Guest post on Paradigm SSC: Uncaged Expectations

Part of the reason I was so quiet on here last week, until I was able to squeeze in a Saturday post, was that I was busy crafting my first guest blog post for Ben at Paradigm Speed, Strength and Conditioning. He had asked me to write a post about the experience of a woman in a male-dominated sport – a subject that takes up quite a lot of my life (and most of them don’t even know about the vegan thing… I’ll have to spread that knowledge someday and see how things change then!).

To be honest, I wasn’t too sure what shape that post would take. I knew I didn’t want it to be an all-out pseudo-feminist rant, and as much as I’d have loved to craft a scientific-fact-loaded piece, it’s just not within the realm of my knowledge.

But then I figured, most people read blogs to gain insight into an individual’s daily life. There are plenty of academic and scientific articles out there about female physiology and training needs. There are also plenty of ranters and ravers out there. So I set out to give people some food for thought, a little window into the mixed feelings I get whenever I set foot on the mats, and of course to get some things off my chest.

Ben gave me a wonderful intro, much better than I deserved, so I have bashfully cut it out. However, if you do want to see my piece on his blog, as that’s where it was intended to be laid to rest in the first place, you can see it here. Otherwise, read on for “Uncaged Expectations”…

“So, do you do martial arts for self-defence?”

“Isn’t it kind of awkward having to, like, be so close to guys?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll just use technique rather than strength”

“But – you look so… feminine!”

“Sorry, I just can’t punch a girl”

What amuses me is that most of the people who make the above comments, don’t seem to suspect that any woman who trains in martial arts – or, supposedly, any male-dominated sport – hears these on a regular basis. Call them sexist, call them ignorant, call them naïve – whatever it is, it’s frustrating.

Then there’s the genuinely well-meaning training partners who don’t offer any resistance to your drills which actually makes it harder to feel out whether you are doing the technique properly, those who will punch a whole fist’s width to the side of your face rendering an evasion drill totally useless, and those who explain away your incompetence with, “It’s just because I’m heavier”. Actually, sometimes it’s just because I’m not good at it, and I’d appreciate your feedback and help.

However, I’m not actually here to rant (unnecessarily), or to list all the things that annoy me. Yes, a lot of people assume that women in martial arts are either sleeping with the coach or a training partner, have emotional issues, or are gay – and that’s both offensive and wrong, but if you didn’t realise that by now you wouldn’t still be reading my post.

What interests me is the plague of tiny subconscious mechanisms that even some of the more confident of women struggle to subvert, courtesy of decades of gender bias.

I don’t know if this is the case in other heavily male-populated gyms, but there is a strong sense of rivalry among the girls who are regular attendees, or more accurately, among the girls who attend the martial arts classes. The clear difference in behaviour and in relationships between the women who train in martial arts and those who attend the regular fitness classes or do their own workouts is what leads me to speculate that there is some sort of conflicting dynamic going on in the minds of the females who train in a male-dominated sport, rather than anything that could apply to all active females.

At this point I can only speak from a personal perspective (and anecdotally I know other women have expressed similar observations) but there is so much more pressure sparring with another woman. Sparring with men can mean one of two things: either they go easy on you and end up putting in barely any resistance at all, and less than a woman would; or whatever happens you have an excuse for being dominated or beaten up, because you have the ready-made excuse that they are a man and probably also heavier than you. Because there is more pressure, women go harder, so the competition is even more ferocious, and so on.

But then there’s an added dimension. Now, I could be completely imagining this, and indeed I hope I am, but there is a sense that women are fighting for more than just points or submissions – there is that sensation that it is not just about your performance on the day or in that round but about your reputation. Of course there is always the underlying discourse about how attractive a woman is – a woman is never just a talented fighter, she is always “hot” or “ripped”, or conversely, “she looks like a man” or “she must take something”. Open any martial arts publication, online or in print, and any mention of a female fighter is linked to a comment about her appearance. Having spoken to a lot of men in my gym, I believe most of them have expressed an opinion on a woman’s appearance at least once in my presence. Now as I said, I’m not here to have an anti-male rant – especially as the most alarming thing is that women do it too. I know I do – “she trains so hard yet she’s still fat” or “I train harder than her so why does she look better than me naked”, or even just “why is she applying makeup before going training?” – and I have certainly overheard similar comments from other women. I judge female fighters who pose half-naked in magazines, but I have no issue with male fighters posing in their boxers and fight stance (having said that, I haven’t yet seen shots of any male fighters posing in non-fightwear or taking on suggestive poses). Back to my earlier point about a whole reputation being at stake – I suppose it comes from there being fewer women in the gym altogether, so when you take a small percentage of a gym’s general population to work out who trains more than the average Joe (or Jane), you are left with an even smaller pool of women. So of course each female’s performance stands out more than each male’s.

