Fighting Gurls: Women & Martial Arts

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of women developing a capacity for violence in a violent world. This is a companion post on why martial arts are a great way to do this.

Martial arts were made for women. While they may be dominated by men, women’s bodies are uniquely suited for fighting. We tend to be more flexible and have a lower center of gravity, which is great for powerful, high kicks. Furthermore, women* do not have what I call the “off switch” (gonads), a spot that, when hit with even moderate force, tends to immediately incapacitates the opponent. Women tend to be smaller than men with less muscle mass, but greater speed makes our kicks and punches powerful.

The benefits of martial arts extend beyond learning practical skills and getting in great physical condition. According to academic research, women who practice martial arts are more satisfied with their bodies, have higher self-esteem and self-confidence, and see improved self-control and discipline in their everyday lives. Martial arts also encourage girls/women to value our bodies for something other being sex objects that exist to please others. Martial arts encourage girls/women to view our bodies as tools to master our environment and reclaim ownership of our bodies. In short, learning martial arts is broadly empowering for girls/women.

The key to unlocking the benefits of martial arts is to first find a good studio, one that is inclusive in terms of gender, race, ability, and other marginalized identities. This means shopping around and taking trial classes for a week or so in order to avoid cesspools of sexism, white privilege, and ability bias. Good studios do not segregate by sex or have girls/women sit out certain exercises. They do not go extra hard on women of color based on stereotypes that they are violent or tough. Good studios include otherly-abled people in every exercise and drill, with modifications as needed. You’re looking for a studio with instructors who make sure that everybody interacts with every body in order to get well-rounded training. Studios that have lots of women, especially women of color and high-ranking women, are usually a good bet.

I started training at a Jui-Jitsu studio last year that turned out to be anything but inclusive. When I first visited the space to observe classes, the instructor asked if I was there to scout a studio for my husband or son after I told him I was looking for a studio for myself. This was a big red flag, but the rest of the instructors had progressive politics and were laid back and “cool,” so I decided to give it a go. (Martial arts studios are like little families, and I initially saw myself fitting right in with this racially diverse little family of heavily tatted artists and teachers and executives who push themselves to their physical limit on their lunch breaks.)

After a few months of training, it became clear that all of the instructors viewed women as second-class martial artists, and they fostered this culture in the studio. Male students would routinely line up in front of female students who had been training longer, signaling that the women in class were not “real” martial artists. There were lots of women in the lower ranks, but no female instructors, which means women leave after a few years of training.

I witnessed sexist disrespect in this studio firsthand when a female brown-belt (a high rank) stopped by for a one-off training session. She was an accomplished MMA fighter with several titles under her belt (I later looked her up online), and the male blue-belt (a lower rank) instructor nitpicked her technique the entire session. Then, when it came to rolling (practice fighting), he paired her with me (the only other women in class), a white-belt who was 60 pounds lighter, instead of pairing her with someone who was worth her training time. His obvious sexism should have been downright embarrassing, but it fit the culture of the studio so no one seemed to notice but me. (It was common practice for instructors  in this studio to segregate the class by gender, pairing women with women, regardless of size.) The high quality of the training in this studio could not outweigh the emotional toll of the daily dehumanization I experienced, so I took my considerable monthly fee elsewhere.

Studios that have formal protocols and rituals of respect based on rank are better for women because they leave less room for sexism. In essence, women can advance their way into respect. However, studios with strict respect protocols also set up power dynamics between teachers and students that put female students at a greater risk of sexual harassment/assault from predatory instructors. It’s important to leave a studio the moment you feel disrespected or unsafe, as I once did in the middle of a class where it was just assumed I would practice drills with the only other women in class. If I’m going to be dehumanized, I sure as hell am not going to pay good money for it.

Women are involved in every martial art on the planet.  Wing Chun was founded by a woman, and its practitioners use finesse maneuvers instead of brute force to maximize power. Brazilian Jui-Jitsu is similarly premised on smaller opponents using leverage to defend against and subdue larger opponents. Taekwondo is all about leg work, which is ideal for women’s bodies. If you decide to take up a martial art, you’ll find hundreds to choose from.

Developing a capacity for violence in a violent world can be incredibly enriching and fun for girls/women if you find a studio with a culture of respect and community.

** Some women have gonads!

Dr. Master Heldman holds a 4th degree black-belt in Taekwondo and has been training in various martial arts for 26 years. She currently trains in Jui-Jitsu and Taekwondo at Lima Taekwondo


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: