Becoming Batman: How Martial Arts And Powerlifting Made Me Appreciate My Body In Ways I Never Thought I Would

I'm not a tomboy and martial arts don't belong to the boys of the world. I am myself and I am a woman and these are the things I like to do, which makes them, in the context of my own life, mine and utterly mine.

Dec 10, 2013 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

When I was five years old, I wanted to be Batman. Soon, I informed the adults in my life of my chosen vocation.
 
"Ha, ha!" most of them said. "How cute! You mean you want to be Batgirl!"
 
Excuse me.  Did I stutter?
 
Maybe I did, actually. I was five years old, remember. But the possible literal stutter is not the point. The point is: I wanted to be BATMAN. Truth is? I still kind of do. Why? Because Batman's a badass, that's why, and I lacked appropriately body confident and righteously violent female figures to fuel my power fantasies in his place.  
 
Things have improved in the twenty odd years that have passed: we have smart female characters, or nimble ones, or socially savvy ones, or ones bestowed with magical powers for flimsy reasons that do illogical waif-fu (please don't send hate mail, Buffy fans). And that's great, that really is. I'm thrilled we have that. I'm ecstatic that we have more choices of what sort of heroism we identify with and aspire to in our media now. Honest.
 
But we don't have many female characters with strength and pride in their body that can legitimately throw down and cause some physical damage. This is what I wanted as a child. This is still really what I want now. Currently, Batgirl has moved beyond the purple glitter and high heels she was previously known for, but it's too late. Like an impressionable baby duck, I've imprinted. Batman is my life coach.
 
So how do you deal with being a five-year-old girl who wants to be Batman? In my case, I asked my mother to put me in karate class. She put me in some child model thing instead. I tried again a few years later and she was going to send me to ballet, and even then I was super not into the idea of wearing scratchy tights and dresses. I was already tearing those off whenever I had to wear them for family holiday parties, so I demurred.
 
I don't think my mother ever told me I couldn't or shouldn't do "boy sports." But I remember one of the girls in my first grade class saying this to me in a voice of disdain and disapproval while I was pretending to high kick supervillains on the playground, and I suddenly understood: Oh, that's why my mother won't let me take karate.
 
I thought that was bogus even then. I mean, boy sports? When boys already got the cool toys I wanted? BULLSHIT. I wanted to do boy sports. I was a girl. I was very okay with being a girl. I just wanted to do stuff that people called "boy stuff," too. 
 
One year I saved up all my birthday and holiday money and went out to the mall with a family friend. There was this Batman jacket I wanted. It was a black leather like material, because I have had solid sartorial sense my entire life, with yellow accents on the sleeves and a big bat signal on the back.
 
Family Friend was indulgent and amused and I'm sure I really only had five bucks or something, but he bought me this jacket. He bought me little black and white snakeskin print cowboy boots, too. Completed with a pair of jeans, this was instantly my favorite outfit.
 
Sorry, mom.
 
I was, I think, about six years old. Maybe seven.
 
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LOOK AT HOW MUCH THINGS HAVE CHANGED, TWENTY YEARS LATER. The hyperviolent male comic book character on that shirt is Marv from Sin City, if you were wondering.

Eventually I outgrew my bat jacket and boots, much to my mother's relief. I also stopped asking for karate, because I understood that it was never going to happen. I was completely uninterested in physical activity that didn't involve punching stuff, so I decided to settle for being a bookworm and stealing my younger brother's Batman toys.
 
I got older. I gained weight. I became an intelligent but aloof kid that looked down on frivolous jock type activities. I hated my body, but that was okay, because body activity was stupid anyway.
 
I still really wanted to punch stuff, though. Not, like, angrily. Punching stuff is actually really fun. 
 
I was a fat nerdy girl by middle school, and willing to work with that--not that I had much of a choice. I was already bad at sports. In high school I was one of those quirky art girls. The captain of the baseball team asked me out one day and I was completely nonplussed. Why would I date a jock? I had a crush on the kid who was a published composer and in high level math classes. My path, I thought, had already been chosen. I was an INTELLECTUAL. I didn't need to do dumb body things. 
 
