Measuring up to myself and not others

As a child, I was very afraid of falling, or of losing balance. I remember my mother telling me once that I tumble like a rock. One time I fell on my face and broke both of my front teeth. My entire childhood, I couldn’t do a simple forward roll. Once a friend had tried  to help me, and I rolled but I instantly felt rage because of the helplessness I experienced during the roll. So I never tried it again.

BJJ is the perfect martial art for me, because it involves mainly ground work. But when I came to my first BJJ training, I had to roll forward and backwards as part of the drills during warm-up. I cherish my first coach’s empathy, un-judgmental encouragement and competence in teaching. Thanks to him.  both the fact that I rolled at this first training, and it didn’t make me feel helpless or enraged. I persevered and now BJJ is one of the best and most enjoyable experiences in my life. Through my first coach’s help, I could transcend the limits of my body and mind, and genuinely improve myself. Improve myself in relation to me, not in relation to others.

I’ve been training for a year and a half now, and I usually “lose” sparring matches in both clubs where I train. I often get comments from my training partners, such as, ” You always gives me your back”‘, or “you shouldn’t put your weight forward in guard”, “why did you do this, last time you were better”, or “Why do you keep repeating this mistake”. I know their intentions are good, and that they are trying to help me to improve, but these comments make me feel helpless. I try to do my best. Really. I try to  follow the principles I learned, and I try to work well. But when I get these comments, I feel like I’m not as competent as I should be, or that my understanding is flawed. These comments make me appreciate all the more the teaching style of my first coach. When we rolled, he rarely criticized me. He always succeeded in finding the right level of game that will challenge me yet give me a clear sense of enjoyment and sense of competence.

When I shared my frustration with one of my current coaches, he told me to focus on my successes and not failures. So I want to focus on my success in transcending myself. Yesterday, I had to do a drill that mortified me. It involved jumping to a closed guard when you partner is standing. It was the first time I observed the drill, and taking part in it really scared me. Jumping was relatively easy. Being jumped, was another story. I don’t know whether my fear was related to my body (the fact that I am a woman, and that most partners are much heavier than me), or a mental one (the fact that I never had to stand up with the weight of another person on me).

This really scared me, and the fact that the first time that I tried it I fell on my face and on my training partner did not help. A blue  belt at the club stayed after training to teach me. He had the patience to break up the drill into several stages and I felt that he had faith that I could do it, despite my fear. After several attempts as well as escape attempts (on my part, I already said that I am a coward) I managed to stay on my feet for two seconds with the weight of another person on me. I know that it is probably not impressive in relation to others, and I know that I probably “barely” did it. But I succeeded in doing something that I was mortified from at first. And it was the best feeling I had in quite a while and an accomplishment I cherish. For me, this is the meaning of measuring up to myself, and not others.

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On the body and shame

I don’t remember exactly how old I was. I was transitioning from childhood to adolescence. I started growing hair on my armpits. I was probably in fifth grade because I remember a friend showing me her two new hairs on her armpits the summer before at summer camp for fourth graders (and I didn’t have any hairs then). Somehow I knew that growing hairs on my armpits is not good. That it was embarrassing and that these hairs should be removed. But I wasn’t sure how to do it. I think that I said something to my mother and she dismissed it, saying that I was only a child.

Then I went to the swimming pool. A group of two or three boys around my age or a bit older noticed my new grown hairs. They started to mock me and make fun of me because I had these new hairs. I was frozen with humiliation and didn’t know what to do. I dived deep into the water so as not to hear them laughing at me.

Somehow this early experience of body shame was made into a part of my body. I carry it with me ever since. If I had to physically locate this experience, I would locate it near my armpits. Like invisible irremovable hairs, which cause shame and embarrassment. I guess that over the years new “organs” like this joined my physical body –  I will always be that kid that was laughed at because she was fat, or deemed ugly and unattractive.        

Why am I so interested in bodies?

I research the sociology of the body because bodies are immensely complex and deeply fascinating phenomena. Our body anchors us in time and space, it is the only vehicle through which we can track the passage of time, and the marks of time are permanently inscribed on it in turn.

In a way, we are bodies, but we also have bodies. Through the body we are alive and present, and some of us invest great resources in the project of continuously shaping and adorning our bodies. This reflects the special ontological status of the body as both the object of our perception and the condition that enables our perception, as noted by Merleau-Ponty.

Our society reduces human bodies to the mere objects of sexuality or medicine (or the combination of both). We are allowed to engage with our bodies, with the bodies of others, to communicate and touch other bodies mainly within these two frameworks. And these frameworks are heavily gendered. I believe that this is one of the major factors behind the alienation from our bodies and the reinforcement of the mind/body split in the current era.

The reduction to sexuality and medicine also reflects and contributes to the body’s role as a major vehicle of social oppression and control. Our culture, instead of encouraging us to cultivate and develop the infinite potentialities of experience, to think of and engage with our bodies and other bodies, channels us into a narrow, increasingly violent and sad terrain of (already) known options. My research, in the fields of fat studies, of medical sociology and embodiment in the martial arts, seeks to analyze and develop new and alternative ways to experience, experiment and change our bodies and the way we live them.

