Just another Saturday informal practice time. One of my sensei was showing me a way to set someone up for a crescent kick to the head. As I watched I casually put my gloved hand up to the side of my head whenever I saw Sensei’s leg come up for the kick. As Sensei explained the movements he repeated them again and again so that I had plenty of opportunities both to watch carefully and to try and see what it might look like if I didn’t know what was coming. At one point I stepped outside myself and thought, “Wow, this is actually kinda funny – a woman my age letting someone kick to her head and she’s just casually blocking like it’s no big deal.”
I admit that I still have a persistent vision of what typical middle age looks like for women. Saturday morning could mean sitting in a chair reading a good book and sipping hot cocoa – maybe call Mom and see if she wants to go to the antique store later. This contrasts sharply with my Saturday mornings filed with weights, calisthenics, basics, forms, sparring, bruises, and gallons of sweat. Maybe I’m laughing at myself when I find humor in the contrast between what my life is like and my vision of typical middle aged womanhood.
“Brave” is how one friend outside my martial arts circles describes me. Why? Because as often as possible I get into a tournament ring to spar with karateka who outrank me. Because I am not scared to explore beaches and forests with only my little dog for company. Because I risk injury every time I spar or am thrown. Because I consider most bruises to be badges of honor. Because I’ve taken the first of the “really hard” belt tests. Is this brave? I’ll bet many of my martial arts “brothers” take these things for granted. But for an average middle-aged woman… Different story. We’re “supposed to” be well on our way to retirement.
I’m not the only middle-aged lady acquiring bruises for funsies (as Jackie Bradbury puts it). Heck, two middle-aged lady martial artists are in my dojo and they outrank me. There are more in the Karate organization I belong to. I’m acquainted with even more from tournaments and seminars. There are a few who are Internet buddies of mine and I hope someday to meet them in person. But if one were to ask any given person on the street to describe what a martial artist looks like, that person will most likely describe a young, buff male. Go a step further and ask any given person on the street to describe what a martial arts student looks like and you’ll probably hear a description of a little boy. Not a grown woman who’s started the next half of her life.
Admittedly there are some physical things I do that are concessions to my age. I have noticed it takes me longer to heal from injuries than when I was younger so I take even minor twinges seriously. Paying attention to proper form in stances and adjusting one stance ever so slightly should help stave off knee problems. It takes me longer to build muscle and I must be content with small gains over long periods of time. I absolutely must fall properly when I’m thrown. I have to watch what I eat and carefully time when I eat on workout days. I’ve got to stay hydrated. I must go to bed on time. Taking naps between work and Karate has become a habit. All that said, there are young people out there who can’t do half the things I do. I might have to work around some things but that doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t pursue my art. I know this, but sometimes my past still whispers to me.
Old thought patterns die hard. I was born in 1970, and society was quite different then. Little girls were supposed to be cute and fluffy. They were supposed to play with dolls and tea sets. In most literature for children boys had wonderful adventures. Most books about girls bored me to tears. Ice skating was an “acceptable” sport for my mother, and knitting was an “acceptable” pastime for my grandmother (who was only 42 years older than I). Women were supposed to have big hair and wear the latest fashions. I was bombarded with movies and TV showing women as silly little sex objects who were often in need of rescuing (mostly because they did something stupid or failed to take action). Most telling – I was the first woman in my family to graduate from college. I’ve fought hard to be who I am today.
Still… The other day I came home from Karate class and mused, “What a strange hobby I have,” as I flexed my upper back to ease the ache from being thrown about a dozen times. Then I realized my gender and age bias. As I wrote above, old thought patterns die hard. What’s strange about someone finding something he or she likes to do? What’s strange about that someone setting goals, achieving them, and setting new goals? What’s strange about someone becoming more physically fit, more mentally disciplined, more confident? What’s strange about anyone acquiring knowledge of how to survive if attacked? Everyone deserves opportunities to pursue excellence. Karate is my “way,” and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Related reading: Gender Inequality