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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

10 Terrible Reasons for Girls to Get Into Martial Arts

As much as I love the martial arts, they’re a breeding ground for BS. Some types of martial arts BS are just silly. Others are truly horrifying. But they all involve people manipulating or coercing others into doing or believing something that’s dumb or even harmful.

Sometimes the purveyors of BS are out for their own gain and use other people in the process. Sometimes they believe their own fantasies. And sometimes they truly think they’re doing good in the world. This is one of those stories.

A while back, I came across an article (awkwardly) entitled “Girls Should Become Involved in Martial Arts: Top 10 Reasons.” I genuinely believe the author was trying to do some good in the world by being gender inclusive. But this article is full of so much crap that I can’t let it stand without a rebuttal. It’s full of not only flagrant sexism but also martial arts myths that are still perpetuated to the benefit of no one but martial arts instructors.

Before we get started…

I’ll address the author’s reasons one-by one. But before I do, I have to point out a glaring flaw that isn’t directly part of the list. When I first saw the article (on a different site that’s since been taken down), it was topped with a photo of a woman in full makeup and the skimpiest boxing attire I’ve ever seen.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wearing clothing that covers less than your boxing gloves do—if that’s what you’re into. But know your audience. Seriously, who was this photo aimed at? Certainly not the women and young girls that the author is trying to convince to become marital artists.

Anyway, on to the list.

1. Self-defence

Every martial arts instructor and their dog touts the wonderful self-defence skills that you’ll learn by taking their classes. The truth is that a lot of martial arts programs don’t teach effective, realistic self-defence. Granted, putting up some resistance to an attack can be better than none at all, but unrealistic training can also give you a false sense of security. Doing some patterns and kicking some pads a few times a week won’t make anyone into a warrior.

The author also drags out the trite anecdote that “[i]n today’s increasingly violent world, crime can strike anywhere.” Although TV and the internet make it easy to see all the terrible things that are happening in the world, crime stats have been trending downward for the past two decades or so.

However, the author does make a statement that is unfortunately true: “Women are often times the target of sex crimes and, not knowing how to defend themselves, it can scar a young girl for her entire life.”

While a Canadian study has shown that resistance tactics can help reduce rates of sexual assault, those tactics involved much more than just physical self-defence. Most victims are attacked by people they know, so there are plenty of steps to take before physical force becomes necessary. Most martial arts programs don’t teach these sorts of awareness and avoidance tactics.

More importantly, though, the article missed an incredible opportunity to point out that if we truly care about reducing sexual assault rates, we should be doing a better job of teaching boys about things like consent.

2. Self-esteem and self-confidence

The author says:

As girls grow into their pre-teen and teenage years, there’s a multitude of issues that come with that development. Girls growing into their bodies are subject to female bullying, clique contests and the like and so many begin to feel worthless or confused and may even venture into esteem-based diseases such as bulimia and anorexia.

True, teenagers can develop self-esteem issues, and teenage girls may be especially prone. Also true that sports and other positive activities can help. But it’s no guarantee. And martial arts don’t have some kind of special domain over fixing self-esteem issues.

The author goes on to say that one’s self-esteem rises along with belt rank. First of all, hogwash. If your self-esteem is so closely tied to your belt colour, then you’ve just directed your problems somewhere else. Second, what about the martial arts that don’t use belt ranks? Can they not help you improve your self-confidence? If martial arts do help build your self-esteem it’s because of your experiences, not your rank.

Additional thoughts: Why did the author have to specify “female” bullying? Did they mean bullying of females or by females? Either way, wouldn’t just “bullying” suffice? And what the hell is a clique contest?

3. Life balance

From the author:

Instead of becoming nasty and gossip queens to hide their issues or their frustrations about themselves or others, martial arts schools offer a safe place to exert frustrations on punching bags and gives students a cathartic and physical release of negative emotions.

Just… wow…

Never mind that wailing on a punching bag is actually a terrible way to deal with frustration. Is the author actually saying that if girls don’t practice martial arts they’ll become nasty gossip queens? This person holds women in high regard, I see. And that’s some great logic if I’ve ever read it.

4. Focusing on the important things

While many may become caught up in make-up, fashionable clothes, and false friends that come and go, those in the martial arts tend to be more goal-oriented and self-motivated to achieve in academics and focus in the classroom and on homework.

First, this implies that makeup and fashionable clothes are mutually exclusive from academics, as if they’re the cause of doing poorly in school. It also implies that a person can’t be both goal-oriented and into fashion.

More disturbingly, I think the author is saying that unless a teenage girl is involved in martial arts, all of her friends will be fake.

While I have seen some kids do better in school after taking up martial arts, the evidence is still anecdotal. I’ve seen other kids who don’t change, or occasionally do even worse. I don’t know if this is different from the results of taking up any other sport. Martial arts aren’t special here.

