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 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 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.