Permission to be unpretty

posted in: Opinion, Women | 5

Physical Megan (via Flickr) (cropped)

People often say that women are under intolerable pressure to worry about their appearance.

Research by Dove in 2013 found that:

  • Six out of 10 girls are so concerned with the way they look, that they are holding back from participating in important life activities.
  • Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful.
  • 72% of girls feel tremendous pressure to be beautiful.

Well guess what – this is yet another reason to love martial arts training.

As a woman, not only are you free to look unpretty on the mat – you’re actually not even allowed to do many of the things we’re often expected to do in daily life to look nice.

Sport and exercise in general can be really empowering for women; but a lot of it still has scope to generate countless bizarre Internet articles such as How to Look Good While Running (With Pictures); and How to Be Sexy While Playing Sport (Girls).

But when it comes to the martial arts, there’s actually very little to say about looking pretty – because there’s so little opportunity to enhance your appearance. The one article I managed to find (How to Look Good at a Martial Arts Class) contained mainly only common sense personal hygiene advice, such as wearing deodorant, cleaning your teeth and brushing your hair.

Here are some things that we’re (blessedly) compelled to sacrifice in the dojo:

  1. You can’t wear jewellery

This is partly for etiquette; partly because it might break; and most importantly because it could be dangerous – to yourself or others. The same goes for hair toys which might fall out and/or hurt someone. Even simple hairpins or clips can shift around and stab your own head.

  1. You have almost no choice of hairstyle

If you have long hair, pretty much your only option is elastic bands, either for a ponytail or braid; and an acceptance that people will sometimes accidentally rip pieces out when you’re on the ground, e.g. by standing on it. Hair products such as gel and hairspray are also out, from consideration for your partner.

  1. You wear bare feet

Many other sports or exercise classes open up dizzying choices about the brand, colour and style of your footwear. In the dojo, we have no such worries, as everyone is in bare feet. We don’t even have to worry about selecting nail varnish or foot/toe jewellery (see points 1 and 6).

  1. You wear a standard uniform which hides your figure and doesn’t flatter anyone

Again, other sports give you scope to explore (for example) the best women’s running outfits to flatter every figure, including apple shape, pear shape, big bust and long and lean. (Cosmopolitan). But most martial artists don’t have any such luxury.

It’s hard to look that nice in a gi, especially as they are generally cut for men and don’t even fit women properly anyway. But this is a great leveler – whether you are proud or ashamed of your body. (NB – women in some BJJ schools have options to wear cut-for-women pink and other pastel gi, which some feel to be very feminine.)

  1. You can’t wear make-up

It’s discourteous to wear foundation, as it just rubs off onto other people’s training uniforms.  This was hard for me at the start; as you’re up so close to other people, they can see every last imperfection in your skin in fine detail – should they care. But in all honesty, they probably don’t. They’re too busy worrying about trying to get their technique right.

  1. You can’t wear long nails or nail varnish

Traditional nail varnish is out, because it stains the mats (although acrylic is probably ok). And all nails, whether real or fake, have to be kept very short for safety. Firstly because you could scratch your partner or yourself; and nails are full of bacteria, which could lead to an infection. Secondly, getting an even slightly too long nail caught in someone else’s gi is horrible.

  1. You do “unfeminine” things like sweat, lose your balance and fall over in front of everyone

Forget trying to be elegant or refined in your movements. But like the other points listed, this is actually a good thing for many of us to break free of. Iris Marion Young argues that:

There is a specific positive style of feminine body comportment and movement, which is learned as the girl comes to understand that she is a girl. The young girl acquires many subtle habits of feminine body comportment—walking like a girl, tilting her head like a girl, standing and sitting like a girl, gesturing like a girl, and so on. The girl learns actively to hamper her movements. She is told that she must be careful not to get hurt, not to get dirty, not to tear her clothes, that the things she desires to do are dangerous for her. Thus she develops a bodily timidity that increases with age.

So what’s the outcome of being forbidden to do so many of the little “feminine” things which are often said to be required to make us look pretty?  I think the answer is twofold.


Firstly, if you’re lucky, you can end up forgetting to care.

