Thursday, August 28, 2014

Big Girl BJJ Problems: Another "Big Girl" Blogger

I've been a negligent BJJ blogger...partially because I've been training more, partially because GroundWork gets most of my extra internet attention, and partially because a recent layoff has left my time devoted to rethinking questions of income and life.

...but also because, once I feel I've explored/expressed a topic to my satisfaction, I don't want to write anymore. That's different than a lack of topics, but I'm wont to just be quiet when I have nothing to say.

Thankfully, friends like Slideyfoot are there to call attention to potential areas of insight you might be missing out on. One of mine is definitely being a large woman in BJJ (which I haven't written on in months), so it was great to see another large woman, specifically Jodie, over at Jodie Bear's Journey, covering the topic and writing on some of the challenges we face in training.

Give it a read...it's a list of problems she's run into, and at first blush, reads like a mix of both the problems of bigness and general girlness, but there are some, specifically boob chokes, feeling pressure to keep your legs shaved, and injuring people, that I think are issues all women face, but that are amplified by navigating the tricky paradigm of femaleness being synonymous with smallness, fragility, and absence. This is a bit different culturally for me, since Black femininity is frequently associated with size and power (as reflected in songs like "Baby Got Back" and "Brick House"), but BJJ isn't a highly racially specific environment, so standard American/Brazilian norms of femininity tend to prevail.

Basically, big isn't lady-like, so it makes the un-ladylike, even less lady-like.

When you feel like you are inherently anti-feminine, and do identify as a woman (I speak only for myself here, though I imagine the sentiments are common), you will most likely feel pressure to up your female game. Unshaved legs and unflattering pants aren't just unkempt, they're one more chip off your femininity. Injuring someone or smothering them with your "massive" boobs aren't just dangerous or sexy, they're reminders that you are, in fact, very present and quite the opposite of dainty.

So I read Jodie's list twice...three times actually, and each time, saw a little bit more how pretty much the entire list (save maybe the issue of hair getting trapped and hickeys) actually are a little special for big girls. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

In Praise of the Gi

I believe that all group activities acquire cultures.  

Those cultures are seldom inherent to actual practice, but still typically get conflated with the activity itself. Sometimes those cultures come from the dominant demographic practicing the activity (Brazilian-born acai-love among practitioners of BJJ around the world)…sometimes they’re passed down in history (like bowing from Japan)…but others, like the gi in BJJ, are an inherent part of the practice.

A friend shared this piece this morning—it’s about a woman who, after losing 164lbs, and becoming a personal trainer and a Spartan, a Rugged Maniac, a Warrior and a Triathlete, still sometimes finds her body ugly. The fitness Internet is full of posts by people who’ve learned to accept the stretchmarks and loose skin that being overweight has left them with. This post though, takes a slightly different twist, with detailed photos of her “ugly” body parts juxtaposed against what they can actually do. It’s a stark and rare comparison of aesthetic and function.

I read it, enjoyed it, and couldn’t help but think “This doesn’t happen in BJJ”.

My cousin, who is an amazing, budding triathlete (and blogger), has had a front row seat to all of my training stories (even the ones I wouldn’t publish here). I mentioned, the other day, a comment I’d heard from a lady in jiu jitsu online, who’d said something that basically amounted to being thankful for gis because they cover over so many bodily imperfections.

“I wish they had gis for tri.”

She was joking, but the very concept says a lot. Check out any women’s fitness clothing line or magazine and, winter sports aside, you’ll only be a few inches of skin away from a lingerie catalog. We’re not even talking sports where minimal clothing is arguably necessary (like swimming or gymnastics), but sports like running or activities like crossfit, where clothing trends move toward the display of more skin (partly to advertise results) and where mainstream images use aesthetic no more gracefully than an Axe body spray campaign. Even with innocuous arms and legs on display, women…people…are still frequently left looking at training video and post race photos, lamenting jiggles and dimples.

Strong is not the new sexy. Sexy is, and always will be, the new sexy.

But the gi…it does hide a multitude of sins against sexiness. I’ve heard women across BJJ breathe occasional, small sighs of relief at the coverage a gi can offer. I've heard a few similar whispers from men. They, with their thick cloth, bulky cuts and long pants and sleeves, are almost revolutionary in their egalitarian nature—multiple times I’ve looked at two people rolling and have not been sure of genders. You’ll be hard pressed to find that anywhere else, in or out of the worlds of fitness.

That’s where the hijab* (or even the burqa or niqab) comes in. While generally lambasted as oppressive, many Muslim women tout the clothing as liberating them from the constant evaluation of worth by their physical appearance. Liberation is not, in fact, only about saying yes or revealing more. Sometimes it’s about the right to say no…the right to remove oneself or keep oneself or conform oneself.

I can't help but wonder if Andrea, had she found bodily change through jiu jitsu, would have even felt the need to highlight the abilities of her changed body--if instead of images of other women in boy shorts, with stomachs exposed and toned thighs on display, she'd met her fitness revolution amidst pictures of tousled hair, gnarled hands and disheveled jackets. 