The animal instinct

Each time I sense my instincts in action, I feel excitement and awe. For example, on the mat, during a sparring roll, when someone suddenly sweeps me, I fall on my side and automatically send my left to absorb the fall (so that I don’t hit the mat with my face). I will never absorb a fall in a so precise and confident manner when I will consciously do it. Years of human gendered socialization have created great walls of alienation between my mind and body. But I still have the channel of the instinct. When I observe my instinctual responses I feel as though I am watching an alien side of my consciousness, from the outside, as a by-stander.

What I love about BJJ has nothing to do with winning or losing

In August I wrote about my experiences of gender and embodiment in the martial arts, specifically in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). A lot has changed. So this post is a kind of update post. From the beginning , the most important thing practicing BJJ  gave me was the ability to unite my body and mind, an ability for which I found no other outlet, before or  since. As a woman whose experiences with her body were objectification or alienation, practicing BJJ was a precious gift – the experience of a unity with my body (generally, I feel far more one with my mind, then with my body).

I was physically active before I started practicing BJJ but what characterized my physical activity was that it was monotonous and solitary. At the gym where I used to work out, there was anti-bacterial spray you could use to clean up the machines before you use them. I think this  spray is a good metaphor to the kind of human relationships that often develop at the gym.

When I started practicing BJJ I had to become one with my body for three main reasons:

  1. For the first time in my life I found an outlet to express and develop intelligence and creativity through my body.
  2. I had to engage in intensive embodied learning that made me concentrate 100% on my body (unlike the simple monotonous movements at the gym).
  3. I had to be 100%in the here and now to avoid pain and feelings of helplessness that sometimes occur in sparring and drills.

However, recently, I have begun to experience unity with my body in a completely different way.

I used to be very competitive. I had to temporarily let go of that competitiveness and toughness, when I gradually returned to practice after the most serious injury I suffered. But this was only a forced concession. Because my body prevented me from doing what I love the most for nearly two months, I lost my trust in him (Hebrew is a gendered language and I think of my body in the usual masculine grammatical way in Hebrew).I was afraid of rousing my body’s fury again.  As I slowly regained confidence in my body’s ability to endure the pressure, I returned to my old (relative) toughness. I measured the quality of my sparring rolls by the number of submissions, of me or of my sparring partners.

For a while, I had felt that I was improving my technique. But lately I’ve been feeling stuck, that my technique was even deteriorating. The number of submissions I succeeded in pulling dramatically decreased, and there were entire sparring rolls in which I couldn’t even reach a dominant position once.

These experiences (among others) drew me closer to the inevitable conclusion that I am simply not gifted in BJJ, and that I probably need to work twice as hard  as the average male to reach his level.  Surprisingly, this conclusion did not change the intensity of passion I have for BJJ. It made me realize that what is more interesting to me than winning or losing, or mastering a technique, is the primordial and primitive physical encounter of the struggle.

I noticed that I started to roll with much less physical force. I get less tired. What is most important for me in the sparring roll is making this connection, bodily communication, with another embodied human being. To get some sort of message through, with my body, and to receive the message (or messages) of my rolling partners

I feel calmer, more relaxed and more focused when I spar. I want to listen and embrace what that other person has to tell (me). His or her achievement (in submitting me, for instance) may be interesting , or it may not, but it does not automatically decrease my presence. I feel almost as though I meditate during sparring . I feel that the alertness of pain is not the primary reason I am one with my body during sparring anymore. I am one with my body because I have to focus, I have to be 100% in the here and now (being  100% in the here and now has always something to do with being one with the body, although not always in positive ways), in order to receive the message the other person sends me through his or her body and movements. I need to be precise to get my own message through.

I want to get better. I want to master additional techniques. But I know that  even if I don’t, or even if it will be painfully slow, what interests me in BJJ has nothing to do with winning or losing.

An update: the fact that I love BJJ most, but I know that I’m not a talented practitioner, makes me understand this line by Nirvana: I’m worse at what I do best, and for this gift I feel blessed.

A letter to a “Naked woman on a sofa” – Lucian Freud, 1984-1985

Image

I really like this painting. It expresses a deep truth for me, as an embodied being. It strikes me as a painting of a real woman. Not just body, but body and mind. Not merely an image, a simulacrum or a cultural sign.

Something is very familiar to me in this painting. It evokes something in my past, in my childhood, even though it seems to me that today I’m younger than this woman when she was drawn. It makes me think about mother-daughter relationships, and more broadly, about multi-generational bonds between women.

It reassures me, makes me calm. Even though she is naked, drawn through the eyes of a male painter (Lucian Freud), I don’t feel like I’m a voyeur. I can identify with her, with the marks of time on her body. She seems serene to me, and strong in a way. I wish that I was surrounded with such images as a girl, as a teenager, without having to hate my body that will never conform to the images that did surround me at the time, and still do!

Why do I enjoy this painting so much? Clearly – and even though she meets some cultural norms of beauty (she is white, she seems to have an average size body) – she fails to meet others : her breasts are soft (too soft, our culture says), her tummy is loose (our culture says, too loose). I find in her body solace that I cannot find in the muscular images of men I like to identify with so much (consciously and to spite others) because they are strong, tough, not soft. I am her more than I am tough.

Flushed areas are marked on her face and she has big, wise eyes, which seem to me be absorbed in the here and now, like time itself is her lover. I feel as though this painting tells me something valuable and old about my identity, my flesh and my mind, as a woman. I am already her, she is a part of me.