After about three years of high school wrestling, I gave up on my martial arts career. Managing classes and the ever-evolving social challenges of my first year in college proved difficult enough. I simply didn’t have time. But this summer, when I moved to Indiana to be a seasonal park ranger at the Indiana Dunes National Park, I found that I had nothing but time.
My off days and after-work hours stretched forward like the towering sand dunes I surveyed. For once in my life, I was filled with unplaceable excess energy. I knew that I had to get back into the ring. After searching through Yelp reviews and Google Maps, I finally settled on an MMA gym in Hobart, Indiana.
Naturally, I was nervous. It wasn’t even until I got there that I really comprehended that it was a competition gym, a place where a decent amount of the regular attendees were very seriously into their sport. Many members spent hours there, training, every single day.
So I stood out a bit, rolling up in my ancient Ivivva shorts and high school wrestling tee shirts. I’m by far the youngest person there and one of only a few women. That attention could be good and could be bad, depending on the day. I found the more experienced jiujitsu practitioners and kickboxers to be the most helpful. They were always willing to help me out, and it never felt demeaning.
However, on days when I wasn’t feeling super chipper and upbeat — the way I usually act around the gym, as a defense mechanism, mostly — the well-meaning but exaggerated good jobs and high fives could get on my nerves. Sometimes I just wanted to blend in with the crowd, to have them see me as being on an equal playing field. But as a girl in an MMA gym, there is no way to avoid standing out.
This barrier alone will oftentimes prevent women from starting martial arts. There is, in addition, often a rampant toxic masculine energy to these types of places, an energy that I also felt on my high school wrestling team. It’s a place, in my experience, rife with taunts that can oftentimes be sexist, homophobic and fatphobic. You have to deal with the indignity of men being called ladies as an insult while you’re out working just as hard, if not harder, than them. Or, alternatively, a woman being considered one of the men because she’s talented and strong.
It’s a culture that’s hard to shift and one that I admit I do not try too hard to shift. Simply existing in the space and managing to keep an upbeat, kind attitude is enough of a resistance for me.
Throughout high school wrestling and this summer experience, I have found that it is the women that keep me coming back. When I was captain of the high school wrestling team, it was the other members of the team who made me want to make a change in the community. I had to, for the sake of the girls who looked up to me.
And here too, it is the female camaraderie that ties me to this place. It is the smile from the woman who greets me at the front desk, a wonderfully smart jiujitsu purple belt who seems to run the gym alongside her husband, that encourages me to keep going.
It’s not just the female camaraderie, though. Sweat seems to have a way of making unlikely people bond, and at the end of every class, I feel closer to those around me. It’s a brotherhood, sure, but at least a brotherhood that I have been offered a hand into.
Many men and women have helped me during my martial arts journey. They have given me words of encouragement and reassurances that I will one day improve. In fact, most people have generally been very kind and supportive. The problem is typically not the individuals, but the amplification of negative systems and traits that comes from competitive, heavily male environments.
Despite some of the downsides, I would recommend martial arts to everyone, female presenting or otherwise. It’s a great opportunity to get a sweat going and to get a little bit of rage out of your system. It’s a sport that I personally love. I love the intensity, I love the fight and I love the way I feel afterwards. I love how much stronger it has made me and I appreciate its application in self-defense.
While progress has been made, martial arts is one of the realms of modern life that does not yet have equality for women. This is another reason why, even selfishly, I would encourage more women to participate in MMA.
I dream that one day women will not be an exception within a competition gym. I hope that one day we will be the norm.