June 15, 2013

One of the Guys vs. The Girl

In a ramble inspired by Shark Girl's hilarious entry from a while back, as well as a ridiculous number of childish blog posts and forum threads either about how girls shouldn't grapple because it's "not natural" or about how it makes some guys so very uncomfortable to roll with females (ZOMG cooties!! Girl parts!! Wherever shall I put my hands??), I'd like to take a moment to address the matter of having two X chromosomes in a "guy's sport." I actually wrote most of this about 4 months after I started training and never published it, but with the influx of new female athletes at Ronin lately, I figure the subject has become quite relevant.

No, I've never been super feminine in the traditional sense...I'm definitely a tomboy. I like my sweatpants, t-shirts and beat-up sneakers. I loathe makeup and dresses and diamond earrings. I also refuse to tolerate brainless chicks who act totally incompetent, relying on men for everything like helpless ditzes who can't lift their own Prada bags. That said, I do absolutely love fluffy animals, bright colors and big strong boyfriends. I'm willing to jump guys twice my size if they're bothering a friend and can handle getting my ass kicked as a result, but I can also be fun and silly and totally adorable (really, I know it's hard to believe). So where does that leave me when it comes to something like grappling?

The fact is, wrestling is and always has been very much a boy's game. It's kind of the whole alpha male fight for dominance thing...a concept that doesn't seem to appeal to many ladies, comparatively - and I guess somewhat understandably. A lot of women are more claustrophobic, less aggressive, less prone to enjoying combat sports and just generally uncomfortable with the close contact thing, particularly when it comes to training with the opposite sex. I just wish I got paid every time a female friend said something along the lines of "You do WHAT with WHO? I could NEVER do that..."

But here I am, a rainbow-loving tomboy who's perfectly happy around groups of boys, training almost daily with a big gang of athletes, and from the beginning, one of my biggest questions was how do I want to be seen? No qualms about being in a male-dominated environment, or about being stuck between some dude's legs as he tries to choke me out. That wasn't even a remote concern. My one and only fear going into MMA was...what if I look stupid? Because let's face it, wrestling and decking people in the face isn't all that feminine, and sometimes enthusiasm can only take you so far when almost everyone you're training with outweighs you by 30 - 80 lbs (not to mention, their muscle-to-fat ratio is, in general, significantly higher than your own).

Looking back, I went into my first class a year and a half ago ago wanting to be thought of as anything but a girl. Just another one of the new guys, nothing to see here, move right along. I wore a pair of my brother's shorts (he's two years younger but almost 6'0 so you can imagine how those fit) and the biggest, rattiest t-shirt I could find (which, in hindsight, was not entirely ideal for grappling). For the second class, once I'd gotten a feel for the place, I felt a bit better about wearing a normal t-shirt...you know, one that was actually fitted for girls as opposed to overweight men. But I was still wary of giving off too much of a girly vibe because if I did, would people start thinking that that they had to go easy or give me special treatment? How much girl is too much for an MMA gym? As I wrote in my very first entry, I was completely paranoid about being laughed out of the building when I first walked in, so a lot of my focus in the beginning was on trying to avoid such attention and just blend into the crowd.

Over the following weeks, I became more and more comfortable with the people that I was training with. I stopped caring if my shirts were shorter or more fitted than what the guys wore or if the colors stood out more. I stopped worrying about tops riding up or shorts or gi pants coming off...I mean, that's what underarmour capris and sports bras are for, right? And at this point, I'm happy enough to alternate between the darker colors and things that are distinctly girly. For example, I have four pairs of MMA shorts, one of which is a glaringly bright pink and white camo design...which I sometimes wear with an electric blue heat tech t-shirt (please forgive the fact that I have no sense of fashion or color coordination...I said that I'm a girl, not that I'm a very good one). And while I'm damn sure aggressive on the mats, I can also relax and be less so in between classes and drilling instead of continuously acting like some sort of butch manbeater.

Unlike most of my female friends, I'm average height, am not built like a stick, and I don't want or need to be exactly like other women. Then again, I clearly am one. In something like grappling, that often feels like a contradiction. It seems like many women in the sport struggle to figure out how much of a guy they need to be in order to fit in or to be taken seriously, and as a result, many women are too uncomfortable to continue or to even try training at all. Of course, immature discussions on the interwebs abound.

Guys at other gyms worldwide seem to bitch and moan about the trials and tribulations of rolling with the other sex. It's just wrong, women don't belong on the mats, there must be something wrong with them. I would feel like I'm cheating on my wife. My religion doesn't allow it. Working with chicks does nothing to improve my game. Luckily, this has never been a major issue at Ronin, but it's disappointing to read such things or hear it from female athletes elsewhere. The ironic thing is that such crap is said even in cases where the women are taller and/or stronger than many of the men. So for someone like me to show up and act like...well, a girl (at least when appropriate) is something that I would never have thought possible when I first started.

Ultimately, how I'm seen as a training partner is the most important thing to me, no contest. But whereas in the beginning, I'd never have worn bright colors or acted silly or allowed a single shred of girlness to breach the surface, I've now reached a kind of compromise. I even have two pairs of custom tie-dye gi pants that bring epic joy to my jiu jitsu life, even if they make Christian want to gouge out his eyes (in my opinion, if Liz can wear bright orange and yellow gis, I can damn sure sport tie-dye Fenom pants). I'm comfortable joking around and being more like my quasi-girl self rather than acting like a total dude. Because I know the people I train with now, and they know that when I'm on the mats, I'm there to work hard and to learn the same as anyone else, regardless of my ridiculous MMA fashion choices. In some ways, I feel like the more I train, the more I have to prove that I'm still a girl...a complex which manifests itself in the unacceptable amount of pink I've been wearing this past year. Hell, if I can find a tie-dye rashguard and/or MMA shorts, you can bet your ass I'll be sparring in those next!