Interview with a woman in martial arts – 2: Melanie (taekwondo)

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Here is my second interview with a woman in martial arts. This time it’s Melanie, from the blog Little Black Belt!
Name: Melanie
Age: 39
Martial art style: taekwondo
Level:
Second degree black belt

When did you start with taekwondo and for how long have you been practicing?
I started practicing taekwondo around 1989 at age ten. I trained for two years then quit in 1991 right before I started junior high school. In 2013 at the age of thirty-three I decided to get back into it after having it in the back of my mind for years. I started over as a white belt and am now a second degree black belt.

How come you started with taekwondo?
For some reason that I can’t remember now I told my parents I wanted to learn karate. I wasn’t very athletic other than being a good swimmer, and I definitely wasn’t into team sports. I was a quiet, shy kid who preferred reading and drawing to social activities. Maybe I was drawn in by the mystique of martial arts. I think I had a fight inside me waiting to get out. My parents took me up on it and signed us all up for lessons at our local taekwondo school. I grew up in a small west Texas town of about 11,000 people, and taekwondo just happened to be the only martial art in the area. Had I lived in a larger city with more choices maybe I would have done something else.

The second time I got into taekwondo as an adult  I was seeking something positive at a time when I was really struggling emotionally. I looked good on paper with degrees and a career, but I was unhappy and didn’t have the best coping skills. Finally I just snapped and thought, “Enough of this crap. I’m tired of making myself miserable. It’s time to do something fun. Why not get back into taekwondo?” As fate would have it, my west Texas childhood instructors’ Korean grandmaster operated a taekwondo school in the city where I live now. How could I not do it? Taekwondo had always been in my life. I just had to find it again.

What do you like the most about taekwondo?
Just wait until my memoir is published; it’s all in there! 🙂

It’s hard to pinpoint what I like the most. What I appreciate the most is how it helped me grow mentally and emotionally. It happened so fast that I had to start writing it down, which is how my blog Little Black Belt got its start. Re-learning and practicing taekwondo opened my eyes to how I was choosing to live my life. It made me more confident, self-aware, and accountable. It gave me something fun and uplifting to focus on in the midst of what we all call “adulting”: going to work, maintaining a household, paying bills, etc. Of course I love the actual art itself and the techniques I’ve learned and continue to practice as a black belt, but I’m more grateful for the “taekwondo spirit” I’ve gained than the physical stuff.

Are there many women practicing taekwondo?
Taekwondo is an incredibly popular martial art, so you see both a lot of males and females. Probably more men in the higher ranks and governing bodies, but that is slowly evening out. I now train with a female master. She is an inspiring leader and an amazing taekwondo coach.

What are some of the reactions you have faced as a taekwondo practitioner – positive and negative?
I’ll start with the negative so I can end on a good note: I’m tired of the dumb jokes every black belt has probably heard, like “Oh, I’d better not make you mad!” or “Wow, you’re a black belt? Do you think you could kick my ass?”

Fortunately, I’ver never been in a situation where I needed to kick someone’s ass other than a time when I thought I was going to get attacked by a rather aggressive dog. Ha!

These days taekwondo has a mixed reputation. Taekwondo has also become pretty controversial and much-disputed practice in the martial arts world what with the differing opinions over Olympic style sparring, demo teams that seem to do more hip hop dancing than actual technique, and those unfortunate “McDojangs” that are very real, at least in the United States. There’s also the matter of how it doesn’t take very long (relatively, anyway) to get a black belt in taekwondo. Getting a black belt in taekwondo doesn’t take as long as some other martial arts, although I want to make clear that a first degree black belt in taekwondo is not the pinnacle of…well…anything. It means you’re really good at color belt techniques and you get to start all over and work on harder things for many many years. At the right school with the right training and the right testing requirements the taekwondo black belt has merit.

Here’s the positive:
Taekwondo has made me into a much better person to be around. I’m happy, healthy, in good shape, and I’ve found my tribe of people I truly care about and want to spend my time helping. It gave me a sense of community and connected me with awesome people I would have never met. Other people noticed changes in me–a more positive attitude, more confidence, and more willingness to interact with others and lead. I’m not sure how this happened, but kicking the crap out of other people actually made me nicer. Who knew?

It’s been six years since I decided to bring taekwondo back into my life. I’m not sure what state I’d be in now if I hadn’t done that. I’m in the best physical shape of my life, and I look forward to making my life fun and exciting. Maybe I’d been hoping for that secret to happiness when I told my parents at ten years old that I wanted to become a martial artist.