This is why I think the gi, in all its tradition and visual awkwardness, in a world of pop-fitness appearance worship, is, in its use, actually revolutionary.


*Of course, the hijab analogy breaks down at the question around the forced use of the clothing by only one gender.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Small Man Conundrum

Almost five years in and I’m still uncomfortable with men who are significantly smaller than me…and that’s on multiple levels. There is a difference between training with a man who's slightly smaller, but still stronger than I am, and training with a man who I know, without a marked difference in skill, I could likely cause some physical damage. 

I showed up to drilling class last week, and most people were working on their tests. I ended up partnering up with one of our new blue belts…he’s probably about 5’3”, 140lbs, fast and technical—a stark contrast to my slower and definitely less detailed 6’, 210lbs. I’ve rolled with him before and he dismantles me easily—partially because I’m still quite clumsy with people when I know any drop of my weight could easily result in the crack of their rib.  To be clear, he’s quite a bit better than me, but with him, I’m quite a bit worse than myself.

He needed a partner and since I’m not testing, I was the best choice—thankfully he asked me to train. I’m always slow to initiate with a smaller man unless I know him well. That’s not out of protection of my own ego—years of salsa and learning to risk the rejection in asking a shorter man to dance has left me generally insulated against the slight indignity of being shot down as a partner because you are, in fact, a large woman. Unfortunately, it has also left me with a heightened awareness of the split second of confused panic that frequently runs across a man’s face when he’s put in the difficult position of training with a woman that might be able to dominate him in some way—even if that way is only getting stuck under a crushing mount for a few seconds more than he might be comfortable with. I also fear that little extra oomph of machismo that's prone to pop up every now and again...whether in dance or on the mats, I've never felt compensatory danger from a similar sized or larger man. 

This newer blue though, I believe understands the complex dynamics of gender and strength and seems to be ok with it. I’ve heard him remark very matter-of-factly that some of the women in the gym are stronger than he is, and I take his ability to even form those words as an indication thereof. 

So we adjusted as we went—comments of using someone lighter than me were initially delivered with a hint of reluctance, and I apologized a bit too much for my weight when applying armbars from mount. As to be expected though, as we worked, the genderedness of the exchange melted away and we made it to a point where we were simply two bodies, training jiu jitsu.  

Monday, May 12, 2014

Who Bears the Weight of Community PR in BJJ?

I hadn't planned to start writing again for a while...it can be easy to get caught up in feeling repetitive as a blogger  (and I still haven't figured out how I wanted to end the last series I did) but some hullabaloo over Dean Lister and some sexual pantomimes and Lister's responses and Lister's defenders has popped up, and I wanted to clear my head a bit.

I think it's important for me to say that there are very few things in life I see as one-off or isolated incidents. I believe that if that wasn't true before, the Internet (social media specifically), has made it so today. I believe that we really are all marketers now.

So I've been training...rolling up on 5 years soon, and I still remember my first class. It was taught by a black belt who I now consider a friend. I was in his class for a few years and our similar personalities and approaches in working with people made connecting very organic. I've said before that I knew we'd be buddies after only a couple of classes

I train at a gym where our greetings are pretty formal--we bow off and on the mats. You have to find, bow and shake the hands of all black belts on the mat when entering and leaving. That's never been difficult for me since I was brought up with some decently rigid rules around addressing those in different power positions. Needless to say, the bro-hugs that we used off the mat as greetings didn't fit in our academy's culture. I knew that, but still, once someone's a friend, even if there's a black belt around their waist, it can be easy to forget where you are. 

Well one day I saw him, drew my hand back, let out a "What's up!!" and went in for a hug...in front of Parrumpa. 

"You can't do that. Greet him like a black belt."

I knew he was right...for both the sake of the belt itself and the perception of the belt by others. See...I've heard Parrumpa say similar things to teammates before, usually starting at blue. By the time you have color around your waist, it's quite apparent that he's aware of what the perception of that color means. I was also reminded of my own talk with a higher belt who'd done something similar (to the video) with me once, and how my concern didn't come so much from personal offense, but from the resulting break in respect from white belts (and having to start from scratch in teaching them how to behave with female students) who had been quick to take social cues from behavior of higher ranked students.

And that, is where I think the disconnect in the Lister discussion falls. Dean and his supporters are arguing over the harmlessness of the incident itself, the woman's personal lack of issue with it and Lister's impeccable record as a competitor and instructor. Criticisms center around the perception of him giving a mock handjob to people who don't know the context. You gotta love false dichotomies.

I'll say both sides are right in their own contexts...but I also don't believe that all contexts are created equal. 

I spend a lot of time thinking of BJJ and the future and how it's perceived and by whom it's seen. The clip (now taken down) is obviously not an ad for a BJJ class, but still, this behavior (initially private, now public by way of the Internet) is definitely not a selling point...mostly because it's not special, unique to, or a characteristic of BJJ. Pretty much any sports-centered environment provides a space where hand jobs are considered funny and teasing is the norm. Relaxing for some people? Sure. A unique selling proposition for BJJ? Not in the least. 

