Rant 32 April 2006: The best defense

My training partner is sitting on top of me, choking me. I grab her wrist, slide my foot up next to hers, buck my hips and fling her off face-first into the mat. She flies like the proverbial wet sack of poop. Hoohah!

We’re having our first Brazilian jiu-jitsu lesson with kimonogirl. We’d learned a sprinkling of grappling on our own, and had dutifully spent every Sunday morning wrestling each other with more enthusiasm than skill. BJJ is a martial art that is based on the notion that your opponent will very likely be stronger, heavier, and faster than your sorry loser ass – perfect if you’re a 5 foot tall woman. It’s not meant to look pretty; it’s meant to work, and it’s meant to work in a world where most rules of orderly combat aren’t going to apply. Your opponent won’t be nice to you; they won’t avoid hitting below the belt; they aren’t concerned with aesthetics; they’re going to be in your face and things will get fugly real quick.

Our instructor is keen about teaching BJJ to women. He is a placid, wiry man of medium height who looks exactly the opposite of imposing, one of those guys that opponents might easily dismiss until he suddenly jams his knee up their nostril. He chokes and re-chokes us. We sprawl and flip. As the hickeys accumulate on my windpipe, I make a mental note to wear a turtleneck to work tomorrow.

I was initially hesitant in martial arts training. I’d stand ten feet away from the punching bag. I’d run away from the amused instructor chasing me around the room. But I’ve grown to love the physicality of grappling. In grappling, I can’t avoid being in close; getting snot, spit, and sweat on me; smelling someone else’s armpit as he or she wraps it around my head in the process of going for my throat. In each moment as I overcome my fear of diving towards, rather than away from, an opponent who means to do me harm, I move towards overcoming the other fears in my life that also threaten me. I don’t think about the size of my hips. I think about the power in them as I drive them up, using the laws of physics to free my body from my opponent’s weight.

I am often struck by this contradiction: that women are able opponents against themselves and one another, but poorly defended against real threats to their body and psyches. Women can be ninjas of self destruction and internecine warfare. Their verbal hostility can be a surgical strike. Their grasp of emotional tactics can make Sun Tzu look like Rain Man. And yet in other regards women may drop their defenses and let the forces of self-obliteration come marching across the drawbridge.

Well-meaning people often recommend self-defense for women. The idea is that we can learn to scream, scrape keys, and shin kick the guy who leaps out of the bushes at us late at night. These are all good strategies. And yet, although we have all felt well-founded fear on the street or even experienced harm from a stranger, most of the time, we know those who would do harm to us. Violence and abuse are in our homes. To be candid, if a family member, acquaintance, or partner isn’t abusing us, we’re way ahead of the game. The worst offender may even be ourselves. We worry about the guy in the bushes as we starve and poison our bodies, as we backstab each other, as we look in the mirror and say “I hate myself.” We worry about terrorism as we subject our bodies to the shock and awe of modern food chemistry, sleep deprivation, gridlock, time pressure, multitasking, staring at a picture box, stimulants, pills to keep us happy, pills to keep us from being too happy, pills to keep us sitting still and shutting up.

In Canada, eating disorders are now the third most common chronic illness in adolescent girls. (Adolescent Medicine Committee, Canadian Paediatric Society. Eating Disorders in adolescents: principles of diagnosis and treatment. Paediatrics and Child Health 1998; 3(3) 189-92. Reaffirmed January 2001.) What’s the biggest killer of women? Think breast cancer? Think again – it’s cardiovascular disease –heart disease and stroke, which are strongly affected by lifestyle choices. Beginning in 1993, more women in Canada have died each year from lung cancer than from breast cancer, and since 1971, the incidence and death rates for lung cancer among women have climbed almost fivefold.. Probably not coincidentally, in 2001, over 20% of the adult female population smoked daily, and about one-quarter of the Canadian female population was overweight (with rates approaching 40% in some provinces). 53% of females over 12 are physically inactive (see chart). (Source: Statistics Canada)

Rates of physical activity among females 12 and older, Canada, 2001

Every so often I get an email that breaks my heart – from a woman who wants to be 85 pounds, from a girl whose high school peers tease her cruelly for wanting to train hard, or from a woman who says with seriousness “I hate my disgusting ___”. The disgusting thing in question isn’t a parasitic twin or a sucking chest wound; it’s usually a normal, benign, possibly even rather pleasant body part. We need self defense for our psyches in a culture that worships plastic bodies but hates real ones; that provides an abundance of garbage food but a dearth of nutritional quality; that provides us with ergonomic chairs when we shouldn’t be sitting in the goddamned things for 12 hours a day anyway; and that fetishizes destruction, suspicion, and violence over wellness, care for others, and growth. Mainstream fitness caters to our fear of novelty and challenge. It promises to enclose us in a safe cocoon where we can’t hurt ourselves. It sedates us with low-level anxiety over our inadequacy, and shame in the knowledge that we will never achieve the shiny, tanned magazine-cover bodies. Not only does it remove the risk, it presents a false goal and takes away the possibility of ever attaining it. But without risk, without obstacles, we never grow. Without goals we proceed towards nothing. We never have to overcome our toughest opponent: ourselves.

I’m asked occasionally what type of self defense I recommend for a woman. I always say that whatever she chooses, her brain remains her best—and often most underutilized—weapon. If we aren’t safe in our own homes and in our own bodies, all the training in the world won’t help us. But training will help us get to that place where we can be strong enough to care for ourselves.

I kick my hips back, grab, feel for the neck, lean my weight on my opponent’s spine, apply the choke. As I train the body I train the mind. As I turn my focus outwards, less of my aggression creeps inwards. As I learn to fight others I am less concerned with fighting myself.