In Martial Theory, Musing

“Men are bigger, stronger and faster and so we have to learn other ways to defeat our attackers.” I often intone this sentiment in my women’s self defense classes and if I don’t say it explicitly, multiple women will reveal it as their internalized fear. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard repeated since I was a young girl. I remember my mother telling me that I had different rules than my brothers because I was less able to take care of myself. Boy did I bristle at that sentiment. Yet as I got older, it seemed to be true. Even though I’m incredibly muscular and strong, I have a physical leverage disadvantage. I’m not quick as my body prefers the steady power of slow twitch muscles to the quick footed fast twitch fibers that often dominate martial arts. I’m short so even teenage boys are often bigger than me.

In the last few years though, I’d say the words and something rang false. I felt dishonest when I said them aloud, almost as if I was betraying a fundamental principle but I didn’t know what it was. I’ve heard my teachers use those words. My closest and incredibly capable female friends echoed the sentiment. We tend to teach from that perspective. I further struggled because I felt I was doing a disservice to my transgender students or others who may not fit the “typical” ideal of gender. Was it hormones or social programming or Darwinism or something else? I stopped wanting the teach Women’s Self Defense because I didn’t quite buy that gender was such a defining criteria anymore.

The surface answer was that it was false because it assumed that we were of similar age with no previous relationship. Typically we don’t envision an attacker being a child or an elderly person, though both are quite common in non-stranger violence.  In family and acquaintance violence, the power of social position plays a massive role so a mother might attack a male child or a female child might attack a father. In spousal/partner abuse, the abuse goes in both directions and may also be same gender. All of these undermined the idea that bigger, stronger, faster men were the attackers but I knew I was still missing something.

The lightning hit me while reading Women and Power. By repeating this sentiment I was buying into and selling the idea that bigger, stronger, faster equals physical strength. The implied definition of each of those terms equates to something on the physical plane. But what if it didn’t? What if we conceived of a world where stronger meant ability to endure? Then I believe we are on a level playing field where neither physical gender has a strength advantage.

What about faster? If we conceive of speed as a product of the muscles, men are generally faster. But what if speed was a product of the mind. What if faster referred to the ability to see solutions quickly? I’m a tetris goddess and it parlays in the physical world; I can look at a pile of stuff and a container (like putting everything I’d need for months on the road into a car) and simply know where every piece needed to go for both effective use and maximum use of space.

Bigger was the hardest for me to conceive differently. Mustn’t bigger necessarily be a function of size? I came at this from two fronts. As a curvy ninja, I often outweigh my male counterparts, so am I bigger even though I might be a foot shorter? Sometimes, but not consistently enough, though it was important in making me question the assumption. Sometimes their sheer size gave them leverage I couldn’t couldn’t counter with my own size which makes them physically bigger in my definition. So I struggled to understand. Maybe men just are bigger? I thought this might be an area that didn’t have another perspective.

Then I started thinking about ‘bigger’ as a spiritual concept. Is a man’s spirit bigger? Gender does not determine our worthiness or our will. We can be big fish in even bigger ponds if we cultivate the talents. We can dream big, play big, and win big–none of these are functions of physical reality.

By conventional definition, men are bigger, strong, and faster. But we are ninja and we aren’t constrained by conventional. We thrive on finding the underlying principle and using that to generate success. We create unconventional strength, speed, and size/space. By broadening our definition, people who are small, slow, or weak aren’t starting from an assumption of being less than. Everyone is inherently worthy. We should all train knowing that someday someone will be physically bigger, stronger, and faster.  But we should also remember that those words mean more than the physical. Ultimately gender grants no inherent advantage or disadvantage. We are equals in the art of conflict resolution and can learn to be so much of our best selves that winning is inevitable.


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  • Alicia

    This article really stretched some of my ideas around how I see myself and men. Thank You Mary

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