Thursday, December 3, 2015

Month 8: There's A Reason That Word Has "Power" In The Middle

{Prologue, Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4}
{Month 2, Month 3, Month 4, Month 5, Month 6, Month 7, Month 8, 2016 WSD, Month 11, Month 12, Month 18}

Kung Fu is empowering for women. 

With the Women’s Self Defense class coming up, that’s something I’ve been saying a lot lately. It seems obvious. Clearly a woman is going to feel more able to defend herself if she’s learned how to throw a wicked punch. But is that all there is to this empowerment business? Just the ability to discourage (read: badly injure) a hypothetical attacker and keep myself safe? Don’t get me wrong, that’s a pretty sweet benefit when you consider the sickening statistics of women being assaulted. That alone is reason enough to attend a month-long series of self defense classes, and then stick around for eight more months of sweating my cha-chas off three times a week.

Still, I can’t help but notice that there’s something more to this empowerment gig. And not just the fact that I’ve typed the word so many times that it looks weird and I’m not even sure if I’m spelling it right any more.

Maybe it’s this new independence I’ve got. I do find myself remarkably able to open jars and lift heavy things without hunting down a Big Strong Manto help me.

Or maybe it’s this freedom from the tyranny of the scale that’s haunted me for my entire overweight life. I have always (always, always) dreaded being weighed. Ever since I was old enough to catch society’s signal that the higher the number the less I was worth. But this month, when I stepped on my doctor’s scale I felt none of the grumbling hesitation, not a bit of the usual bracing for the impact of a wave of disappointment when the number would inevitably be too high, no bleak anticipation of spending the rest of the day trudging around in a cloud of self-loathing, planning how best to punish myself for gluttony and hate-downloading yet another diet app. When the scale reported to me with its cold indifference that I’ve gained twelve whole pounds since I started training, for the first time in my life, I just smiled. I grinned at those numbers, all wide and toothy, because now? Oh-ho, now anyone who wants to mess with me has to mess with Twelve More Pounds Of Muscle Me, and good freaking luck with that.

So maybe empowerment is those things - being able to fend for myself, and loving my body for what I know it can do rather than hating on it for not looking the way I think it should. Maybe it’s something a little bit more, too.

I have never been a shrinking violet, never had a bit of trouble expressing my displeasure about anything, but - like most women raised in Western society - I have also never been one to push for a confrontation when it could be avoided. Particularly with strangers. Extra particularly with men.

There had always been that back-of-the-mind thought, that cautionary whisper that said oooh, be careful, don’t cause a scene or he’ll escalate this to a level that you can’t handle, followed by vague images of crime scene photos and newspaper headlines proclaiming Mother of Two Found Tragically Slain After Inane Argument With Complete Stranger. Any time I was harassed or made publicly uncomfortable, I would either pretend I didn’t hear it or just put on my best bitchface to cover the fact that I was totally fleeing the scene.

But now, after eight months of Kung Fu training? Well, let me tell you a little story...

It was a bright, sunny day when I drove into a grocery store parking lot. As I pulled into a handicap spot, I passed a man who was standing by his car. And he stared at me. Unblinking and deliberate.

Now, I have a handicap parking tag in my car, so I am legally allowed to park there. Having lupus makes me extremely sensitive to sunlight and often limits my physical mobility, so my doctor basically wrote me a prescription for Not Having To Limp Across Big Sunny Parking Lots. Thing is, I often don’t look terribly handicapped, and sometimes people think they can judge me for being what they assume is a perfectly healthy person stealing a parking spot from the disabled. Which is what this guy was doing with his stinkeye so strong that I could feel it through my car windows.

I climbed out of the car and looked in his direction. We made eye contact and his gaze was heavy, full of judgement as he slid a very pointed glance between me and the handicap sign. Disgust was drawn all over his face in bold, ugly strokes. Like if my car hadn’t been between us he would’ve spat on me. It was almost cartoonishly intense.

Eight Months Ago Me would’ve put on the retreat-bitchface and walked away. He wasn’t particularly large, wasn’t standing between me and the store, and he hadn’t said anything or moved to stop me. He was just doing his best to silently shame and intimidate me into moving my car. Rude and a little scary, sure, but nothing that I couldn’t afford to let him get away with so long as I didn’t mind a tense walk to the store and having to keep an eye out for him on the way back to my car in case he decided to hang out for another round of unpleasantness.