Fast forward. One day I was in college, on my own, and I realized: Hey, I can go punch stuff. I can go do that if I want.
 
I wasn't sure how to go about this. I decided to try and learn how to run, in case this would help somehow. It didn't really, and it turns out I hate running. But still. There was--something. Something was trying to burst from the cracks in the sidewalk of my soul and unfurl into full bloom.
 
At some point, I fell in love with a super cool martial artist dude who had graduated high school at age 13, so he covered all my bases for what is attractive in a man while also being like, Sure, yeah, you want to punch stuff?
 
Stand like this.
 
Power comes from the hips.
 
Snap forward like so.
 
Punch the hand I'm holding up.
 
And bam.
 
It was electric. It was fun. I did it again. And then again. This was joy. This was the body and the mind doing something for the beauty and joy of just doing.
 
We had a few sessions that were boxing-type work outs, with him holding pads, or directing me at the heavy bag propped up in the balcony corner. I would like to say that I knew how important this was immediately, but I did not. I knew I wanted it, but I had a lot of body issues and other things going on, and I hated most group activities.
 
It took me a while to go to an actual group class, is what I'm saying, and when I did, that shit kicked my ass. I took a cardio kickboxing class and I was laid out for daaays after. I had a lifetime of disdaining physical activity going on, remember. My body was not ready.
 
So the cardio part sucked. Standing in place and just punching at the air made me feel awkward and also kind of sucked. Holding pads for other people, which I had no idea how to do, totally sucked. Being the only girl in the class? Surprisingly sucked more than I thought it would, even though everyone was very respectful and no one questioned my right to be there.
 
But punching stuff? Kicking stuff? The brief glorious flash of time where I threw my body into a deliberate moment of impact?
 
Fucking rad, my friends.
 
I was in love.
 
Life intervened, for a while. There was college and interpersonal drama and, in my case, bouts of anorexia and suicidality which further fueled my lack of body confidence and general insecurity and basically ensured I would not don shape revealing workout gear (HORRORS) and go do something as exposing as a group exercise class (HORRORS UPON HORRORS). I mean, what, you want I should throw myself to the wolves? Just slit my wrists already, people. So, consummating this love affair took a while.
 
But it was always there. The urge never went away.
 
Fictional violence isn't the same as real violence isn't the same as combat sports. Really, the three are very different. Nonetheless, my taste in media has been consistently blood splattered and high-kick-filled. My admiration for physical power never abated. I still thought Batman was the coolest guy. Still do.
 
Aside: my Karate Boyfriend is pretty cool too, though. Here he is wrestling my dog, Ernie:
 
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So eventually -- I'm not even sure how this even happened -- I ended up in a Brazilian Jujitsu class. BJJ is a grappling martial art mostly focused around joint locks and chokes. In grappling classes, you learn by doing. You know how I said most of my first kickboxing class sucked, but the brief moments of punching stuff were great? A grappling class is nearly all that rushing moment of doing. At least at the ones I've been to, the instructor demonstrates a technique, and then you pair off and you go practice it. In BJJ, you practice it by getting on the floor and grappling with your partner.
 
Wrestling. Shoving. Shoulder checking. Rolling. Doing anything you can with your body to get this person off you or into the right position to hook a forearm around their neck and sink that sweet, sweet choke in. 
 
There is nothing like the full body exertion of grappling. There's a lot of head game, too--wrestlers are almost universally tenacious people, because it's a constant struggle on such a basic, visceral level. BJJ is considered a little more technical and nerdy, but still.
 
I can't compare it to anything meaningfully. It's not like sex, though that's the first full body exertion experience with partner I can think of. But you are, when you grapple, alive. Every single bit of you is alive and struggling. 
 
And it's fun. Maybe it doesn't sound fun, and maybe some days it's repetitive and you're sore and it kind of sucks. But you're throwing yourself at someone like that, your entire body is working and there is something so thrilling and beautiful in this exertion.
 
