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A Note About Training Female Martial Artists

This is a difficult subject for me to take on, but I've had an opinion for so long I might as well put it in print.

Modesty is a form of education which inhibits movement to ensure specific cultural role conformity.  That's the definition I'm choosing to work from, and for the sake of this post I'm ignoring two other behaviors which are often conflated with modesty.  Namely; avoidance rooted in feelings of vulnerability, and choosing not to reveal oneself for strategic, experimental, or dispassionate reasons.

This education is intense, for example a women recently told me her mother was always asking her sarcastically, "Why do you always sit like a truck driver?"  I don't think I need to go into the 'how it's done' or 'why it happens' discussions.  Everyone with a pulse and a conscience has already thought about this.

Boys and girls in America do a lot of the same physical activities and get a lot of the same training.  Yeah, there are more boys playing baseball, and more girls doing ballet, but for the most part both genders get a lot of opportunities to practice complex coordination with running and jumping.  

And then puberty hits and young women's hips grow a lot wider.  In order to maintain running and jumping skills young women have to go through a process of re-learning how to run, jump and even walk.  Most don't dedicate the time and effort to make these changes, and because of this, they develop with their knees and ankles aligning not below their hips but more narrowly in-between their hips.  In fact, this alignment is often thought of as normal.  When men pretend to be women they often imitate this poor alignment.

One of the results of this narrower alignment is knee injuries, specifically torn ACL's (Anterior Cruciate Ligament).  Girl's soccer is one giant busted knee.  It doesn't have to be like this.

For martial artists the issue is very serious because body structure, integrity, force transfer, force absorption, frame and mobility are all dependent on good alignment of the legs.  Unfortunately it's hard to teach because modesty education and role conformity get in the way.  It can also take a long time.  Even more unfortunately, many teachers just decide to ignore the problem because it's a potential emotional landmine.  

I should probably make a video about this because I don't even know how to describe the slight dislocation of the hip joint that happens during complete weight shifts with momentum and it's force repercussion for the knees, ankles, and feet--or how to describe the power lost.  Men, by the way, often have the same problem to a lesser degree, but I've never noticed it tied into emotional content other than humility at having to re-learn something.  And let me make it clear, some women don't have this problem at all.  I have good things to say about the nation's gymnastics and dance teachers!  They get it.  And some women figure it out for themselves, perhaps driven by athletic or artistic passions.

That's pretty much all I have to say.  Now you know what is going on if your teacher tries to get you to walk like a cowboy all the time or some such thing.  I sincerely hope that we can begin to talk about this openly.  The barefoot running movement has been wonderful for clearing up a lot of confusion about what a human being is, but without addressing the hip-modesty-alignment issue the lessons of barefoot running will slowly get lost.  


For those of you who were wondering if I'm going to talk about boobs, the answer is no.  It is my hope that a female blogger will take up this tissue (oops, I meant issue), as it is in serious need of attention.  This post by Rowan Johnson is a good start, and the third comment is intriguing. 




I spent an hour looking for good images to demonstrate what I'm saying.  Check out Zoe Bell (A+) next to Uma Thurman (C+).

 Uma ThurmanZoe Bell

Reader Comments (6)

Hi Scott. Intriguing post. (Thanks also for the link to Rowan's post on boobs.)

So, according to this, a lot of the (physical) awkwardness in adolescence is simply caused by not being adjusted to the changing size and shape of one's hips? (Emotional awkwardness in adolescence is another story altogether! Or maybe it isn't... one can feed into the other.)

What is Uma Thurman doing wrong? In the picture with the sword, she is standing with her legs very wide, almost like a cartoon of the stereotypical "male" stance. Is it just that it is not a good fighting posture, and that if someone came and kicked/attacked her leg, it could have very bad results?

June 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLexi

Hi Lexi,
Well, I put some images together for people to compare and think about. Human beings are just fine they way they are (we are), and I don't want to imply that there is something wrong with Uma (or anyone else) that needs fixing. Yet if she wants to do marital arts, that stance needs a lot of work. She has obviously had some training but her leg integration to the torso looks poor...especially next to Zoe's awesome structural integration and power.
The picture of Zoe sitting down is funny because I don't think she actually sits down, I mean, if it was a video she would be wiggling all over the place! Her feet are wrapping inward (yin gathering, yang expanding) like she's about to kick someone!

Awkwardness in adolescence might have a lot to do with changing social status, responsibilities, innocence, and role expectations. I think we see it in most mammal species too.