But … dammit, I’ve seen scarier. I’ve had my forearms bruised by scarier, been taken down to the training floor by scarier, and gotten back up to deliver a few bruises myself. Hell, after thirty-ish weeks of punching and kicking and sweating, of measuring my strength against that of people who could take me apart without half-trying, I am scarier.

I am strong, and I know what to do with that strength (which are two different things). I am aware of my own rights and my worth, aware that I’ve earned that stupid parking tag through a gauntlet of illness and pains that this random guy was not entitled to have explained to him. I had nothing to be ashamed of, and the idea of wasting the next half-hour of my life on worry and fear that this guy might Do Something made my teeth grind.

So I didn’t walk away. Instead, I surprised myself.

Without consciously deciding to, I bent my knees and relaxed my shoulders. I faced him squarely across the roof of my car and met his glare with a flat stare of my own, felt my expression take on that too-calm, sleepy-eyed look that falls into place during drills, and heard my steady, clear voice ask him,

“Is there a problem?”

All of that negativity and judgement and shame he had tried to shove into my day slid right off of me and flopped in a useless heap on the pavement. It simply had not worked. Seems I’m not so easy to intimidate these days. There was a long, silent moment while I calmly waited for him to figure out how to respond. Apparently my not-wilting under his disdain and opposite-of-collapsing into a puddle of apologies was a deviation from the script he had in mind.

So help me, he blinked. Got into his car and fired up the engine. Thinking the conversation was over, I walked towards the entrance of the store. Apparently my ability to walk was infuriating, because he rolled down his window, leaned out, and shouted, 

“Really? REALLY?!”

I took a breath. Turned to face him on wide-planted feet, ready to turn and run for the store doors if he decided to use his car as a weapon, but unwilling to show him anything but steadiness. Moved my hands in front of me in a halt gesture that unconsciously protected my centerline, and repeated my question,

Is there a problem?”

Again, I didn’t follow his script. This time, he did spit in my direction, which was super classy, but he also drove away without another word. Revved his engine and squealed his tires a little on the way out to make himself feel better about fleeing the scene. The vehicular equivalent of retreat-bitchface.

Watching him putter away, I expected to feel some kind of smug triumph. Or maybe the jittery jangle of post-confrontation nerves. Someone had tried to bully me, after all, and I had faced him down. Surely a deep breath or two would be required, at least. And yet. All I felt was calm, comfortable on my own two feet, and a little sorry for that guy. I mean, how insecure does a man have to be to pick on a lady in a handicap parking space?

And sure, that moment wasn’t exactly EPIC. There will be no ballads sung of my heroism in defending my first-world right to be chronically ill in public. But it’s moments exactly like that, little aggressions and intimidations, that can happen every single day of any woman’s life. If it’s not about a parking space, it’s about the length of a skirt, healthcare choices, walking down the street at night, etc etc etc. We learn to live with those moments, avoid them, allow them, accept them as just an unpleasant part of life in modern society, but we so rarely learn to counteract them. To stand up for ourselves in the Little Bad Moments like my little parking lot showdown, so that we know we’ll be able to do it again when the Big Bad Moments come along.

That’s the core of this empowerment thing. The real result of all this training.

It’s made me very familiar with my limits and my strengths. Turns out that knowing those two things about yourself takes a lot of the stress out of everyday life. I know what I can handle and what I can’t; how to handle what I can and get help with what I can’t. My mind is calm, confident in the knowledge that the body it’s steering through this world is equipped with the skills and reflexes to defend it. If the situation calls for it, I know that I can throw a barrage of nasty little punches until the problem goes away. And, perhaps more importantly, I trust myself to accurately assess whether or not the situation calls for punching (hint: it almost always won’t).

I’m not borrowing strength and confidence from some outside source to wear like armor over my tender lady-body for a little while, a temporary fix to a forever problem. Nope. My empowerment is giving myself permission to access my own strength, to have a working comprehensive knowledge of what I’m capable of, to respect my own worth and require that respect from others.

I’m not saying that Kung Fu is the only place a woman can find empowerment. I’m just saying that’s where I found it. Me and a dozen other women at my school. And maybe you can, too.

Pictured above: friendly neighborhood stone cold badasses

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