Growing up, my life was filled with parental aphorisms that defined and solidified my identity as a binary cis-girl:
“A young lady should be gentle. Roughhousing is for boys.”
“Don’t pedal your bike too hard, you don’t want muscular legs.”
“Put down that cookie. A young lady should be prim and trim.”
“Don’t be bossy and don’t speak out of turn.”
So years later in my 20s, when I took up martial arts, mountain biking, and other male-dominated activities, I faced seemingly insurmountable mental and physical hurdles that impeded my progression in those endeavors.
My five-year journey in martial arts consisted mostly of overcoming my hard-wired fears and insecurities to progress to the next level. I shied away from activities or techniques that required jumping and it took me longer than the average student to learn and execute those moves. For example, in my advanced TaeKwonDo class, when we were instructed to run up a wall and push off with one foot while throwing a spinning kick with the free leg, my mind immediately shut down and I froze. I ran up to the wall several times, stopped short, and turned back in irritation and disappointment.
During the class, it was strongly likely for men to execute new and possibly dangerous techniques without hesitation, with many getting it on the first try. Meanwhile, the ladies tested the waters hesitantly, at first stopping at the wall like I did, then jumping a little at a time and building up to the full execution.
This was a common pattern in every class – each new technique demanding a challenging physical execution was met by females with timidity and uncertainty.
To break down why – one, the techniques required great exertion of energy and range of movement and two – they required self-confidence and abandonment of self-preservation. Since we could walk, boys generally associated with peers and environments that encouraged physically dynamic activities such as jumping, roughhousing, and exploring. Girls generally associated with peers and activities that encourage passivity and demureness.
Gender socialization – the learning of social expectations and attitudes associated with one’s sex – begins at birth and by the time children turn three years old, they already have a sense of gender identity. According to research by Laura D. Hanish, PhD, and Richard A. Fabes, PhD:
They are aware of the fact that they are boys or girls and that there are certain behaviours, activities, toys and interests that are played with more often by boys and girls. Gender differences in children’s behaviours and interactional patterns also begin to become apparent by this age. For instance, boys are more active, physical and play in larger spaces than girls. In contrast, girls are more compliant, prosocial and play closer to adults than boys.
With girls being frequently scolded for scraping their “pretty knees”, called “bossy” when displaying leadership skills, and labeled as “tomboys” when expressing interest in activities generally associated with boys – the range of activities that girls can invest in is pretty limited.
So who is better equipped to executing wall-jumping kicks?
The males, who approached the intimidating physical execution with confidence and abandon.
In her fascinating research, “Throwing Like a Girl”, Iris Marion Young explores how gender binaries are programmed in our motility:
Now, most men are by no means superior athletes, and their sporting efforts more often display bravado than genuine skill and coordination. The relatively untrained man nevertheless engages in sport generally with more free motion and open reach than does his female counterpart…Women often approach a physical engagement with things with timidity, uncertainty, and hesitancy. Typically, we lack an entire trust in our bodies to carry us to our aims.
In other words, we ladies are conditioned throughout our lives to restrict our range of movement, to shy away from activities perceived to be masculine, and to underestimate our physical capabilities.
Typically, the feminine body underuses its real capacity both as the potentiality of its physical size and strength and as the real skills and coordination that are available to it. Feminine bodily existence is an inhibited intentionality, which simultaneously reaches toward a projected end with an “I can” and withholds its full bodily commitment to that end in a self-imposed “I cannot.” – Iris Marion Young
But we can rise above our programmed gender expectations and overcome our mental barriers to achieve physical greatness.
Extraordinary women such as Ronda Rousey (MMA Fighter and Judo Olympian) and Rachel Atherton (professional mountain biker) rose above gender expectations to shine in primarily male-dominated sports.
The key is persistence and confidence.
In the after hours at my dojang (dojo), I practiced the jumping wall-kick by myself whenever I had time on the mats. After half a year, I was finally able to execute the technique and catch up to the rest of the class. Even though the class is still ahead of me on many levels – with the body confident men taking on new challenges with certainty and gusto – I relished in the fact that I am just as capable of learning and executing challenging techniques.
Persistence can overcome mental and societal barriers – even when fear, insecurity, and binary gender expectations are hardwired into our beings.
So yes – throw, punch, and run like a girl. Because we can shine when we believe in ourselves.