BEYOND THE MORE OBVIOUS BELT LEVELS, your competence does impact your sense of place within the community. BJJ is a sport that is notoriously hard on your ego, so getting crushed day after day often deters many participants, both women and men. And while the sport claims to be “for the little guy”, whereby smaller practitioners can theoretically out-manoeuvre bigger opponents and win using technique, physical strength does play a role in competency — especially if both practitioners have been training for a similar amount of time.
So, what does that mean for women? While we tend to be outnumbered on the mats, some of our unique traits and gendered socialisation do offer us some advantages in BJJ. Better attention to detail is a strength when learning techniques and, since many of us have slighter builds than many of our training partners, not being able to rely on physical strength means that there is more incentive to learn techniques correctly from the get go — not just muscle through tight spots.
In my personal experience, as someone that is 170cm tall and currently weighs 85kg, my body is a strength. Mass moves mass, and so my ability to use my body weight against opponents serves me well — both when I’m training with men and women. I believe that this physical reality has had more of an impact on my progress — and frankly, longevity — in the sport than my gender. It is, however, almost impossible to detangle all of these factors.
In a way, I’ve experienced a certain psychological advantages in being a bigger woman in this sport: I tend to win against men who are smaller than me, as well as men who are my size — but I can feel there’s more social, and in turn, psychological pressure on my male training partners to win when sparring with me because of our gender differences. Socially speaking, men can lose face in this situation, whereas there is nothing for me to lose, only to gain. And I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t make me feel good to beat a guy.