Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Warriors and Princesses

Came across this great post on FaceBook today - which reminded me of sitting in the audience of my niece's dance recital a month or so ago. She'd done karate for about a year - about the same amount of time she'd been dancing - but dance was starting to become her main focus, which is cool because she really seemed to have a passion for it. "She liked karate, but didn't like karate," her mom told me after she stopped coming to the dojo. Since dancing doesn't require punching, blocking and kicking while learning new footwork and movements, I totally understood. Truth was, she didn't really want to be on the mat all that much anyway.

But during the recital, there was one young girl who didn't seem to want to be on stage at all. About a full foot taller than the rest of the dancers in her group, she was a little thicker than the other girls as well. It's not that she didn't have any grace at all, but her body moved and her face looked as if she wanted to be anywhere but in a glittery pink costume and ballet shoes.

My cousin leaned over and told me that the girl's parents made her participate as a way to stay active and lose weight. I felt so very badly for her! But sadly, I've seen similar movements and that very same look in the dojo as well.

We had a student once who was also taller than everyone else in her age/ability group, including the boys. Her guardian grandparents thought it a good idea to put her in karate to "burn some calories." She had one of the absolute heaviest reverse punches I've ever been hit with (seriously!) as well as a natural affinity for stances, but she never seemed to be into karate all that much. Once she turned 12, nail polish, secret crushes and sleep overs with her besties moved to the top of her priority list which forced karate to take a back seat. She was training only because her grandparents wanted her to.

I can't really fault anyone for starting karate for the great workout (it is the reason I initially stepped onto the mat, truthfully), but it can be an issue, I think, if that's the ONLY reason you're there. Let's face it - not every class will have push-ups/sit-ups/jumping-jacks that make you sweat buckets. If your goal is to get the ol' heart-rate up and keep it there for two hours, kihon and kata may prove to be the things that force you right out of a gi and right into the spinning class down the street.

But maybe the real issue when it comes to the younger set being in gi (or soccer cleats or gymnastic tights or running shoes) has to do with the reason they suit up to begin with. Perhaps some of them are there because something is wrong with their bodies. Or because they or someone close to them thinks there is something wrong with their bodies Those feelings aren't innate - they are learned.

Maybe, instead of telling the girls they are "pretty," "cute" or "hot" we should be telling them they are "kind," "courageous" and "brilliant." Maybe compliments to the women in our lives should be no more about what they look like than they would be to the men in our lives. Maybe everything - even physical stuff done in the dojo - doesn't need a gender role or identifier attached to it.

Last weekend during class, one of my training partners told a 12-year-old greenbelt that the self-defense technique she was working on wasn't really working. What he meant was "I don't see any fire or umph in it." What he said was "It looks too 'girly'." And, yes, I interrupted, telling her the technique, as she'd just completed it, had no GRRRRR. Then I told everyone within earshot (read: the rest of the class) that "girly" was condescending to women because it just isn't possible to degrade something by calling it overly feminine without attacking all that is feminine in the room, which simply ain't fair.

The words we use are important, whether we are critiquing a kata, a child's toy or the color of a vehicle, so it's important to use them in ways that are conducive to all who hear them, IMHO. Even when the bite isn't intentional, it doesn't hurt any less.

Stepping off my soapbox now...


  1. I concur. My granddaughter is about one year old, and I tell her all the time, how 'smart', 'strong', 'quick' and 'good' she is. Of course, these are still labels that can be the base of insecurities later on in life (like when one finds out one is NOT the smartest in class and that Fullbright is not in one's future...LOL!).

  2. Hi Felicia,

    Couple disjointed thought...

    1. I don't think the adjective "girly" is necessarily bad unless it is used to describe WHY something is not good. Such as saying the color pink on a car makes it more "girly", to my ear, does not insult femininity as a whole. Much the same that a plaid shirt might look "manly" but does not insult masculinity. I liked how you handled that situation, though. I'm sure everyone in that class walked away with a good lesson - even the grownups.

