Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Being a Female in the Martial Arts (A Practical Guide)

If you count the first time I stepped foot in Tai Chi class, I've been studying martial arts for about eight or nine years.  If you want to put a finer point on it though: I studied Tai Chi for about three years.  I shifted over to Karate when I moved to Galway (NY) and studied that for about a year and a half.
Then I left Karate (and all other martial arts) for nearly three years (for various, varied reasons).  I later returned in March of last year and have been at it ever since.

So though it sounds like I've been studying a while, my practice and training has been varied with a very long break in there.  Still, I feel I've gathered some insights that might be helpful for other ladies out there interested in (but maybe a little nervous) about taking up a martial art.  Hopefully these tips and pointers and "OMG, I never thought of that!" insights will give you a clearer picture of what you're getting into.

First, let's tackle the practical stuff:

Hair, nails and jewelry

Though I will admit I've seen guys in class with longer hair than mine and males can wear jewelry just as much (if not more) than some females I've encountered, it's typically the ladies who have to deal with these three things and any or all of the three can be sticking points for some.

First, your hair: if it's long enough to be pulled back, pull it back.
I just do a low ponytail because a higher one tends to swing more and I don't like that.  Braids can unintentionally become flails and - though potentially humorous - you could hurt someone.
I've never tried wearing my hair in a bun, but I'm assuming it'd work just fine unless you're working on headlock self defenses.

Learn to be okay with your hair getting touched and/or messed up.  Some of the escapes we learn are up close and personal.  Your hair will get mangled.  If this is a problem for you, you'll have to work on it if you want to get far in the martial arts.

You'll also want to skip on the makeup when coming to class.
I assure you no one will judge your lack of lip gloss or mascara.
The dojo isn't the place to look your best.  Be prepared to look your worst actually.  It'll be worth it.

Jewelry: take it off.
All of it.  Earrings, necklaces, watches, bracelets, toe-rings, any and all piercings, etc.
I even take off my wedding ring.  Happily that is really the only thing that won't be pushed on you to remove before class, but mine is solid silver and solid gold.  It's heavy.  It could hurt someone or even me if I don't do a technique correctly.  It comes off every class.

Nails: I fought this one for a long time.
I've worn my fingernails long for most of my life.  I keep them clean and well-trimmed, and for me they're tools just as much as their pretty.  Making the decision to cut them short(er) for class was not taken lightly, but I did it.  If I ever become a midwife, they'd have to go even shorter.
I don't trim them down to the quick - they're just short enough so I don't gouge my palms when making a tight fist.  You'll have to find the right length that works for you.


For Karate we wear a gi.  It's a cotton canvas uniform that can be tugged and pulled on without easily ripping.  It also provides minimal protection when striking or being struck on the arms and legs.  It can get warm to wear and unfortunately you need to wear clothes under it for modesty purposes.
Guys can get away with being shirtless (though most wear a muscle shirt or a tee-shirt under their gi).  Ladies not only have to wear a top, but most have to wear a bra as well (my bust is small enough so it's not an issue for me) <- don't hate me
I'd highly recommend a comfy sports bra.  Obviously don't wear your every-day bra as you're going to sweat in it plus it might have an underwire (bad idea).

The nice thing though is wearing a bra can be handy for finding your hand positions!
When performing a punching technique, you have the hand doing the punch (obviously), but what does the other hand do?
Just hanging loose at your side isn't going to do you any good.
Your other hand goes up into what's called "home" or "chambered" position.  The hand is closed in a fist with the palm facing up, held tightly to your torso, ready to punch next. This position just happens to be right at the bra-line.
Like I said: handy

Another downside to the uniforms is they're typically white.
In our system, students wear all white until they reach brown belt - then they can wear different colored pants (black is the typical color of choice, but you can wear pink camo if that's your thing).  Black belts can wear any color gi they like.

That bad thing about white is that it's not a terribly opaque color.
As some ladies like to wear pretty underwear (especially teens and young girls), you can easily reveal to the whole class your color/pattern pick of the day.

The solution: I wore white athletic shorts under my gi when I was still wearing all white.  It provided extra modesty coverage so I didn't have to plan my choice of undergarments too carefully.
Now that I wear black pants, it's no longer an issue.  Win!

White of course poses other potential problems for women, which brings me to my next point:

That time of the month

Yes, I'm totally going there because it's a real and legitimate issue.
There's some girls (especially the younger teenagers) who won't even come to class when they're on their period.  I'm bummed about this but I get it.
You've got the cramps, the bloating, the fatigue, the fuzzy brain and the off chance of leaking red fluid all over your clothes if you move wrong (so that white gi becomes a terrifying hazard).

