How Jiu-Jitsu Healed My Body Image

Comic illustration by Rodrigo Herrera. Published with permission; all rights reserved.

Comic illustration by Rodrigo Herrera. Published with permission; all rights reserved.

"For decades I scrutinized my body, hated my body, but was attached to it against my will. Then I started jiu-jitsu..."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Body image is how one perceives themselves — how they imagine others perceive them. When there is an unreasonable belief that their body is defective and in need of "fixing," is when personal opinions can become a disorder. It can coincide with disordered eating, where one finds difficulty controlling their eating behaviors. These descriptions can sound common, and they are — in some level they can exist in all of us. The symptoms are not what creates a disorder; it is the severity. Anorexics are known to walk through doors sideways, believing they will not fit through the door, no matter how thin they are. When symptoms are out of control (out of order) and hinder your ability to live a normal and functional life, is when your self-image becomes an illness.

In a recent project chronicling the experiences of women in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I received an email from Sara (not her real name). She started jiu-jitsu for fitness reasons but what came out of it was a better relationship with herself that was never possible with any amount of therapy. Rather than write an article interpreting her experiences, here it is (with permission) in her own beautiful words:

Part of the jiu-jitsu experience that is probably unique to women or less common in men is how body image changes. Women often carry a sense that they are objects, that their bodies are sources of power only insofar as they can attract a man or generate attention. The women in the UFC and BJJ culture who get the most attention are the most attractive. They get the most sponsors. Gabi Garcia was an exception but when she started losing weight and ‘prettying’ herself, people came out of the woodwork to support her instead of describing her as a beast.

Our bodies are constantly critiqued, externally and internally. For decades I scrutinized my body, hated my body, but was attached to it against my will. This eventually bled into unhealthy relationships, over-exercise, restricted eating, and a generally horrible relationship with food and my body. People say that eating disorders are about control. They are not. Those with disordered eating feel OUT of control. I hated the loss of control, feeling driven by, and terrified, of food, of myself. I was a loathsome object.

Then I started jiu-jitsu.

It moves me to tears. Suddenly my body was a powerhouse of defense and strength. It had utility. It was fascinating and deep. My body was capable of things I had never considered or explored. These experiences started the first month. I was strong. The gender-neutralizing nature of the gi emphasized the experience and helped make it possible. I waited to start no-gi for this reason.

"Gi" is the uniform, similar to what they wear in judo. "No-gi" means without the uniform, typically in shorts and a rash-guard or t-shirt.

In my gi, my body was for fighting, for power, for using, for moving. I was and still am constantly shocked at what I’m capable of and how effective it is. I am small, 5’3” and around 120, and I was not used to feeling power ripple through me. My body was not just an object to attract men. It was not just a repository for pain. My body was a fucking powerhouse. My disordered eating disappeared effortlessly. Therapy had never helped. My body image fixation faded. I just no longer needed to punish myself with food, and I felt in control of my body and its destiny. Rather than the world happening to my body and self-worth, I fucking ‘collar-choked’ the world. I ‘shrimped’ my ass off. And I learned what I can tolerate and celebrate. It’s not just learning that I am capable of doing things. It’s that I am capable of being smashed under side-control of a Big Ten football player for three minutes, barely able to breathe. I can push through that panic. I can handle the fear that comes from facing opponents. I think all jiu-jitsu students learn this, not just women. When I learned how strong I am, I fell in love with my body, and I am full of pride now. Not to show it off but to use it for me because it is fascinating and fun. What a simple and beautiful experience, almost childlike.

A "collar-choke" is one of the most dominant submissions in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Inversely, the "shrimp," like the name, is the move a player uses to get out of impossible situations.

I now attempt to serve my body well. Our relationship is healthy and warm now.... Food no longer scares me. I’m not ashamed of my body. Hard to articulate is the gender identity shift. It feels deep inside me. It is an old voice, an original part of myself that I hear and express through jiu-jitsu that was never expressed before. It has to do with my gender, but I’m not sure how.

One of the powerful things I did to mark this change and my commitment to jiu-jitsu was to cut my hair very short. I had long hair for most of my life. Very long. I found it got in the way of jiu-jitsu. It also symbolizes and expresses a very feminine gender identity. I feel less feminine than I used to. Still a woman but so powerful and unstoppable. I wanted to let go of a feminine part of myself that felt objectified by me, that brought out vanity, that symbolized acquiescence to a culture dangerous to women. It was a ‘monk’-ish commitment to jiu-jitsu. I cut my hair very intentionally on the anniversary of my divorce. I let go of my attachment to sexually objectifying my body and moved towards a more gender-neutral expression.

Without meaning to, I started wearing less makeup, wearing simpler clothes and simply not even thinking about those overtly feminine things. What I’ve learned is that those are not the things that express my woman-ness. The power my body holds, the latent power and utility, is what is beautiful and expresses the female part of my gender identity. I wanted to live that in an overt way. Every time I look in the mirror, I am reminded of my commitment to this art and to my warm and loving relationship with my body. My body is reclaimed. Reclaimed by me. On my own terms. And this is all thanks to jiu-jitsu.

"Osu" was a way for men to give general affirmation in Japanese martial arts. Since then it has evolved, especially in Brazilian jiu-jitsu where it has no gender connotations or even a specific meaning. It is used to say "yes," or "hello," or even "thank you." But most of all it is a way to say, "I respect you."

So to Sara, I speak on behalf of everyone who read your letter when I say, OSU!

Special thanks to: Rodrigo Herrera for providing the great artwork for this article. Please check out his other works on his website.