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BJJ Advice & Opinions

A Look at Women’s Jiu-Jitsu and Its Ever-Changing Hurdles

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A few years ago, someone I was sharing the mats with stated that only two types of girls start training jiu-jitsu: girls starved for attention and androgynous women. His comment was not simply offensive. It was ignorant. However, this is not the first time I have heard similar theories regarding girls who train. Comments of that nature are one of the primary fuels I use when it’s time for me to write. 

I’d like to start by addressing the elephant in the room. I understand some individuals train more for Instagram likes than to improve themselves. Nonetheless, it’s not just females. All genders engage in the same ritual. I am also aware that academies become meeting grounds for those looking to date a fighter. But, again, on both sides of the coin, those percentages are lower than people would have you believe. 

The jiu-jitsu Federation of Guanabara was founded in April of 1967. Subsequently, in June of 1973, jiu-jitsu was legally recognized as a sport in Brazil. By the end of that year, the federation held its first tournament. But until 1985, they only allowed male competitors until Yvonne Duarte paved the way for us by convincing the FJJERJ (Rio de Janeiro Federation) to open a women’s division. 

However, it wasn’t until 1998 that women’s divisions were added to the IBJJF. But, only two divisions that combined all belt levels. Today, the IBJJF has a wide array of classes and divisions for females to compete in.  

Along with the IBJJF, many local and nationwide tournaments have added women’s divisions. Promotions such as F2W and EBI have even held all-female events showcasing the remarkable growth we have attained. 

Many of the hurdles we face, however, are created by us. For example, “Queen Bee Syndrome” is defined as a situation where high-ranking women in positions of authority treat the women who work below them more critically than their male counterparts.  Sociologist Marianne Cooper wrote an incredibly insightful piece five years ago breaking down the psychological and sociological roots of this phenomenon. But what causes this syndrome to be so predominant in our sport? 

With jiu-jitsu still being male dominated, females were inherently pushed to fight for the few spots available to them. At times completely unaware of it, we had a vitriolic reaction to other females as a way of separating ourselves from the “weaker” gender. To inoculate themselves from gender bias, girls strived to break the barrier and sympathize with the majority, most times by differentiating themselves from the rest of the girls and proving that they relate more to the majority than to the minority.

Society views competition differently based on our gender. When males engage in competitive behavior, the outsiders see this behavior as healthy, ambitious conduct in any aspect of life. However, when two females engage in similar behavior with each other, outsiders perceive this conduct as catty and unhealthy. 

We have come a long way from our humble beginning. However, if we want this growth progression to continue, we must come together to make it happen, and without female training partners, we truncate our growth.

While I don’t fit into this category, many of my teammates do. Being a mother and a competitive jiujitera are at times centrifugal forces. If finding time to train as a childless adult is difficult, imagine scheduling around your offspring’s incredibly hectic agenda and attempting to cut weight for a competition while feeding kids. I am always inspired to see how many amazing jiujiteras make it work while raising a family. 

Weight cutting for females is a whole different game as well. Hormonal imbalances may make weight loss seem like an impossible task. As women, we deal with these imbalances all the time. Oestrogen and Progesterone are the primary female sex hormones. Increased Oestrogen levels can cause: Weight gain, menstrual problems, worsening of premenstrual syndrome, fatigue, and feeling depressed or anxious. 

These symptoms paired with a training camp and an increase in athletic output can overwhelm female athletes. This extra stress can cause cortisol levels to rise, leading to suppressed immune function, increased appetite, abdominal weight gain, and muscle loss. 

Progesterone levels spike in the second half of our menstrual cycle leading to water retention, breast tenderness, and sometimes weight retention. It can also slow down your normal gut motility resulting in constipation. 

We also carry about 5% less total body water than the equivalent sized male; therefore, dehydration and other fluid reduction techniques result in less weight reduction. 

These particulars are not a cop-out either. It’s simply a reality women live as we engage in combat sports. Being a female in combat sports places a chip on our shoulders, and the further our journey takes us, the deeper that chip becomes. Many of the women in the grappling groups I belong to deal with a wide array of emotions that overtakes our psyche. Some of it can be chalked up to hormones, but our innate stress response can explain others. And while I have learned to control the best I can, my emotions are (and will always be) a big detour to my journey. 

As much as jiu-jitsu has grown and become popular, females in competition are still somewhat scarce. I speak to many jiujiteras who express how they are the only females in class or feel too uncomfortable going to pro-training sessions.  They often do not have female counterparts to help them get ready for competition, leaving them no option but to drill with guys. But females roll differently than males. 

In the past 36 years, thanks to females like Yvonne Duarte, Kyra Gracie, Rosângela Conceição, Michelle Nicolini, Mackenzie Dern, Sophia McDermott, and so many other amazing women who have paved the road for us to continue our journey, we have grown the sport immensely. From no girls competing to IBJJF divisions filled with female competitors, we are making significant strides. But now it’s the time to look inwardly and ensure each one of us is doing our best to cultivate and not crop.

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