 

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Interview with a woman in martial arts, part 1: Leticia (hapkido)

Considering the main theme of this blog, I thought it could be nice to do a couple of interviews with women who are practicing martial arts. The idea is to get opinions and perspectives from women who have been doing different kinds of martial arts for different amounts of time and for different reasons. I’ll get this “interview series” started today by interviewing my wife – Leticia! So here we go!

Name: Leticia
Age: 23
Martial art style: hapkido
Years practicing martial arts:
17 years and she is now a 4th dan black belt.

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What made you get into martial arts in the first place?
I think I became interested in martial arts for various reasons, including my parents who were very encouraging. One particular moment that I remember and that really inspired me was when I was six years old and I saw two teenage girls doing taekwondo on tv. It looked like a lot of fun! And I remember I thought the girls seemed so confident, strong and beautiful. And they were kicking butt! I thought it looked really cool! It was a huge inspiration for me and I remember I wanted to be like them!

There are so many martial arts styles around. How come you chose hapkido?
Well one reason is simply that by coincidence there was a hapkido school not far from where me and my family lived. And already at that time, I didn’t really want to do a lot of competitions, but rather learn the techniques, have fun, be active and kick some butt (laughter) – so hapkido was a good choice for those reasons. My parents also told me it would be good for self defence – which is very much true. Then I tried it and I immediately loved it – so I stayed! The principles and techniques of hapkido also suits me very well as a smaller, not very muscular woman, as they allow me to compensate the lack of size and upper body strength with skills, speed, balance, flexibility etc. For example by using an attacker’s own weight, momentum, strength against him.

Are there many women practicing hapkido?
I definitely think there are more and more women in hapkido. Men are still the majority, but for example where I practice it’s almost 50% women (not counting the women’s self defence class).

Why, in your opinion, should women get into martial arts?
Oh, there are many reasons! First of all, it’s a lot of fun. It’s great in order to learn how to defend yourself. It’s also a great way to stay (or get) in shape. It is empowering and it boosts self-confidence!

You teach hapkido and you also do separate classes focused on self defence for girls and women? How come you started with that?
I think it’s important to teach girls and women self-defence. You just have to take a look at the world around us and you’ll see that there is a lot of abuse and men taking advantage of women. Many women feel they don’t have the means to stand up for themselves and they feel unsafe in their day to day lives. I don’t really view myself as a feminist but I see that women are exposed to this and many feel powerless to do anything about this.

So I aim to help by giving young females the confidence, skills and self-assurance so that they first and foremost are empowered enough to walk away from a situation where they see signs of abuse and to physically defend themselves and handle a dangerous situation if they have to.

Obviously you are very much better than me at fighting and physical self defence. In a way this turns the gender roles in our relationship around, compared to traditional expectations. Did that ever feel weird or funny to you?
(Laughter) No not at all! I know you feel, or felt, a bit embarrassed about it. You shouldn’t, but I guess it’s a guy ego thing right? In fact I would feel quite “weird/funny” if you had been able to kick my butt, even though you have no martial arts training at all! That wouldn’t reflect well on me as hapkido teacher would it (laughter)? It’s not about gender or being big and strong, it’s about skills and experience. That’s one of the beauties of hapkido. It’s no issue at all for me in our relationship.

Do you feel women are treated differently compared to men in martial arts ? And have you met any prejudice as a female instructor?
I would say most men into martial arts do not view or treat women any differently really. But it is not that unusual for people who have no real clue about martial arts to express more or less prejudicious ideas, like for example that “girls can’t fight”, that I am “good… for a girl” or that women who do martial arts necessarily aggressive, “butch” or masculine. I have also been told that “it’s cute” that I do martial arts and I have been asked (by different men!) if my boobs don’t get in the way when I dod martial arts! There are many more examples. I think some guys feel threatened by a woman being good at martial arts.

And yes occasionally I have encountered prejudice as a female instructor – and that might have to do with me being rather young too. A blatant example was one newbie guy who told me he didn’t want to learn to fight from girl. But I do want to stress that these are rare exceptions.

On the other hand I also get a lot of positive feedback for being a woman teaching martial arts – especially from other women and girls. And that makes me very happy and motivates me even more to keep going!

An exercise in not being in control

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I like to feel that I am “in control” of the situation I am in. I want to feel that I only depend on myself and my own efforts and actions. When I feel I have no control, it can be quite stressful, frustrating and even scary. One such example is traveling in an airplane. I am no pilot, the airplane is traveling very fast at a very high altitude and I can’t even see what is in front of the airplane – so my body and my life is completely in the hands of airplane crew and the technology and structure of the machine itself. This is one of the main reasons I don’t like flying.

