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'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?

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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