June 20, 2012 | Registered CommenterScott Park Phillips

Uma Thurman is a great actress. I could watch her all day. However, in the picture with the sword her legs are too wide. Hopefully she is not looking to be deflowered by some wooden peg or soemthing. Wide stances are too manly. NOt for women. In my opinion Wing Chun Kung Fu is best for women. That is why I teach it in Barbados. There is no need for acrobatics. Movements are refined, posied, Legs and knees are kept narrow and in alignment with the hips. Let me tell you Nothing is getting pass the legs of a wing chun female martial artist that she does not want to go pass. The legs will not open. It like a vice. She is able to change directions without (physical) awkwardness. Wing Chun is perfect for female structural integration and power. That is why Kong Hong Kong airlines flight attendants are learning Wing Chun Kungfu. see : youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRCpHO3jdH0. If you in Barbados look me up. Good luck !

June 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSifu Sealy

Thank you for your comment Sifu Sealy,
One of the very first things we have to give up in order to defend ourselves is our modesty. So training martial arts to maintain modesty is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard.
Structural alignment is not effected by whether or not the legs are turned in or out, and in Bagua for instance, we train both equally. Structural alignment is a separate issue.

There is this story about Wingtsun coming from a female monk. I have often thought that it might have been a male actor in female monk drag, which was a thing. There are many other possibilities. The most likely however is that Wingtsun developed as part of a secret society which was performing Ritual theater (Opera) on boats which traveled around Southern China. The were creating a network for rebellion and teaching martial arts along the way. The rivers were the main roads and the main battle grounds in the South! From my experience, the turning inward of the legs in Wingtsun most likely comes from fighting on boats! Chi Sao really works great on boats. Try it sometime and let me know what you think.

It is of course possible that I am completely wrong. About everything, Always. For example, modesty in martial arts might make sense in a different cultural environment. There are many cultures where women are kidnapped for marriage. Women may have the option of fighting off the men they don't want to marry and allowing themselves to be kidnapped by the man they do want to marry. The movie "Borat" made fun of this very serious reality.

There are cultural environments where women are expected to fight modestly to prove that they are not available for sex (ie. not prostitutes) and a few punches and kicks is enough to do it. It is also quite possible that a modestly resistant female is a more desirable partner. Culture is a very weird thing. Anyway, none of that was the point of my post, and it does not change the nature of true self-defense, but it is fascinating.

June 25, 2012 | Registered CommenterScott Park Phillips

Modesty is a form of education which inhibits movement to ensure specific cultural role conformity. THIS! I strongly agree on this. Thumbs up for sharing this to us.

June 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHow To Learn Karate

I read your comment about the drag (funny) But hiding from the Manchu government back in the Ching Dynasty ( Appx 1644 CE) was not easy so hiding among the opera troupes on boat and traveling up and down the river was a good way to be in contact with other rebels . You made some very good points. The Wing Chun spread from the red junks by secret societies. Red Bandana and painted face kam etc
I have done chi sao on boats. I Live on an island surrounded by water and when the boat is rocking,... gripping the boat with my feet and the narrow stances comes in handy. Actually when I use to live in New York, I use to lock my stance while on the subway trains while they were in motion in stead of holding on to the railings. And doing Chi sau on trains , let me tell you , the low kicks and close punches were and are very effective.
We may disagree on structure and it is ok. Structure is geometry and very mathematical. Using plum lines and level aliments involving the 6 combinations. However, I will agree that Bagua has some very good points like other many arts. I am actually teaching a woman wing chun who had learned bagua in London. She loves the simplicity and practicality of wing chun. Different strokes for different folks . When we bear in mind that people are normally attacked in small confined spaces, hallways, elevators, crowded night clubs, etc. Space restrictions, and clothing limitations,and the number of assailants and time you have to work with, should be taken into account. So it is how good you are in your art (knowing its strengths and limitations and being able to apply the skill) that counts. Any time a martial artist can protect themselves from getting raped ( man or woman) or assaulted , then they have good skill. How efficiently they do it is another story. Consequently, we shall also look at the cultivating principles inherent in the arts. I know people in this world has become less caring but we should still use the art to protect the weak and help the needy ( everyone even animals) and have the courage to support women who seek equality. You see, I am all for men protecting and providing for women. And, if men don't do it, well... a woman should be able to provide and protect them selves. They should be able to Kick Ass if being assaulted. Therefore, everyone should do research and find a martial art that suites their physical as well as their mental make up. Keep up the good work ! Take care ! Sifu Sealy - Barbados

June 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSifu Sealy

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