As I have mentioned on this blog, I have “practiced” hapkido a couple of times with my wife and it has been both a lot of fun and very interesting. But those hapkido demonstrations were also a situations when I felt I had no control, which made me feel uncomfortable and frustrated. After all, no matter how hard I tried, there was very little I could do to stop her from throwing me, putting me on the floor, bending my joints and tying my limbs up in knots with a seemingly endless array of techniques.

Of course part of my frustration came from the simple fact that by nature I’m a pretty competitive guy and I was getting my butt handed to me by my wife, in spite of being significantly bigger and stronger than her. But my negative feelings also had a lot to do with me being put in a position of “powerlessness” where I was not at all in control. Even though of course she didn’t (and never would), it was obvious that with just a little more pressure and by following through on the hapkido techniques, she could very easily have inflicted serious pain and injuries on me. One could say that my body and my life is in the hands of my wife – a bit like the airplane situation.

The other week, one of my best female friends pointed out to me that this could actually be a good opportunity for me to practice my ability to not feel the need to be in control all the time. I think she really has a point. After all there are a lot of things in life we can’t control. We all need to accept that. Most ot the time, it’s a good idea to just stay calm and not let the situation get to you, even if you can’t control it. Put things in perspective – is it really so serious/bad/dangerous? Ride with the flow of life and put some trust and faith in other people!

When I told my friends about my new girlfriend

Group Of Young Friends Enjoying Meal In Outdoor Restaurant

Telling friends about that you met someone, or that you have a new girlfriend can be quite exciting. That was no different when I had started dating Leticia (my wife) a couple of years ago. My friends of course asked questions about her, her personality and wanted to see pictures of her. The one thing that made the situation a bit different was that when people asked about Leticia’s work and interests, I of course mentioned that she has a black belt in hapkido and that she works as a martial arts and self defence instructor. My friends all reacted in different ways; some joked a bit about it (like “don’t piss her off” and similar), several of my female friends said they loved it and that Leticia was “badass” and I also remember one friend saying “wow so she can kick your butt – how does that feel?”.

Before Leticia had showed me some of her hapkido skills and techniques I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from it, since I have never been into martial arts myself – and I had no idea how effective it can be. Looking back now, I have to be honest and admit that at that time my ego wasn’t quite ready to admit that a woman like Leticia, way smaller than me and so very feminine, would be able to kick my butt. So the little jokes and comments implying that she could, although they were perfectly innocent, stung my pride a bit and made me a little uncomfortable. I mostly just laughed it off but it also made me even more curious about Leticia’s martial art and it also felt a bit like a sort of “challenge” for me to ask for a “demonstration” or “intro lesson”, which of course I finally did about four months into our relationship.

The first weeks after Leticia’s first hapkido demo with me in her practice studio, although I very much admired her and it made me fall in love with her even more, I also felt quite embarrassed about the apparent ease with which Leticia had wiped the floor with me using her hapkido skills, so I didn’t really talk about it with anyone. When the subject came up I just mentioned that yes Leticia had shown me some of her skills and that it was awesome and impressive and – if people asked – that yes she could kick my butt.

I was worried that I might be ridiculed, teased and that people (including my friends) would laugh at me. As time went by, I found out this was not the case and as I started to think more logically and ignoring old stereotypes, I also felt more and more comfortable talking about it. Sure, people did comment, there were jokes and especially my female friends loved hearing about Leticia’s martial arts skills and some laughed about it – a lot, but there has been absolutely no mocking, mean spirited comments or any kind of ridicule.

So in conclusion, I totally underestimated my friends when it came to this and there was really no reason at all for me to worry about their reactions.

Martial arts vs other means of self defense

A couple of weeks ago I made a list of the five best martial arts for women’s self defense. When it comes to self defense, there are of course other ways to do it that learning a martial art – mostly weapons of different kinds, like guns, stun guns, maces etc. But I would like to point out some advantages of martial arts as means of self defense compared to other methods.

1) You always carry your martial arts skills with you.
Unlike any form of weapons, you always carry your martial arts skills with you wherever you go.

2) Your martial arts skills can’t be used against you. 
Guns and other forms of weapons are often stolen or otherwise used against the person they were meant to help protect. That can of course not happen with martial arts skills.

