20 May 2010

Article - Amazon Jiu Jitsu: BJJ & Larger Women

Article #14, by guest writer Megan Williams [FAQ Entry]

I…am a large woman. That’s not a euphemism for overweight or exceedingly muscular. I’m 6’ tall, with an almost 7” wrist and 22” shoulders. I weigh 180lbs when in good shape. Like the majority of women that train BJJ, I showed up for self-defense reasons (even though, aside from an incident of a man telling me that I was “so tall he wanted to put his fist through my chest”, I’ve seldom felt threatened), but the similarities begin to die off there.

Yes, a large woman will face the same “lady problems” that any other female would in training BJJ…dealing with inappropriate behavior, managing the intensity of sparring with opponents that either want to man-handle you for fun or go way too soft on you because they don’t want to hurt you, feeling out of place as the only female in class…but the issue of size is a creature unto itself. I outweigh most of the women in my school by 60lbs or more and am a solid 10” taller. I worry more frequently about putting too much of my weight on smaller opponents (male and female) than I do about being crushed by the 220 lb guy that shows up on Wednesdays. The idea of being picked up or tossed around doesn’t really cross my mind and sweeps only work if they’re technically clean. Still though, I’m not as strong as men my size, or even those smaller than me.

I’m guessing the guys at the gym have to be thinking something similar…wondering what’s got the Amazonian chick interested in a sport that’s designed to shift the balance of power in favor of smaller, weaker opponents. Their comments on how strong I am, or have gotten are great motivation, but they’ve given rise to some new concerns. I used to worry about being weak. Now I wonder about life beyond the white belt and if my size plus a pigmented belt will cause resentment or backlash. I wonder if my manly size will result in my being manhandled. I’m guessing it will, and that’s fine. Just a new challenge with which to deal. While I’m sure the heel I took to my left breast last class is a problem that’s particular to women, I suspect there are fewer differences specific to gender in Brazilian jiu jitsu than one would expect, and that’s part of what makes it beautiful.

I do think though, that my situation sheds light on an opportunity for instructors, bloggers and others to adapt how they address techniques and abilities. My instructor, (I like his method and think it could be a benefit to both genders) instead of giving advice on techniques that are good for men or women, teaches based on body type or situation…leg length, relative weight of opponent or flexibility. I’m sure there are men out there with legs that are stronger than their upper bodies, be it because of freakish genetics or injury. There are definitely men out there that are small for their gender, and I believe they could benefit from more specialized attention.

All that said, I’m glad to have found the likes of Lana Stefanac, Gabi Garcia and a few other ladies online, so I can see how other large women move and work with women their own size.

Megan is a white belt, who has been training for six months at American Top Team in West Palm Beach under Marcos "Parrumpinha" Da Matta. She maintains a blog at bjiujitsu.blogspot.com

BJJ for the Larger Woman: Further Reading

Megan Williams: Big Girl Syndrome
Fenom Kimonos: Annemieke DeMaggio Interview
Open Mat Radio: #23 - Emily Wetzel Interview
Megan Williams: Commentary on Emily Wetzel Interview
BJJ Heroes: Gabi Garcia Profile
Erin Herle: Gabi Garcia Interview

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  1. Nicely put! Christy Thomas is a co-owner of my academy-- a 3-stripe brown belt, she's over 6' and weighs about 170 or so. She frequently comments that men are too rough with her because she appears to be as big as a man, and she's an upper belt, so "she can take it." That's not true at all.

    Like you said, BJJ is beautiful because it makes room for expression by the apparently infinite variety of physical shapes and sizes of the players. I look forward to hearing what your game becomes.

  2. Great article, Megan!! I come from the other end of the spectrum, often being one of the smallest people in class. I never thought about how being a large-framed woman would come with it's own set of troubles, like guys thinking that tall = as strong as them. Now I have a new respect for the two girls at my school who are tall and strong. I'm going to mention this post to them.

    Also, I know you mentioned that you take BJJ for self defense and that some people may wonder why someone of your stature would need it. I would say that everyone should know a little bit about how to defend themselves, no matter how big or small they are. You could always run into another Amazonian, but one with a bad attitude and a mind to kick your butt!! ;)

    Also, I enjoy your blog thoroughly. You have a great sense of humor and an honesty that makes all your posts a pleasure to read.

  3. I have the same problem to an extent. My frame is not quite as large as yours, but I am tall for a woman, 5'9. I too get the occasional strong comments, and comments like "you don't feel as frail as some of the other girls.." Uhhh.. Thanks, but please don't crush me. Just because I am your size, doesn't mean I am as strong as you are, nor does it mean I can take as brutal a beating as a man my size could.

    I will say however that most men at my school have anyways been very courteous, and I seldom feel they forget I am female in spite of my size. I do wonder however, if that would hold true once I most beyond white belt. I would like to think it would though.

    Thanks for the blog! I must say it is nice to read about this side of the female grapple's issues. Most women suffer from the opposite problems. =)

  4. @ Georgette, that's exactly what I expect to happen. Not too worried yet since I'm still getting a handle on the basics.

    @A.D. Thanks! You're right about self defense. I travel alone sometimes and you never know when some ex-linebacker might get a stupid idea in his head.

    @Stephanie, the guys are definitely mindful of the fact that I'm female . Most walk a very good balance between going too hard and too soft. Glad you're still around:)

  5. I'm in a weird position because I'm both short and heavy. 5'4" and 200+ lbs. Though when people find out I'm that heavy they are surprised because my frame hides a lot. However, I know that most of the girls in my class are MAYBE 120 or 130. I have to get A3 gis and then cut over an inch off the sleeves and legs. Apparently women are either supposed to be heavy and tall or light and short. :)

    I actually originally joined BJJ to lose some weight and then accidentally got addicted. Whoops!

    One thing I love about BJJ is that for every size and shape there are very distinct advantages AND disadvantages. That is really freaking awesome.

    Thanks for posting this! Most of the blogs I read are from the tiny women and it's nice to hear from the big gals.

  6. Personally, I'm always impressed with ANYONE who doesn't give a damn and does what they love. Keep on keeping on, and just learn how to choke all the haters unconscious.

    My Secret Public BJJ Journal