Is your gym female friendly?

The question on the Sherdog forums was “How come women don’t like BJJ?” Basically the guy was saying that because he didn’t see a lot of girls training BJJ that girls must not like BJJ. Which, I think, is making a judgement and so isn’t really the right question. Those of us who do it love it, and when you have a base of girls training, more will join.

It’s not that girls don’t like BJJ; we do, once we start it. We like it just as much as you guys do. We feel strong and capable, and we aren’t limited by our size or strength. But there’s that tricky step of getting a girl in to a class, getting her past any preconceptions she may have, and making sure she feels comfortable in class. So the question becomes “Why aren’t more women training BJJ?” or “How can we convince more women to train BJJ?”

(Besides, we could ask why so many guys don’t show up to class when invited or come to a class or two and then leave. Why don’t all guys do BJJ, either? I don’t know the statistics on how many guys start and then quit because they “didn’t like it” for some reason, but I think it might be quite high. We have about 1 new guy a week who comes for a few days and then leaves or switches to the Krav Maga or kickboxing class. And I’m curious what their reasons might be. Everyone always wants to know why girls start or stop BJJ; what about the guys? Why do guys start BJJ? Why do guys quit BJJ?)

There are lots of good answers in that thread about the intimate contact level, sweat, and other things that would throw off most girls from most sports, not just jiu-jitsu specifically. I think some of those answers may answer why guys don’t do it, either. And all these answers are coming from people who already regularly do jiu-jitsu, so we’re mostly just speculating. Would be interesting to talk to those people who don’t stick with it. Some of my answers may repeat what was said in that and other threads, but here they are:

  • Some girls won’t do any sports or physical activity and have no special prejudice against BJJ. They just aren’t going to get their hair messed up or cut their nails or get sweaty for any reason beyond a jog on the treadmill in an air-conditioned gym. (Reminds me of guys like my little brother who only lift to get big and look good. Actually doing something functional with those muscles is out of the question.) The most these girls might do is a self-defense class, and BJJ is great for that, but they’re not actually interested in continuing any sport as a hobby.
  • Some girls don’t want to get bruised up and will stop after their first bruise. I know during my first few months, the backs of my arms and legs were black and blue. I got nervous looks from strangers. I didn’t care (I was actually rather proud of each one), but many girls will not appreciate having bruises all over their skin.
  • There’s also the “You do what with those guys? Your face goes where?!” response. That’s how my mom and most of my female friends react. One of my friends, on seeing one of my jiu-jitsu books, flipped through it and started making jokes about “I’ve been in this position, and I’ve done that, and that, and — hey, I should try this one!” For some women — and guys, too, I’m sure — the first response to seeing jiu-jitsu is based on sex, and they may not be able to get past that. (Could be one reason why some guys don’t want to train, that being in certain positions with a guy is just too much to handle.)
  • Related to the previous, she may think that since the class is mostly male that she’ll get hit on, groped, etc. (And from reading some of the male responses on Sherdog, she should probably count on at least one jerk per school.) She can ignore the guys in the gym by keeping her headphones on and pretending she doesn’t hear him, but it’s hard to ignore him when he’s sitting on top of her.
  • Sweat and smell, particularly someone else’s sweat and smell, all over you, all over the mats, all-pervasive. Heck, I do BJJ, and I still find that repulsive, especially the smelly guys who don’t seem to wash themselves or their gear. Absolutely gross. I could see that being a definite turn-off for a lot of people.
  • She may think that BJJ looks too hard or too intense, or that the conditioning looks too hard. A girl who visited our academy for kickboxing said that BJJ looked “intimidating.”
  • They may associate BJJ with MMA and don’t want to do MMA. My mom refers to my BJJ as “fighting,” though I tell her that it isn’t. I’ve tried explaining BJJ without referencing MMA, but it usually gets introduced to the conversation. Even if a school doesn’t offer MMA classes, women may think that the guys who would be involved in BJJ (intertwined with MMA in their minds) are not people they’d want to work out with (tattoo-covered, motorcycle-riding meatheads, thugs, & “tough guys”). And they may assume that there are no other women doing it (because what other woman would want to hang around those kind of guys?), and they don’t want to be the only one.
  • Closely associated with the previous point, they may think BJJ is a striking art. This came up at a recent Women’s Open Mat; one of the girls said she’d tried to get her friends to come out, but they all thought BJJ involved punching, and they didn’t want to get hit.
  • The guys at the school she visits may give off a creepy, macho, or otherwise off-putting vibe. No one wants to train with the creepy guy who just stares at the girls.
  • The overall vibe of the school may not work for her. We had a girl say that the atmosphere at our school was “not welcoming” (of course, she said this as the guys are including me in everything outside of class, so I think the problem was more her than the guys). I don’t know what her personal vision of what a jiu-jitsu school should look like was, but our school apparently didn’t match. However, it has fit me quite well. Different strokes…
  • She may assume she needs to be in a particular kind of shape in order to start BJJ — some baseline of cardio, lifting, etc. One of those “I don’t want to start until I’m in shape” people. Lots of guys use this excuse, too.
  • Even if a girl is interested in doing BJJ — or even anything new — she may first be trying to find someone she knows who will go with her. And there may not be a friend who will go, at which point she’ll drop the idea and go along with a friend to something else, like cardio kickboxing. (I’ve recently met a few guys who use this reason, too.) I tried to find a friend when I started, but no one was interested. One of the hardest things I ever did was walk in the first day of class all by myself. I didn’t know anyone.

Ultimately, though, I think the answer for most girls is that they don’t start or stick with jiu-jitsu because there aren’t other girls doing it. Seeing other girls doing it will assure them that girls can do it. Not just because it’s hard to be the only girl (though it sometimes is), but also because we girls like a supporting community when we do something. That community can be other girls, if you’re fortunate enough to have multiple girls training, but if not, the guys on the team have to fill that role (no group nail-painting, we promise).

That’s taken me a while to realize even for myself, as I didn’t have a large coherent group of female friends growing up, just different friends who didn’t even know each other. I never really got the girl “group dynamic” thing, like why all the girls have to go to the bathroom at the same time. (I still don’t really get it.) But I know it’s there. It’s something about knowing that the people around us are going with us, are helping us, aren’t laughing at us, and will be there if something goes wrong.


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