new to the sport, looking into BJJ, and I don't get to see images of awesome females on the mat, and then I walk into a local academy and I'm the only girl there to train, yeah - sometimes it feels like you're not supposed to be there, or like you don't belong. 

The fundamental codes of a culture - those governing its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices - establish for every man, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing and within which he will be at home.
— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things

I ventured to mention to one of my best friends & athletic therapist that I was interested in trying Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. She said she thought it sounded like a great idea, and that she knew a girl who did BJJ (and developed awesome abs along the way!). Yet, even the thought of abs couldn't detract me from my unconscious, yet very real, belief that women just don't/shouldn't grapple. So, I let go of any BJJ aspirations and spent the next ten years continuing to run, dabbling in yoga, and having fun with P90x and Insanity programs to varying degrees of success. 

Even as a self-proclaimed feminist, I had internalized gender stereotypes. I've had people argue that stereotypes/sexism is imagined and not a real, consequential force in the world, but I will adamantly disagree. As much as one must take responsibility for their orientation in the world, we all know that ideas about gender run so, so deep and pervade all the minutiae of our experience. Even the way we learn science is imbued with cultural assumptions about gender. Have you ever critically assessed why, when learning about sexual reproduction, sperm are always described as the active ones, the 'do-ers', the entities who are battling to survive a challenging journey, fighting to dig through the wall of the egg and fertilize? Meanwhile, the woman's role in reproduction is essentially described as being sedentary; the sole value of an egg in this reproductive narrative is to simply exist and be the passive, hospitable recipient of the sperm's actions. We can see that the stereotypical story of the active male warrior fighting for life while the woman helplessly sits by to act as the passive recipient of the male's actions is even used to describe our biology. Our cultural beliefs are being used to describe the actions of our cells, some of our most basic units of life. One cannot realize this and then argue that these gender stereotypes are not real forces in the world. (For more on this, read up on Natasha Myers' brilliant work).

It took a very patient boyfriend teaching me escapes and arm bars to build up the confidence to realize that, hey, maybe Brazilian Jiu Jitsu actually is within the realm of possibilities for me. I had to bite the bullet: If I wanted to see more women training BJJ, then I needed to train BJJ. I needed to be that change I wanted to see.

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.
— Rumi

Except for one guy who I deem a mat bully, I have had nothing but exceptional support from the entire BJJ community, men and women alike. The vast majority of people are super excited to have another woman join the awesome world of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Even just through the short time that I've had this blog, I have received messages of support from all over the world, and have even made new friends and training partners in neighbouring cities. Though it's challenging often being the only woman on the mat, knowing that I have an army behind me feels incredible, and I thank God for the internet which allows me to access awesome female BJJ role models and connect with supporters. 

If you're a girl and you want to try Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but for whatever reason you're hesitant, know that you're not the first person to feel that way, and most likely you will be welcomed with open arms into the community. I won't deny that there are real, systemic challenges to being a minority; just know that you are supported, you can do this, and you belong. I'm happy to have you, I know others who are too, and I would recommend that you believe the hype: jiu jitsu changes lives, so please don't deny yourself that. 

if you're feeling nervous about trying BJJ, let's connect!

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P.S., Here's an awesome article, Women who changed the face of jiu jitsu, shared with me by Tiffany Bayliss.

P.P.S., shoutouts to @bjjvibe on Instagram (Antonio Antonioli):