BJJ for women

Note: Everyone has been saying that my comments about “non-athletic women” are out of place, but just for the record, I live and train in Asia, where being a non-athletic woman means something very different than it does elsewhere in the world. Fighting against stereotypes against strong women in Asia is VERY different and MUCH more difficult than it is in the States or Europe (trust me, I’ve trained in the West too).  There are unique challenges for Asian women (Asian women in Asia) who want to train BJJ, and that’s what I was addressing here, NOT western women in western countries who want to train BJJ. The fact is that western women are allowed a certain amount of duplicity– we can be athletic and strong and still girly, whereas in Asia this is a new concept that is just emerging. I should have been more clear, but as I said before, the original post was written for my personal blog, which is primarily focused on the things that happen to me as I live in Asia.  


I wrote this a while ago for my personal blog, and I thought that some people would be interested in reading it. I’ve edited it and updated it a little bit, but here it is:

Why I Think All Women Should Do BJJ: and Why I NEVER Recommend It

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with BJJ from day one.  Some days I love it, some days I hate it, and some days I would rather that I never started. I’ve had a longer relationship with BJJ than most celebrity marriages, and while the passion isn’t gone, the love is much more subdued than it was at the beginning of the relationship. There’s no newness anymore, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since we kind of know what works for each other now. I find it easier to think of BJJ this way– an ever-changing and evolving relationship. It helps me get through humps.

As I am one of the only women in my gym, I always get this from my jiu-jitsu friends (guys, always guys): “talk to [my] sister/girlfriend/wife/cousin/mother/aunt/mother’s best friend’s sister’s cousin’s cat/etc about BJJ, I think she’d like it!” And this always makes me die a little inside. It puts me in a hard position. BJJ boys, I don’t WANT to lie to your wife/girlfriend/sister/mother’s best friend’s sister’s cousin’s cat/etc. I can’t pretend that BJJ is awesome all the time.  BJJ is hard. It’s hard work, and it’s a hard environment for your typical woman. If a woman didn’t grow up as an athlete of some kind, then she won’t like BJJ. I hate to make blanket statements like this, but it’s true. BJJ is a clash of all things that a non-athletic type of either gender finds excessively uncomfortable: cardiovascular activity, endurance strength-training, and bucket-loads of sweat.  Add into this the fact that most women just aren’t comfortable with a man they hardly know between their legs, and you’ve got a hobby that’s really high on most women’s “Shit I Wouldn’t Do Unless You Paid Me” list.

Here’s the other reason I can’t back you up, boys.  You cannot tell me “invite your friends to BJJ” with the caveat of “but only if they’re hot so I can hit on them.” This has nothing to do with jealousy on my part, as I am sometimes accused of: it’s just this. If you meet a girl at BJJ, great!  I’m happy for you, and I hope mutual interest and passion works out for you. Sometimes inter-gym relationships can be good or great or whatever. I’ve had a few myself, and they’re fine. But if you want to find a girlfriend, go to the bar. The gym is not the place to be looking. I can’t knowingly invite another woman into a situation where she might be made to feel uncomfortable, because I have a guilt complex like that. Stop freaking out every single girl that walks in the door because she is already dealing with the fact that she has to have your head between her legs.  Once you know her well, feel free to ignore everything I just said.

As it stands, being a BJJ girl (can I consider myself this?) is hard. To get half the respect, you have to be twice as fast, twice as strong, twice as technical.  Every little failure is met with scrutiny. Not by other high-level players, because they generally have respect for you and what you’re doing, but from newer players. You experience daily write-offs for being “too girly” and “too emotional,” but at the same time for being “not girly enough” and “too manly.”  You quickly grow a thick skin, or you GTFO.  Most women get out.

In general terms, girls in this sport get hit with cutting weight much harder too: as a woman, a cut is much more difficult in the physical sense. Men can sweat off a kilo of water weight in an hour; I have to agonize over making weight for months.

Granted, this isn’t the fault of the BJJ guys, it’s just a comment on the physical differences between genders and how that translates into competition for the sport. All that being said, BJJ is the best thing possible for all women. And like I made the blanket statement about non-athletic people, I feel comfortable making this statement as well. I don’t mean BJJ the way I know it– all stress and pain and anger annoyance mixed in with euphoria and adrenaline and happiness– but in a different way, a more… tame way. BJJ-lite, or BJJ if it were socially accepted. Ubiquitous, like kickboxing or yoga. We’ll get there someday, I think. I hope.

But then, I sit back and I think of everything that BJJ has taught me, after all this time. Invaluable life lessons. Lessons every woman should learn, but few do until it’s too late. I’ve learned to fight on the ground: it would take someone seriously strong or seriously well-trained to hold me down. I’ve learned how to breathe when someone bigger and stronger than me is sitting on my chest. I’ve learned how to let comments slide off my back like water, I’ve learned to be flexible, but not malleable. I’ve learned all these things, but they pale in comparison to the most important thing BJJ has taught me: I’ve learned my limitations.  Sometimes, I can’t win. Against someone bigger, yes. Against someone stronger, yes. Against someone bigger, stronger, and trained? No. This is why all women should do BJJ: BJJ teaches you a hard lesson about your own vulnerability. It teaches you that “kick in the balls, eye gouge, and run away” is an unlikely scenario; it just doesn’t work. BJJ installs the panic buttons.

This is why I WANT to recommend BJJ to every woman I meet. I want to shake them and tell them “you aren’t as safe as you think you are,” but it would be counter-productive. So when you ask me to recommend BJJ to your wife/girlfriend/etc, this is what goes on in my head. A battle between the truth: “BJJ is hard and smelly and some nights nothing will work and you will go home and just want to cry because some moron told you you’re fat, and some nights you will feel like everything works and you can do anything,” and the lie: “BJJ is puppies and unicorns and roses, and everyone is happy all the time.”

