Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa


This is another personal narrative that isn’t related to what’s promised in my blog’s “Purpose.”  But, well, this is my blog and I always just write about whatever’s on my mind at the time.  Oh the liberty of internet writing!

So what are these thoughts that have been rolling around my brain lately?

Sometimes it’s really frustrating to be a woman.

On the one side, I recognize that my life is easier in many ways because I’m an attractive female – people are nicer to me, I can get away with stuff, etc.  But on the other hand, it can be aggravating to be judged by my physical appearance and the associated gender stereotypes.  Even though no one can get away from preconceptions, it feels like there are more negative presumptions attached to women.  Just once, I’d like someone to be intimidated by me!  I wish strangers would take me seriously without me having to prove my capabilities first.

I usually have a continual low-lying irritation regarding the bullshit that women put up with, but last week it really flared up.  Why?  Because I started taking Brazilian Jujitsu classes at a mixed martial arts studio.  I’ve been doing martial arts since I was a kid, but haven’t trained much in the past few years.  My body’s not as strong as it used to be and my muscles have forgotten many of the techniques.

Furthermore, Brazilian Jujitsu is a lot different than the grappling I’m used to: much sportier.  It requires a completely different mentality than practical self-defense.

I went to the studio on Monday evening to watch their advanced class.  There were fourteen men ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 times my size: most of them weighed at least twice as much as me.  The instructor asked what I was doing there and I explained that I was looking for somewhere to train.  He told me to come back to the beginner class on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, there was one other woman in the class so, of course, everyone assumed we’d be partners.  Not that I’m complaining – it was a relief to have her there.  She was helpful and patient.  We practiced swinging into a side armbar from the mount – a very common move in sporty martial arts.  Despite its extensive use, however, I couldn’t do the technique at all.  I probably haven’t tried that move in 9 years!

Needless to say, I was frustrated: frustrated with myself, frustrated with the amused attitude of the instructor, and frustrated with the indifference of the 20 other men in the class.  If I was a man and told the instructor, “Yes I’ve practiced martial arts before” he’d probably respond with, “What styles?” instead of “This is Hank.  He’ll show you how we do it here.”

All this frustration piled on top of my driving stress and Hillbrow resentments to make me extremely exasperated.  I just wanted to walk into a room and have people think, “Whoa, we should take this girl seriously.”

Instead, it feels like people constantly underestimate me.  Part of it is because I look young – like teenager young.  Part of it is my own attitude: I don’t lack confidence but I don’t assert myself either.  I’m quiet in groups, which people mistake as timidity.  I smile and laugh easily, which people mistake as fatuousness.

As people get to know me, though, their first impressions usually change.

It often begins when they find out I’m an engineer.  I can see the surprise on their faces as they think, “Oh then this girl must be smart.”  (Which is funny because I know some dumb engineers.)

Then as we start talking, they realize I’m self-assured.  I might be nice and easygoing, but I don’t take shit.

After a while, I’ve usually established myself as strong, intelligent, and independent.  (At least I hope that’s what people think of me!)

So what happened with the Brazilian Jujitsu classes?  I went home and practiced the technique.  Over and over and over.  My bum was sore the next day because it’s a lot different landing on a hardwood floor versus cushioned mats!

When I went to the next class on Thursday, some of the men said, “Back for more?”

“Definitely,” I smiled.

We did some punching and kicking, which I’m used to.  I could tell the instructor was finally starting to think, “Maybe she does know what’s she’s doing.”

We practiced the same side armbar move as in Tuesday’s class.  My technique was far from perfect, but now I could do it.  We also did a paintbrush wristlock, which I remember from my Shotokan training.  At the end of the class the instructor gave me a waiver form to fill out to become a regular student.  Took long enough!

Maybe it would be worse if people always overestimated me and then were disappointed by my performance.  It can be satisfying to feel like a secret weapon!

But then I think about all the women who feel disregarded and weren’t raised to be empowered like I was.  My family and Sensei and teachers all prepared me to battle against stereotypes.  It must be so discouraging to be constantly suppressed because of your gender.

It’s the thought of these women that motivates me to continue with Brazilian Jujitsu instead of switching to an easier fitness routine.

My gender is not a hindrance; I won’t let it be.


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2 thoughts on “Digression

  1. Good for you Beth, that would be rather intimidating to walk into a studio primarily filled with (what I imagine to be) self satisfied men and get through the tryout stage of a new club. Good way to learn (getting tossed in ;), but challenging, especially when it feels like there is not much expected of you and not much support. You should check out Ronda Rousey, she executes a pretty impressive armbar. No one wants to be embarrassed by a “girl” half their size, maybe those guys were just trying to avoid eye contact so they didn’t have to spar with you!

    • Thanks Meghan! I’ll definitely look up Ronda Rousey.

      It’s my third week of jujitsu now and the other students are getting friendlier. They’ve started saying “hello” at the beginning and “see you later” at the end. It’s a nice improvement!

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