We should all love our bodies, regardless of the condition they're in. We are our bodies, in many ways. We need to love them and cherish them as they are, because they do so much for us.
 
But if you, like me, need a little help to really appreciate the fuck out of your body: consider martial arts. Sometimes it's a little easier to love your body when you can land a solid punch or flip someone over or wriggle out of the clutches of an impressive opponent. "Hey, I can do THAT," you say. "I can do that and that is incredibly AWESOME, which means I am awesome, and my body did that, because my body is awesome."
 
AWESOME.
 
This won't work for everyone. And I don't think it should! But it works for some people, and many women don't even get the chance to try, because we're sort of... taught not to try, because power is unfeminine and feminine is what you are supposed to strive for.
 
Women, everyone tells us, are attracted to power--to powerful men. Men are attracted to beauty; more precisely, beautiful women.
 
What does that tell you, even as a little girl, about who is considered to have power?
 
A couple of years later I took up powerlifting while taking a break from martial arts. This made me appreciate my body even more. When you're leg pressing 375 pounds, it's a lot easier to realize that your body does some amazing shit for you, so you'd best be grateful.
 
And if you're not as tiny as you'd like to be, if you don't like your chin or if your back dimples never came in, or your thighs rub bare patches into all your jeans--on some level, who cares? You can lift heavy shit and throw it across the room if you want. That's fantastic.
 
You can still be bodily dysmorphic and do martial arts, of course. In fact, a lot of male eating disorder cases are wrestlers, because it's a sport with strict weight classes. You can be a powerlifter or a bodybuilder (these are not the same thing, by the way) and have seriously disordered eating. On a competitive level, this is all emotionally brutal.
 
But as a hobbyist, for fun--if you can stand the idea of doing something just for fun--it's the coolest thing I've ever done for myself. I act differently, I move differently, I think differently. I am happier and more confident. Life is easier because I don't hate myself.
 
There are lots of reasons martial arts might not work for you. Not all our bodies are physically capable of comfortably doing a combat sport, and we should love those bodies, too. Some of us just find the whole interpersonal conflict thing so overwhelming and nerve wracking that just training for punching someone feels horrible and stressful. Some of us just don't find it exciting. These are all valid answers.
 
And yet.
 
There are many ways to live and many roads to happiness. I'm not saying this one is for you. But this is one for me, and I've known it, on some level, since I was five years old. And it's a way of living that is not, by default, presented to most women. We are taught to be delicate, to be demure, to let men carry our packages. Not all men have the option of body confidence via combat sport presented to them, either, but many more of them do. More men have the option to make that choice.
 
But there isn't anything inherently masculine about it, and nothing about martial arts negates my femininity. I may not be a ballet dancer, but I do love to dance. I don't wear pink tights, but I wear ridiculously ornate and delicate fishnets. I tend to houseplants and I squeal over baby animals and I own about three dozen nail polishes, two of which I use with any consistency. I dye my hair with henna and I obsessively try to figure out new ways to wash it and I own way, way too many shoes and scarves and chubby eyeliner sticks.
 
I don't consider myself a tomboy and never have. Martial arts don't belong to the boys of the world. I am myself and I am a woman and these are the things I like to do, which makes them, in the context of my own life, mine and utterly mine.
 
My personal trainer, apparently the only man I can trust to guide me through fitness without mentioning my weight, has quit to be an IT guy. He is happy, and I am happy for him. But I don't feel like powerlifting with a new trainer, because a good one that doesn't measure progress in pounds lost is hard to find.
 
It's been about two years since I took a martial art consistently. I think about it every day. I wrestle around jokingly with my boyfriend and my dog--and if you don't think picking up seventy pounds of pit mix and hip tossing him counts as wrestling around, just try it. I throw punches in front of the mirror to check out my form. I watch youtube videos on grappling technique. It's been a long two years, in a way.
 
It's time, my friends. Once again, it is time. It may even be time for karate.
 
I'll be wearing my Batman shirt.
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