I have watched many women come and go in this sport because they couldn’t handle it; forgive me if I’m not jumping on the opportunity to watch another one try and leave. Forgive me if I come to class to spar, not to spend time coddling girls who, in all likelihood, won’t last a month. BJJ attracts a certain type of person. If your female compatriot isn’t that type of person, there’s nothing I can do. If you want your wife/girlfriend/etc to join BJJ, I am the wrong person to inspire them. But trust me– it’s not because I don’t want to.

6 Comments

  1. Damn girl, you took the words right out of my mouth. I’ve been constantly asked to bring more female friends to my gym but like man, I hesitate. I have never asked any of my female friends to follow me to BJJ (unless they have expressed prior interest and then of course I try to persuade them out of it) because honestly I don’t think any of them could hack it (well except one and she’s stayed with me till today and we got our Blue together). It honestly takes a ‘certain’ kind of girl to take up BJJ and to take BJJ seriously. What those ‘certain’ traits are I’m still not quite certain but it’s a gut feel I get whenever I meet a girl, I can kinda tell if she’ll end up staying in the gym.

    “You experience daily write-offs for being “too girly” and “too emotional,” but at the same time for being “not girly enough” and “too manly.” You quickly grow a thick skin, or you GTFO. Most women get out.” This statement made me laugh because recently we had this chica train with us for a bit (she’s quite attractive, a bit soft and giggly) and one of the new teenagers (5 months and less) in class wrote on his facebook “Finally, a nice girl joins the gym!”. My team-mate took mighty offence to that and proceeded to tap him out several times over the next class. Boys will be boys though.

    The only thing I do disagree though is the growing up as an athlete of some sort to like BJJ. I know many girls who are very passionate about the sport (granted we haven’t been learning as long, but I promise most of these girls on average have been doing BJJ 2-3 years) who come from non-athletic backgrounds but absolutely love it. Maybe it’s an Asian thing because athletics is not emphasized in our school system (it’s all about exams exams and more exams) and most of the resources go to boys. So most girls aren’t given an opportunity to even be athletic. If I could re-do high school, I would definitely want to pick up some sort of sport, knowing what I know now.

    • I agree with you to an extent, but I stand by what I said. There are athletes, and there are non-athletes. I guess someone can decide that they are going to change their life and they can become an athlete, but it’s less likely. I guess I just see “athlete” as a mindset that a person needs to be in before they can do BJJ.

  2. I do not like blanket statements. Not every woman has to do BJJ, it is not for everyone. People are very different and what appeals to one doesn’t necessarily appeal to another. We may as well say that every woman needs to own a gun, let’s see how many agree.

    People (men and women) need to stop posting these fantasy updates on Facebook how awesome training was and how many people they choked. In reality we all know that this is a LIE. This euphoric aura about BJJ has been created somehow and people have nervous break-down if they miss a training session. It is just jiu-jitsu, the world will not come to an end if you don’t train for a day/week/or even for a whole year.

  3. Uhmm… The last comment made me a little uncomfortable, I would rather agree with SL, having been far from an athlete when I grew up. However, I can see how the “athlete” thing is meant more as a mindset: for instance, I’m glad I took up yoga and did some self-defence class before I came to BJJ. I did start it with the thought that it would further help me get “athletic”, and not right out of the blue.

    “I don’t mean BJJ the way I know it– all stress and pain and anger annoyance mixed in with euphoria and adrenaline and happiness– but in a different way, a more… tame way. BJJ-lite, or BJJ if it were socially accepted. Ubiquitous, like kickboxing or yoga. We’ll get there someday, I think. I hope.”

    This part I truly agree with, and I think I’d like to work towards it.

    For the rest, in general, I’m still new to BJJ (four months) and I’m “the girlfriend” of someone who’s been training for the past eleven years, also admittedly “the girliest girl” he’s ever seen trying BJJ (first time I must have been called “girly”; it’s all relative). Do I fit in the unlikely BJJ practitioner profile? I like to believe I’ll stick around (I just finally ordered a proper BJJ gi!). The fact that BJJ isn’t great and easy and wonderful all the time seems a given; what in life *is*? I think anybody who expects anything at all to be like that, man or woman, probably needs some counseling and is in for big disillusions and hurts, with or without BJJ.

    Is BJJ harder than other sports? In certain respects, probably. But at the moment it’s also the only sport that can keep “lazy” people like my boyfriend and I athletic, because it’s a game, it’s a fun and addictive game, even when it doesn’t work out or you fail, you just want to try again or see what you can improve… Whereas gym stuff bores the hell out of me, and neither of us can jog because we have bad knees (though for different reasons).

    As for cutting weight, that’s only if you want to do competition. Besides, I think it’s more of an individual matter than gender (genetics and age are important factors too). For me, physical activity, and that includes BJJ in the past four months, has done so much regarding my eating habits, my self-image… I can’t help but feel that many other *women* would similarly benefit from it.

    I think the problem sometimes is that the few women who train are expected to do all the work to reel more women in. You speak of girls who try and leave, but I’ve seen so many guys try and leave, too… (I used to work at the dojo reception for two years before I started BJJ). And while most women will be of closer size and weight and strength, all the other girls in my class are still stronger than me, and not 100% of the guys are necessarily much bigger than me, either. I hope that being a girl and being in class is enough, unto itself, to prove that women have their place in BJJ. But coddle or inspire? Yeah, I don’t know. Then again, I’m pretty new myself…

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