3) You can defend yourself without causing lasting damage to the attacker.
If for example you shoot someone, the person will very likely get killed or seriously injured, often with permanent damage. A martial art like hapkido on the other hand allows you to defend yourself, incapacitate or immobilise an attacker without causing any lasting damage at all.

4) You can use it instantly if/when you need it.
You’ll never have to look for your martial arts skills in a desk drawer, your purse or anywhere else. It’s there for you to use it in the instant you might need it.

5) It is not illegal.
Carrying and possession of firearms is very much illegal in many countries. As is carrying many other forms of equipment that could be used for self defense. Having martial arts skills is completely legal (to my knowledge) everywhere on this planet.

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A moment of “bruised male pride”

1As I’ve made clear on this blog, I generally have only positive feelings about my wife being a martial arts professional and a self defence instructor and I am very proud over her achievements. However, there are some occasional – rather random – moments when I guess my “inner caveman” emerges and I feel a bit frustrated or even embarrassed. One such moment happened this summer. Not at all as a result of any dramatic or unusual event, but a simple comment “triggered” my ego and “male pride”.

Me and Leticia (my wife) were at the beach together with another couple about our age, who are friends of ours. We were having a nice time in the sun doing some catching up and talking about everything and nothing. At one point the other woman brought up the subject of Leticia’s martial arts training, asking about how her practice was going, if she was having a lot of students etc. After discussing that a bit with Leticia, she looked at us guys and said “wouldn’t it be great to know hapkido too and be able to kick butt like Leticia?”. We both laughed and agreed, but I felt I was blushing a bit and I could tell my fellow male at the table was blushing too. We looked at each other for a second and though neither of us said anything it was obvious we both felt about the same – slightly embarrassed and “uncomfortable”. Just because of that simple statement implying that Leticia is better than us at fighting and self defence.

Her comment was perfectly innocent and well meaning. Leticia is obviously by far the best fighter of us four, as she is the only one of us who has any hand to hand combat training – and she is an expert at that, with a 4th level black belt and having practiced since childhood. Yet there we were, two guys blushing as if some embarrassing secret had just been exposed. I guess that just goes to show how deeply gender roles – in this case the expectations that men should be the “protectors” – and the norms of society are imprinted in (most of ) us humans.

“She could kill you with her bare hands”

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Stock photo.

At one point last week my wife Leticia came around to meet me at the gym after my workout there. One of the guys there saw her and he commented on that yesterday, when I met him again at the gym. He said Leticia is very beautiful and that I am a lucky guy to have her. I thanked him for the compliment and we talked a bit more,  while working out, about our respective professions and relationships and so on. When he asked what Leticia does I of course truthfully answered that she is a self defence instructor with a 4th dan black belt in hapkido.
“Wow, you’re a very brave man” he then said.
“How so?”, I asked, a bit surprised.
“Well, she could kill you with her bare hands, you know!” he said and looked at me as if he was revealing some new sensational information to me.
I didn’t expect that comment at all, so I didn’t know what to say at first. I guess he interpreted that as a confirmation that he really was revealing some shocking new info to me, and said something like “She could! Hapkido is a really mean martial art! If she is that highly ranked, she is a real badass. She could kill a guy! No problem!”.
Before he could continue further, I said that I knew about that and that Leticia had explained a lot to me about how hapkido works and that I had “practiced” a couple of times with her, so I was very much aware of how effective and powerful those techniques can be. But I also told him I wasn’t at all worried that she would use her skills to “kill” me or beat me up. Among other things, I pointed out that Leticia is a very nice, calm and peaceful person, which are some of the reasons I married her in the first place.

Later yesterday evening, I thought about this conversation again and the more I think about it the less it makes any sense. I mean theoretically, any woman might use a gun, knife or some other improvised weapon to injure or kill a man. Although it is true that Leticia, as a martial arts expert, could also use hapkido to do it, that doesn’t mean that she is anymore likely (or rather less unlikely) to commit such an act of extreme violence than any other woman. Practicing a martial arts doesn’t turn a woman into a murderous psycho – that should be pretty much obvious to everyone. Quite the contrary in fact, as hapkido helps teaches you how to control your emotions, to keep calm and to not use violence except as a last resort in self defence.

Yet, the guy in the gym apparently thinks that I am being brave and facing up to some serious danger, just for being married to a woman who happens to be a martial arts expert. I have noticed this reaction among some other men too, though mostly they are not as blunt when expressing what they think. But I have been asked if I am afraid of Leticia.

So do people think that practicing martial arts and learning self defence turns you (or at least women) into out of control violent persons? Or are there some other psychological mechanisms at work here?