And while I've heard people defend it as such, I know...I hope rather...that's not what anybody involved in the video was going for. I did have to ask myself though, why people (in this case, Dean Lister) are quick to double down on defending an "inside joke" that likely should have stayed indoors.

There's a saying in business that "you get what you measure". As Lister points out, he's created champions and has held seminars in over 40 countries. Little of his career reward or measurement centers around his public perception...BJJ has no big sponsors to threaten pulling out or PR firms coaching athletes. So in light of the current state of cash in BJJ, I get it. There is simply no reason, aside from personal values, to give respectful thought to the opinions of an "extreme minority".

I'm not going to quote Uncle Ben or rehash my thoughts on the complexity of the perception of stars in any community, but for me personally, this hurt a bit...the responses much more than the video. 

I still remember the first time I heard Lister on InsideBJJ and being immediately enamored with his polyglot status (I have a knee-jerk love for language people), honesty about his experiences as a child growing up as an outsider, and how he spoke and thought about BJJ. I'm in no way naive as to the humanity of humans, but I did, based on what I'd heard before, and a side conversation I'd recently had with him, expect deeper, if not only different responses. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

21 Life Improvements from BJJ: 20

Victory without winning

Emotions without words

Physical intimacy without sex

Feminine energy beyond availability or absence.

Attraction beyond beauty

Achievement without grade and progress without promise 

Male tenderness...

Pain without animosity

Understanding without speech 

Education without books

Connection without class

Growth beyond a plan

exhaustion without futility

Saturday, December 14, 2013

21 Life Improvements from BJJ: 19-Membership in a Supportive Fitness Community

Training BJJ has brought me into contact with a community that I was pretty sheltered from for a very long time--the fitness community. I won't lie...it hasn't really been a positive exposure. Of course, there's an emphasis on physical health, and that's important, but in all honesty, what I've seen is a culture that focuses on a very narrow aesthetic and encourages a level of personal self interest that reminds me too much of executive/acquisition culture.

I'll admit that I could have been biased as an outsider, or just misunderstood what was being paraded in front of my face, however, considering the frequency with which I see the terms "hater" and accusations of jealousy or unattractiveness tossed about...I'm thinking I wasn't 100% wrong to question the motives of some of the voices I'd heard. I was reminded of this during the recent hullabaloo over the two new mom photos that have been flying 'round the 'net over the past few weeks.  


I honestly only have beef with the situation connected with the photo on the right, and that's only because of the words chosen to go with the image. It was an interesting debate to watch...supporters praising Maria Kang's physique (which is admirable), detractors condemning the wording. Watching the two groups talk past each other day after day, something hit me...motivation is about as varied as body types and people either don't, or don't want to get (and implement) that. What one person sees as a motivational "What's your excuse?" another will see as condemnation. Not too difficult to apply one on one...negligent to ignore when posting in open forums like the internet.

I wrote on how much I dislike this type of "motivation" a while back. I loathe pretty much all inspiration porn...I have yet to run into anything with the wording "what's your excuse?" that didn't make my skin crawl over its crass and lazy over-simplification. The image below and the story of Oscar Pistorius is a great example.


Phillipa Willits said something about the photo that I think is highly applicable to the image of Maria Kang regarding oversimplification of the subject and hamfisting of the audience. I switched out a couple of phrases to see what difference it would make in context.

 It does not matter who the people in these photographs are, as long as their representation is enough to guilt non-disabled (aesthetically unappealing) people into action. Their use of prosthetics (having given birth) is the only thing about them that is of interest in these images, and it automatically turns them into some kind of superhero. Along with the captions, the implication is supposed to be, “Wow, they have a great attitude!”.

Having children isn't a disability, but based on the amount of discussion from new mothers on how they work to reclaim their previous physiques and how much raving has gone on over these two new moms, I'm going to go ahead and accept that we expect a certain level of aesthetic loss to come with motherhood, and that the two moms-in-question, have bucked the stereotype and "risen above" post-pregnancy bodies with their determination and lack of excuses. The difference in this case though, is that the losing party is not represented in the image, but instead embodied in the audiece...Shark Girl pointed this out well:

"Not only does it reduce a person to their disability, it also doesn't address the target audience's reality."

The whole thing makes me deeply thankful for BJJ (and the people in it), which still boasts an over-arching culture that is genuinely for everybody. That's not an easy thing to keep up. BJJ somehow maintains an environment that praises gas over defined abs, technique over body-fat% and personal progress over standardized end results. Of course there are bad apples, but I say this as a person who will likely always feel at least a little unathletic...even when I've felt my most uncoordinated and out of shape, I've always felt an undercurrent of acceptance in my training. Part of that is due to our bulky uniforms (gis are some serious body equalizers), but the most important reason is the willingness of most practitioners to take people where they are, and help them to through their goals. That environment right there, I believe, is the foundation of spreading a meaningful culture of fitness. When I start eating badly, all it takes is a night of training and spending time around other people who are also working to optimize themselves to motivate (not inspire...I'm not a very aspirational person) me to do better.

Some people, I honestly think most people, especially ones who don't have a history of being concerned about their physical health, need a community that will allow them to come as they are, fail when they do and not be condemned for either...not even under the guise of motivation.