Everyone else is in the same boat, so you hopefully don’t feel strange or different. Everyone else on the mat, male or female is wearing a shapeless training uniform like yours, with a boring, messed-up hairstyle and falling over repeatedly. You also hopefully lose self-consciousness about your appearance, because you’re so focused on the activity.

And this is a very important experience. Naomi Wolf calls the pressure for modern Western women to be beautiful the Iron Maiden, comparing it to the medieval torture instrument – a body-shaped casket painted on the outside with a lovely, smiling young woman […] The modern hallucination in which women are trapped or trap themselves is similarly rigid, cruel and euphemistically painted.


And secondly, you may well end up, ironically, more beautiful than ever before.

In terms of your physical appearance, you may well gain benefits in terms of your skin, hair, weight and muscle tone, and so on. But something deeper also takes place. Gichin Funakoshi, the so-called father of modern Karate famously said: The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory nor defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.

If practising martial arts can polish our character and spirit, that has to be more important than any amount of wearing jewellery and make-up and flattering clothes. As Kahlil Gibran said, Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart. And I can think of no better description of the magic martial arts training can work in us, than to say that it ignites and fuels that very light in the heart.   

Personally, I’m not altogether liberated from the dominance of women’s beauty norms, and probably never will be. It’s common sense, and an acknowledgement of reality, to say that I wouldn’t turn up at work with my hair looking as bad as it does at the end of training.

But just for a few hours a week, being forced to reject all the little artifices that make us supposedly beautiful – and being what the BJJ blogger Megan calls nothing but your raw, applied, physical self – can be a wonderful side-effect and blessing of martial arts training for many women . . .


Picture credit: The very physical Megan by Johnny Silvercloud via Flickr. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0 (cropped from original)

5 Responses

    • Kai Morgan

      thx Imani! I LOVE what you wrote on your own G+ page on this topic:

      Society focuses on external over internal about 70% of the time,when it comes to young women,girls,and women.I stand for true beauty,when I train,I show beauty,endurance,and strength!!!My sister and I have always wanted to encourage other sisters,learning martial arts or just involved in other activities to not be ashamed of their natural beauty,it’s time to bring back what is really pretty,discipline,form,and temperance!!

  1. Joelle White

    Yet another thing to love about Karate, LOL! Great article.

    Gasshuku (extended training). Everyone living in tents for a weekend. No showers. Boatloads of training. Mmmm hmmm, we all look and smell really disgusting by late Sunday morning.

    One morning I awoke to the sound of kids screaming. I jammed on my flip-flops and ran out of my tent to go help. I got one kid into shelter, away from some hornets that were chasing her. After I doctored her stings and returned her to her mother (who had been busy with her other child), I realized I very badly needed to use the restroom. As I came out of the restroom… Oh, no… Two of the highest ranked gentlemen blackbelts in our organization were heading towards the building. If I’d tried hiding by jumping into the bushes instead of stopping and bowing I probably would still be doing pushups, LOL. So picture me with slightly skewed glasses, greasy pillow hair, and worst of all was what I use for sleepwear. I had on a pair of shorts that are too short and a T-shirt that is too large, so it looked like all I was wearing was a T-shirt that barely covers my rump. Yeah. Not pretty, and embarrassing doesn’t even begin to describe it.

    As I bowed I took a deep breath and suddenly I knew that I could get out of that situation in a heartbeat. One sentence was all it took. “Johnny and Jenny found a hornet nest, but they’re OK now.” The three of us scattered in a heartbeat – me back to my tent, the highly ranked gentlemen to go find the nest and kill it.

    A few months later, circumstances worked out to where I am now the right hand man, er, woman, whatever to one of those gentlemen. I have no doubt he values me both as a student and as an assistant teacher. My looks or lack thereof have nothing to do with his estimation of me. He’s never mentioned the incident, but I’m sure someday we’ll have a good laugh over it. I’m sure word got around that I ran towards danger to help, and that counts for far more in his book than what I looked like that morning.

  2. Kai Morgan

    LOL Joelle – I wrote this to celebrate the joy of looking like a mess and not noticing / caring – but I think you’ve just taken that theme onto a whole new level!

    Fab story – thanks for sharing – feels like you could almost literally lift out your comment and publish it as a post in its own right, on your own blog some time . . .

    take care and thanks for reading Kx

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