    2. I may be missing your grander point, but I don't see an issue with using "cute", "pretty", etc when warranted. For example, the compliments I pay to my niece are based on the context of the situation. If she colors in the lines, then "smart" or "artistic" is what I say to her, "pretty" wouldn't make sense. If the last time she had shown me her new dress (shes 4) I had complimented her intelligence, then that wouldn't have been what she was looking for.

    I don't see how basing compliments on gender neutral lines works better than on context. But, again, perhaps I am not addressing the larger point.

    And no need to step off your soapbox. That's what blogs are for!

    1. While "girly" isn't necessarily a bad adjective, that it is often meant to imply that something is delicate, easily bruised/broken or not strong/firm is the problem I have with its use. For example, my training partner meant exactly that when he used it to describe our student's technique. Suffice to say that it usually is NOT meant to praise or simply describe when used to describe anything that is supposed to be done with fervor and verocity.

      As far as the grander point (I like that term, BTW!), I was trying to get to this: perhaps it isn't such a good idea to compliment or describe based on how anyone looks. Especially in these times of eating disorders and body image problems (like extreme diets and desiring plastic surgery to "fix" physical imperfections in kids as young as 8), using "pretty" may be one way to get our little ones thinking that their worth is determined by how they look TO (as opposed to AT) the world. Therapists/psychatrists talk about praising/acknowledging the BEHAVIOR instead of the person (i.e. "You were such a GOOD GIRL!" vs. "You were a really terrific listener today."). It sounds trivial, but it's important, trust me. So I'm not suggesting we ONLY use words that praise non-visually/neutrally - just that we praise the action done ("Purple is such a wonderful color! What amazing eye you have..." or the like to your niece on her dress) instead of how the person looks when doing it. Understand that I think it is a good idea for boys as well, as did most of the parents who commented on the blog post I hyperlinked at the beginning of this one. That make sense?

  3. Totally makes sense. And I think that if appearance based compliments were the only ones people received then that would make for some serious issues - and clearly does, for some people.

    Side thought: I read the blog post you linked to at the top and I disagree with the notion that we should ignore our body image or neglect to teach good body image to children. Body image is a tool and can be used for good as well as ill. If shame and inadequacy is taught to a child, then that is what they will associate to body image. If empowered effort and achievement are taught then that is what the child will associate.

    And ignoring the a child's (and an adult's) human desire to look attractive, out of one's personal desire not to be judged, is to ignore millions of years of human biological and psychological evolution.

    Advocates will say "we aren't saying to ignore it. we are saying not to elevate it to the most important thing". This is fine, and this is something I agree with. But that is not what they're saying. The linked blog says to NEVER discuss what a child or we ourselves look like. And to do that is a mistake. They leave their children unarmed in a world that sees first, and understands later.

    *gets off YOUR soap box*

    1. Understand that the post that kick-started this one was supposed to be a bit facetious and tongue-in-cheek. The "Let's not complement anyone at all on their bodies!" was to counter-balance the pop-culture idea that women are only worthy when they look good. It's hard to be a girl these days! - because there are so many messages being sent that you are only as good as you look as anything too big, small or old isn't really worth our time. Hope's point was that we can't sanitize Madison Avenue, so let's go completely the other way, I think. You're right, if shame and inadequacy are taught to a child, that is what he/she will associate with body image. The problem is that mom, dad and relatives/friends who only care about their well-being are not the only ones doing the teaching. Food for thought, is all...

  4. AMEN! I have made an effort to always tell my daughter how smart, strong, fast, healthy, kind, etc. she is. I want her to value those qualities and strive for something other than looking like a princess.

    It is distressing, though, that at age 6, she is deciding which character or toy she likes better because it is "prettier." *sigh* I usually try to ask her about qualities that are more useful/practical than "pretty." Thankfully, she would rather be Wonder Woman than Snow White.

    I also get irritated when people use "girly" as a negative. Honestly, I'm not sure I've ever heard it used neutrally or positively. The same goes for other feminine qualities. It's unrelated, but don't get me started on the casual use of the word "rape" that is so predominant.

    I will say that we are lucky to have several high ranking ladies at our dojo who are great role models -- these ladies make you want to "kick like a girl." :)

    Thanks for the post. I always enjoy reading your blog.

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