That’s not even the most intriguing discussion. What I find women struggle with are the typical athletic and fighting poses: the standard athletic stance, with chest up and out, bum pushed back, and an arched back; a good fight stance, with legs planted a slightly unnatural distance apart; a good base, with legs again separated, hips back and chest forward, pressing into your opponent. I was never taught to sit with my knees crossed, or any of those clichés of ladylike behaviour, but as a woman I have adopted certain ways of carrying myself – look around any office space or breakout area, and you will see than men and women tend to sit very differently. How many of you have heard somebody remark of a woman, “She walks like a man”? Even if we are not taught them, these things are ingrained in us. The sooner coaches understand this, the quicker they will be able to correct their female athletes’ poor postures in a sensitive way – drill it into them, so that the position becomes natural, and be careful to watch for any slips back into the old knees-together, shoulder-rolling-modestly-inwards.

To wander back to a more sociological discussion, I have noticed a pattern emerging in that women are much more reluctant to try new sports, classes or exercises than men are. Women I talk to about my training usually say something along the lines of needing to get fit before joining in – and the newcomers are, indeed, in decent physical shape when they do appear. Men, however, will turn up and jump right in, rarely noticing that they are performing the exercises really quite badly, and quick to take a break when they get tired. I know this is a huge generalisation and I don’t mean to offend any men or women for whom this is not the case, but I have been to a lot of gyms and practiced a number of different sports, and also spoken to a lot of people at different stages of their various pursuits, and this is a general trend I have noted. Again, I can only speculate that this comes from a sense of women having to appear composed at all times – they don’t have to be strong, or brave, and they can cry when something is sad, but they can’t get flustered and blow a fuse. I can’t provide any references for this as it is all anecdotal, and I am not a sociologist or psychologist or any other -ist who might have any authority on the topic, so if anyone has any evidence to support or refute this theory I would love to hear from you.

There are some other very important physiological differences that people do ignore or try to downplay, when they actually deserve more attention. One of those, of course, is – everyone’s favourite subject – the menstrual cycle. Most male coaches will ignore it altogether, except for when a female athlete is having a bad day when the only explanation must be that she’s on her period. Funnily enough, while people assume that if a woman is grumpy or upset it is because of her hormones, most people fail to recognise that a woman may be feeling bloated, may be self-conscious due to a changed appearance from said bloating or water retention (which deserves particular attention for any female athletes in sports which require rapid weight loss, such as combat sports), may be in pain from cramping or have a lower pain threshold in general at that time, and might be experiencing heightened touch sensitivity – which may not be causing acute pain, but which can build from a mild irritation to a strong sense of discomfort throughout a session in a close-contact sport. She may also be fatigued, potentially suffering from mild anaemia, and may experience higher core temperatures, which can make a session feel more intense than it normally would feel (not to mention lead to more perspiration, which will have effects on hydration and electrolyte levels, and everything that that entails). However, all of this is a very complex issue which is completely beyond my expertise and, besides, isn’t really the point I am getting at.

Whole books could be written about discrepancies between male and female musculature, body composition, hormone levels, the female menstrual cycle, and all of their combined effects at different times on the human body, depending on type of sport and training intensity. Just begin typing any of those terms into a search engine and it will complete your query for you, so popular is the topic.

We would also be here all day if I decided to trawl through magazines, articles, and posts on social media, to seek out all the ignorant comments made at the expense of female athletes – or even if I decided to list all those that I have personally heard or read from people I know… actual, real-life people.

But I hope that if one point has been made in this post that hasn’t been expressed clearly enough before, is that the focus on training (and training with) female athletes is all wrong. The physical differences will, more often than not, take care of themselves. The emotional differences will then in turn smooth themselves out – we don’t need our male partners to treat us differently to spare our egos, nor do we need them to taunt us for whatever reason they may think that is a good idea. What we do need is for people to realise that there are some very deeply social norms embedded into our behaviours, so deeply that we don’t always realise they are there in time to combat them. There is nothing concrete to be done here in my opinion – in fact, trying too hard to redress the issue will just make it worse, as overcompensating tends to do in any context. We just all need to be aware that this is going on. Change starts in our own minds, which is where athletic performance and success come from too. Go figure.