Sunday, 3 February 2008

Fight like a girl

Lately I've been thinking about how great it is to be a sporty woman. I think getting seriously involved with a sport is one of the most empowering things a woman can do.

Three and a half years ago now I took up taekwondo, a Korean martial art based on karate. I'd always wanted to do martial arts, but my parents had vetoed it when I was a child on the grounds of my propensity for getting into fights at school (probably a wise decision I have to admit). At 21, I finally got round to donning some "angry white pyjamas" to learn how to kick ass. I'd acquired enough disposable income to join a gym, but it cost about the same to join a taekwondo club instead, and the rest is history. I'm now just about to take my black belt grading. I'm a much more confident person in general than I was at 21 for a variety of reasons, but taekwondo has probably been the biggest influence in terms of having more confidence in my body.

As women we are bombarded with pressure from the media, from our peers, sometimes from men, to see our bodies as wayward things that must be kept in check, that mustn't be fed too much, that exist largely if not solely for aesthetic purposes, and that life will not be worth living if we gain a few pounds. A woman's body exists to be beautiful, not athletic, and beautiful according to pretty strict guidelines at that. How we feel about our bodies, and often consequently our self-esteem, is dictated by a cruel lottery of genetics. And if we have drawn a poor or even a not-quite-perfect set of numbers in the genetics lottery, we are to spend our lives striving to improve our bodies, not allowing ourselves to be truly happy or relaxed until we achieve perfection. It is of course much more important that we are attractive than healthy or fit.

I know that people go to the gym to "keep fit", but for a lot of women, "keeping fit" is synonymous with "keeping thin", and not just because slimness is for most people a by-product of fitness. Virtually every woman I know who has a gym membership sweats it out on a treadmill specifically in order to get or stay thin, and good luck to them for not achieving that just by starving themselves, but it concerns me that women by and large are more concerned with how their body looks than with what it can do.

If you do a sport rather than just going to the gym, you are doing physical activity for a purpose other than just to look good. Being sporty gives you the same physical benefits of going to the gym, but with none of the weight obsession, wall-to-wall mirrors, lycra, posing, sleazy guys and other assorted annoyances that gyms are associated with. You will get fit, and yes, you will get thin if being thin is the state that your body is destined to adopt when it is at the peak of fitness, but you will do so by focusing on having fun and getting good at something instead of on how your body looks. Much more enjoyable and massively more empowering.

When you are training or competing in an actual sport, nobody gives a flying fuck how your body looks. When I'm beating the crap out of a focus pad, demonstrating a pattern for some beginners, kicking a 6ft man in the head, or just sitting around comparing bruises after class, it is the only time I feel that nobody, absolutely nobody, cares about how my body looks.

At my taekwondo club, it is not at all unusual to find men discussing their diets. It's a given that everybody will be watching what they eat to a certain extent, making sure that they have a healthy diet giving them the required energy and nutrients to perform at their best. Being sporty makes it acceptable for men to take an interest in healthy eating. And it makes it acceptable for women to eat proper, substantial food that gives them the energy they need.

A while ago, I can't remember when, I was getting into the shower when I caught sight of myself in the mirror and suddenly realised that I had no cellulite. Before taking up taekwondo I'd had some - not a huge amount, but quite a lot for a 20-year-old. I hadn't been massively distressed about it, but I hadn't liked it either. I'd occasionally succumbed to that masochistic practice of standing in one's underwear in front of a full-length mirror and thinking, Yuk. And now, after a couple of years of regular exercise, it had gone. But it wasn't the fact that it had disappeared that I saw as significant - it was the fact that I hadn't even noticed its disappearance. At some point, I'd stopped caring.

These days, if I find myself in front of a full-length mirror, instead of appraising how my body looks, I throw a few kicks and admire my ninja skillz (fellow martial artists, don't try and tell me you've never done this). If I'd spent the last four years at the gym instead of in the dojang I would be just as fit, but I wouldn't be able to do a pretty mean 540 degree turning kick, I wouldn't have a shelf full of trophies and medals, and I'd still be examining my thighs for cellulite. If I was ever in danger of getting involved with the mad body beautiful culture that plagues young women, taekwondo saved me from it. I am no longer a slave to my body - my body is a slave to me.

Sorry to pontificate but I really think if there's one piece of advice I can offer to every woman it's to find a sport you enjoy and do it. What physical activities did you enjoy as a child? What have you always wanted to try? It's not often that women are encouraged to take up an actual sport as opposed to simply squeezing themselves into pink lycra and going to spinning classes in order to keep their lardy bits in check, and I think that this is a great shame. There is a lot of untapped female sporting talent out there, and a lot of women who are missing out on getting fit in a massively enjoyable manner. There are some who would say that running around like a mad thing and getting sweaty and dishevelled is unfeminine, but to hell with them. Taking up a sport allows you to reclaim your body and to use it to its true potential.

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