The radical malleability of human embodiment

Before my first BJJ training session I read about this martial art in Wikipedia. There I discovered that two of the basic positions “Mount” and “Guard” refer to”[I]n the mount position the practitioner sits astride the opponent’s chest, controlling the opponent with their bodyweight and hips…”, and “the practitioner is on their back controlling an opponent with their legs…In closed guard, the bottom grappler has their legs around the opponent’s trunk and has their ankles closed together to provide control and a barrier to escaping the position”.  Just reading this, imagining what it would feel like, made me feel pretty much mortified. These positions seemed awkwardly intimate, charged with sexual connotations.

Indeed, beginning was a bit crazy. In my first training session I was asked to perform a Side mount which means lying across your opponent with weight applied to the opponent’s chest- chest to chest.

To my surprise pretty soon forging close intimate contact with my training partners became a non-issue, losing its previous erotic charge. In fact, it was much easier for me to feel comfortable sitting on a person’s chest than to lose my inhibitions around pain. While it took me approximately few weeks to be completely comfortable rolling on the ground with most training partners, today, almost two years after I have entered the world of martial arts, I still painfully grapple (pun intended) with the mere thought of accidentally inflicting pain on another body.

If you would have told me that I would feel comfortable grappling before I had experienced it, I would call you crazy. It is only the fact that by that time I had already set my mind on researching gender and the body in the martial arts that gave me the courage to try. I thought, “yeah, it’s completely crazy, but it’s for the sake of science”.

I am not arguing that each and every one of us needs to challenge our normative ways of embodiment. Some of us may be absolutely content with ways of embodiment that are already inscribed by mainstream culture. Some radically different modes of embodiment may be unethical. I do, however, believe that my experience demonstrates the radical malleability of human embodiment, with its liberating potential.

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Paying the price of learning to use violence

This post is a response to this post.

In the past I was certain that I want to acquire the ability to use violence to defend myself. As a woman, I feel constantly exposed to violence. But the more I experiment with martial arts; the more I realize that there are prices one has to pay in order to acquire the ability to use violence.

One has to be able to practice the ability to use violence on others, e.g. training partners. In the very least one has to be able to exert bodily movements or to move his or her body in ways that simulate violence. Or, he or she may need to induce pain in others, or take the risk of inducing pain in others.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to pay these prices. I don’t want to get my hands dirty. I want to be a good person. I feel that perhaps it is better to remain in the position of the defenseless victim than to acquire the ability to use violence.

I want to describe what I feel in my body when I’m asked to perform a movement that simulates violence. Imagine that my body is a car. I’m driving my car on the road, nonchalantly. When I have to perform a movement associated with violence, the road I was driving on a minute before disappears. Now I’m driving a car that’s hanging on a cliff’s end. I can’t drive at all.

On the one level, I know that this part of my gender socialization, and my oppression as a woman.

On the other hand, this is a part of me I don’t know if I can ever change.

Also my gender socialization has positive aspects.  I’m an extremely sensitive person. I experience many things on a very primordial, child-like level, without many filters. I think that I have a strong capacity to connect to others and feel what they feel.  I can’t watch aggressive sports because I can’t take pain or violence as a form of entertainment, even if the participants consented. Trying to watch the UFC in past had actually made me cry. Living in a society whose members exhibit greater degrees of comfort with violence then me, I often wonder what is wrong with me. But what if things are the other way around? Perhaps society would be a better place if more men and women were weak and too sensitive, like me, then if people like me would get tougher?

An update: I think this post is the mirror image of this one

Update #2 this is really appropriate to put here.

Change

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.

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.

The male and female breasts

Image

My view of the body is a variant of the social constructivist approach. I don’t deny the power and significance of the organic-material body and biology. I do, however, believe that the experience, interpretation and definition of biological events can only take shape through cultural schemas modulated by the social position of individuals in society.

Many have written about the construction of human sexuality as the domain of the secretive and the forbidden. In Western contemporary society, the human body is clothed and treated as a secret. That is why exposure of certain body parts in specific contexts is arousing. Normally, children’s bodies are not socially constructed as sexual; that is why there are fewer restrictions on children’s bodily exposure.

This interplay of concealment and exposure is at the heart of the differential treatment of male and female breast in Western contemporary societies. As the image above serve to illustrate, biologically speaking, the male and female breasts are not that different. I hope no one would seriously claim that the fact that the bulge is mainly of fat in one case, and mainly of muscle in the second, makes any difference in the two breasts’ potential to elicit arousal. What is dramatically different is that only the female breast is sexually objectified.

Sexual objectification is also evident in the differential treatment of male and female breasts in the martial arts. In some competitions in certain martial arts, men are forbidden to wear a shirt underneath the gi, and women are forbidden not to wear a shirt. In the popular MMA competitions, all men fight bare chested. I assume that the bare chest of men has the same biological potential to elicit arousal in humans that are attracted to men, as the potential of the bare female chest to elicit arousal in humans that are attracted to women. So I can see two possible interpretations of the social legitimacy of presenting the bare male chest in non-sexual settings:

 1.  Either society/culture represses and denies the potential of the bare male chest to elicit arousal, and hence represses the desire for men (just as society emphasizes the (often) male desire for the female body); OR

2.  Society overwrites the potential of the bare male chest to elicit desire by systematically excluding it from the concealment/exposure game (to which the female breast is subjugated and in the name of which it is commercialized and exploited ), sending the message (to those who are attracted to men): don’t make a fuss.

I believe that it is  in the interest of women that we demand to exclude greater parts of our bodies from the cultural concealment/exposure game.

Women in the martial arts

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.