If you don't wear tampons or a cup, things can get trickier.
Try a nighttime pad right before heading out to class.  Make sure you're good and clean too.
If you're a heavy bleeder take it easy, but I still hope you make it to class.

The exercise will ease the cramps (trust me it will!).
The exercise will also help with the fatigue.  It might take a little longer than usual to get into the swing of things, but it really will help.


Though no one deliberately tries to hurt anyone else in a martial arts class, given the nature of the activity, you will acquire a bruise here and there.  Fortunately it's not so much of an issue in the beginning.  I don't recall getting them too frequently till I was a brown belt, so this is one you can ease into gently.

Some styles are a little rougher than others.  Because Karate makes use of hard blocks (exerting perpendicular force to stop/deflect a strike or kick), the typical bruise locations are the forearms, knees and shins.

The nice thing is as you learn to put more and more power behind your techniques, you also learn how to control that power.  I'm happy to report that I've been popped in the face several times while sparring, but have not yet gotten a black eye or a fat lip.  In fact sparring injuries are rare - at least in the school I attend because we usually pair up high ranking students (who know how to block and throw a punch without killing someone) with lower ranked ones (who are learning all that).

If you bruise easily you may end up with bruises on your wrists and redness around the neck from some of the escapes we do.  Always let your instructor and training partner know such things so they can compensate accordingly.

I heard a story of a woman who worked her way up through the ranks and got really close to black belt, but her husband asked her to stop because he didn't like that she was always covered in bruises.  Sadly, she dropped out.

Personally, I wear my bruises with pride.  They're a sign of a good class.  They're a sign that I'm tough, that I can take a hit, that I'm becoming physically stronger every day.
I love my bruises!

Other thoughts

Though I don't have the hugest amount of experience in the martial arts, there's a couple differences I've so far noticed between how men and women handle things in class:

1) An injury is far more likely to permanently sideline a woman than a man.
Maybe because guys have been told from a young age to "Suck it up!" "Shake it off!" "Don't be a pussy!"
While women are taught that they're delicate and in need of protecting and saving.

One woman who was coming to class with her husband and children dropped out because she had tweaked her elbow at one point (I don't think it was a class-related injury) and she chose not to return even after the elbow healed.
On the other hand, a young man in class shattered his wrist at work, had surgery on it and will continue healing for a good long time.  Though he's careful, he returned to class as soon as his doctors cleared him.

It's just how things go I guess.

2) Women tend to be more willing and able to admit when they're hurt and that they need to stop.
I badly jammed my toes one day while sparring.  Nothing was broken but it hurt like the dickens.
I bowed off the mat in the middle of the round - I had no desire to stick it out till the round was over.  I hobbled over to my gear bag, grabbed the little ACE bandage I keep there for such occasions and wrapped my foot.
All of this took no more than a few minutes and I was soon back to sparring again; but I took the time to care for myself before continuing.  I think that's something a female would be far more inclined to do than a male.

3) The lack of a strong female presence in the martial arts can be daunting.
I'm often the only adult female in class and girls rarely stick with it far into their teen years.
If they do stay all the way through high school, they often leave for college (as the boys do too), but unlike the boys they rarely return afterwards.

The demands of work, marriage and parenthood seem to keep adult women away more than men.  The prevailing notion that martial arts is more a "guy thing" seems to work against female participation even though in some ways women have a greater advantage.  Their lower center of gravity and natural quickness and agility often make them formidable martial artists.

I can tell from personal experience though that just knowing other women martial artists are out there is so empowering and encouraging.  Finding The Martial Arts Woman blog has been a wonderful morale boost for me.

And my final thoughts on and for female martial artists:

It will change you.

Your body will tone up.  Your flexibility will increase.  Your stamina and endurance will improve.
Those are all great, but you can get that from yoga or a spinning class at your local Y.

It will change your mindset too.
You will become more confident, more empowered, more self-assured.

Oddly enough this change can be frightening.
I do believe it was one of the many plethora of things that drove me away from Karate the first time.  There's an inner self-confidence and responsibility you need to accept to advance in the martial arts.  That shift may be too subtle to notice for some, but when one has a meek and submissive temperament as I do, it can be a difficult challenge to incorporate.

I'm endlessly glad I did.


  1. A great article that covers all the big and little things that don't get discussed, but should. And, thank you for the honorable mention. You inspire me, too! Great article, friend.

    1. Thank you.
      It's hard to express how truly wonderful your blog has been for me :)