One of the reasons I enjoy practicing martial arts so much is that it changes me. I often feel that while intellectual learning may grant me more knowledge, it doesn’t have the power to change me.
I was raised on the belief that physical aggression is bad and forbidden, and that displaying any form of physical aggression is primitive, shameful and humiliating.
I remember two instances in which the faintest expression of physical aggression as a child brought on such a severe reaction that I understood quite well that such a behavior is not tolerated.
This and other forms of feminine gender socialization have made me much more comfortable with being or imagining to be the target of physical aggression than being the agent of physical aggression.
Merely playing the role of the attacker during martial art class can be extremely difficult for me. I feel out of place, embarrassed, my limbs heavy.
But I adapt to it. After a while, playing the role of the attacker comes more naturally, eliciting less embarrassment. I feel relieved. This relief comes from having the opportunity to rework and change the corporeal and emotional patterns I was socially wired to in relation to aggression.
During this class, I not only became more proficient in one language of the human body (one can view different martial arts as different forms or dialects of body languages), I had also changed. When I change, I feel as though something in the world outside me has reached through to me and penetrated my soul.
My interest and experience in the sociology of the body, embodiment and gender and the body as a site of resistance has led me to undertake a sociological inquiry into women’s involvement in martial arts. While women’s involvement in many sports has the potential to challenge normative gender roles, participation in martial arts is especially significant, as it confronts women with activities that are strongly associated with masculinity in Western societies (such as fighting or initiating physical contact).
My project relies on in-depth interviews with men and women who practice or teach martial arts, as well as my own experiences as a trainee.
Here is an excerpt from a recent proposal I wrote:
I have been interested in gaining physical strength and in being able to protect myself for most of my adult life. Practicing weight training for several years, I became convinced that developing the size and strength of my muscles alone will not significantly enhance my ability to defend myself against the physical strength of others. The thought of practicing a full-contact sports in a mostly male group was at first inconceivable for me. As a fat child, gym classes, and the presence of others during physical activity became associated with teasing and embarrassment. Close physical contact with men seemed intimidating and uncomfortable as well. My experience with martial arts has significantly changed my own experience of gender embodiment. First, I have learned to feel comfortable with close physical contact with the men in my group. I experience the group as a space for forging physical relationship between men and women that is not based on sexuality or motherhood. Second, practicing martial arts has allowed me to express parts of my body (e.g. wide and forceful movements) and my personality (e.g. competitiveness and assertiveness) in ways that are not compatible with gender norms. Third, I learn, and am still learning, to accept my body’s limitations, usually through pain and injuries. Pain, I have come to learn, is one of the most difficult experiences for me to write about in ethnography.