When I get grouped in as an instructor in the female empowerment movement, I feel like I need a strong anti-itch cream to deal with my immediate visceral discomfort.
I used to teach stand-up fighting and weapons to both men and women. Now, that I’m specifically focused on teaching women, I notice a tremendous amount of emphasis on the word “empowerment.” When I’m teaching a women’s only class, it somehow automatically becomes synonymous with women’s empowerment. I realize that there are different styles of self-defense. The style that I teach focuses on practical, physical skills that can be used to create or avoid tremendous bodily harm. The style I’ve observed in most women’s self-defense classes focuses on the concept of empowerment where “your voice is your strongest weapon” for de-escalating a dangerous situation. I believe that this is good, but it’s not enough.
Empowerment methodologies are not enough
If I’m saying it plainly, most self-defense classes that are designed and marketed for women make me cringe.
Don’t get me wrong – I think these classes are well-intentioned, but the skills taught in these classes create a false sense of security. One of the dominant skills taught in these classes focuses on the use of an open palm and emphatically saying “STOP”, “NO” or “BACK OFF!” as a method of warding off a potential attacker. When I hear female self-defense teachers say “your voice is the most powerful weapon” I frown and develop very strong indentations between my eyebrows – which I now treat with botox.
Women are taught primarily how to use their voices, while men are taught how to use their bodies.
This concept throws skills out the window and presents self-empowerment as sufficient for self-defense. I’ve seen many female self-defense instructors rely on strong communication skills and “empowering” methodologies instead of a strong physical and practical skill set. This may seem to be enough. More than enough. Actually, it may seem fantastic!
But, your voice is not your strongest weapon
If I imagine myself relying predominantly on my voice to feel strength and power, I actually feel kind of useless. When women are taught this particular “skill” I feel it’s because it’s the easiest thing to do. The focus is on short-term skills that are easily acquired in a limited amount of time. This strategy however, does not build true confidence – it indicates a LACK of confidence in a woman’s ability to learn a solid skill set in the combat arts.
Your voice is not your strongest weapon: owning the power of your voice is important, even essential, but I stand by the belief that women should have ownership over their bodies in order to have true ownership over their voice.
The physical skills that are taught in these classes – knees to the groin, basic strikes using elbows, fists, and knees, grab releases, escaping a mount – can be effective, but in order for anyone to be proficient in these skills, they must become fit, strong, and dedicate themselves to practice.
Language is more powerful than you think
Do women’s fitness and self-defense classes need to be framed around the language of empowerment? Are men too proud to say that they feel empowered after a boxing class? Or, is it that they are taught to use different words to describe the same feelings?
The assumption is that men are not in need of empowerment because they already enjoy a position of power, while women are disempowered by default and so, they NEED to work up to a certain level of empowerment. By constantly feeding this idea, we’re perpetuating the false notion that women begin from a starting point of ‘less than.’ This assumption does more harm than good. If you define women as disempowered from the start, it lowers expectations in performance and value.
Personally, I’ve not been raised with the notion that I’m disempowered due to my gender. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do and have seldom thought, “I can’t do this because I’m female.” I’m aware that an uneven power dynamic exists and that it’s something that we need to consistently combat. However, I do not believe that women are in a state of disempowerment because of the inequalities in society. I think the problem lies partly in the language we use. Using the language of dis/empowerment functions as a way to make women feel that they are always in need. Women may be disadvantaged, but they are not disempowered.
By nature, men are designed differently than women. They are stronger on an absolute level, but that doesn’t mean that women are weak. Women are equally as strong in relation to their design. Just remember, one punch from a five-year-old to a big, strong man’s balls can leave him whimpering in dis-empowerment.
True and lasting empowerment takes time and consistent effort
This leaves me thinking – what kind of standards are we actually trying to achieve? The concept of doing “just enough” to get by because it’s convenient and efficient is part of the problem. If we want to empower ourselves – really and truly – we must invest the time to develop a strong skill set. And as qualified instructors, we must emphasize the right skill set.
An effective self-defense program is not a voice-centred, empowerment program. In any self-defense program I offer, I place great importance on body language, then voice, action/reaction, and overall fitness.
Because most communication flows through body language first, it is a priority. You cannot mask lack of skill through a loud voice – your lack of strength and coordination will be amplified through your body language. Strong body language speaks louder than words.
Self-defense has the most impact when it’s treated as a combination of consistent skills that must be regularly practiced. For self-defense classes to be effective, there should be an understanding that short-term workshops are a seed for potential future growth in the world of fitness; it is far better to use workshops as a method of sparking interest in self-defense and martial arts rather than relying on them to be the only answer.
Perhaps empowerment is not just about endorphins, but about how much stronger you can actually be.