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