5. Respect

The author states that martial arts ingrain respect into students. Apparently, “…instructors respect students, senior belts respect junior belts and junior belts respect senior belts and instructors….” Except this isn’t an inherent part of martial arts. It depends on the culture of each club.

Instructors often demand respect of their students, but it doesn’t always go the other way. Good instructors respect their students, but not all instructors are good. And without solid role models, there’s no guarantee that this culture of respect will carry over to other areas of a student’s life.

6. Gender equality

This one’s ironic, considering the sexism that’s already running through the article.

According to the author, martial arts promote gender equality because males and females do the same exercises.

While it’s technically true that this is equal in a way, it’s also the case with most other sports on the planet and has been for a long time.

You really want to do something to promote gender equality in martial arts? Don’t write silly sexist articles about martial arts for one. Or how about eliminating headgear for women in amateur boxing, considering it’s been found to increase the chance of a concussion, and has already been banned for men? Or even just allowing mixed divisions again in pre-arranged sparring?

7. Learning to flirt

According to the author, “Martial arts give girls a safe and comfortable place to interact with the opposite sex.” Because they apparently don’t have anywhere else they can speak to boys, become friends with them and learn to date. You know, like school. No, we need a martial arts class for that.

Martial arts also show girls that “…no one is invincible—they watch boys get knocked down in sparring matches and help them up.” Did you know that unless girls see boys get physically knocked over they will think they’re invincible? I sure didn’t. I don’t think anyone besides the author knew that, either.

But it gets better: “How likely is it that a black belt teenager will put up with abuse (verbal or physical) in a relationship knowing that she has the power to render someone unconscious[?]” Sounds to me like the author is assuming teenage boys will abuse their girlfriends unless the girls can throw hands. I know it’s not like that never happens, but such a sweeping statement is pretty grim.

Domestic abuse is also a complex issue with many psychological factors at play. Simply knowing how to hit back isn’t a cure, as even professional female MMA fighters have found out.

8. Support groups

Apparently, even girls who find it hard to make friends in school will magically make friends in a martial arts class because everyone is forced to interact. In my own experience, martial arts are like any social activity: people may form great friendships, but there’s no guarantee. It depends on how you get along with the others in class.

9. Perseverance

Yes, perseverance is one of the tenets of taekwon-do. And perhaps martial arts can teach people to persevere. But so can other sports. Martial arts aren’t special.

The author suggests that learning perseverance in a martial arts context will carry over to the rest of a person’s life. Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on the person.

10. A great physical workout for girls

OK, no arguments here—as long as the classes are actually structured to give people a great workout. But if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be a great workout for anybody? Correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s no great distinction between what constitutes a good workout for women and men.

The real reason girls should get into martial arts

If you strip out the sexism, the author’s article could have been called “People Should Become Involved in Martial Arts: Top 10 Reasons” because most of the reasons are the same tired old things that martial arts instructors say to lure just about everyone in the door. But even without the sexism it would still be full of crap; just the same crap we see all the time.

If you want the real reason girls should get involved in martial arts, it’s the same reason that anyone should: because they enjoy it. Maybe they want to learn self-defence skills from someone who actually knows how to teach them. Maybe they want to compete. Maybe they just want to hang out with friends. But no amount of false promises are going to replace the fact that if you’re going to have a hobby, do it because you love it.

  • Thomas Gnau

    I’ll be honest: If I weren’t already a red belt in Taekwondo, this site would inspire me to stay away from the art form. This particular article is emblematic of the entire site’s thrust. The bottom-line reason for practicing TK given in this piece: Because you love it. But if TK isn’t good for defense, fitness or a half-a-dozen other positive things, why should anyone “love it?” Why does the author do this at all? With respect, there’s good information at this site, but not a lot of love for TK.

    • Thanks for the comment, Thomas. I didn’t realize it when I wrote this post, but I think you’re right that it is emblematic of the site as a whole. I detest the fact that the martial arts industry uses half-truths and even outright lies to entice people to come through our doors. But I still love it.

      Taekwon-do *can* be good for self-defence, provided the student finds one of the rare instructors out there who actually knows what self-defence is about. And despite the fact that I was critical of the featured author’s reason of “a great physical workout for girls,” taekwon-do often *is* a great workout.

      But on to the important question: why do I love taekwon-do when I’m so critical of it? For lots of reasons. Mainly because it’s fun. I love sparring, even though it’s not the same as self-defence. I love to break stuff. I love the intellectual and physical challenge of trying to perfect my patterns. I love to kick things. I love the social atmosphere and camaraderie. I love the workout. I love to pass on the skills I’ve learned to other people.

      Things like self-defence and self-discipline don’t have to be the core reasons for taking a martial art. There are lots of other reasons to love it.

      I could also ask why someone would love soccer. Or cricket. Or needlepoint. Martial arts are a hobby that jives with my interests. It’s just a shame that there’s so much B.S. around it.