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.

Advertisements

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.

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.        

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.