Finding your passions in life is one of the most difficult but important journeys you will ever take. Growing up my parents encouraged me to dive into anything that interested me. Gymnastics? Cool. Dance? Awesome. Debate? Go for it.
When it became apparent that taekwondo was my passion my parents were just as supportive. They took me to every class, signed me up for every tournament, and pushed me to be my best. Others were a little more unsure. I remember visiting my great-grandmother and showing her a video from a tournament I competed in. She watched, looking somewhat confused, then turned to me and said, "Wouldn't you like to do dance instead?"
No. No, I would not. I remember being taken aback by her question. I was only ten years old at the time and never gave a second thought as to whether taekwondo was an "appropriate" sport for me. As I continued in martial arts and went through the ranks I began to notice more and more the gap there was between girls and boys. Students who enter as white belts are an even split between boys and girls. However, girls only make up 25% of the black belt class. As girls go through the program, especially as they get older, you can see them becoming less and less comfortable with the ideas of being aggressive, assertive, and powerful.
I too used to be a victim of this type of thinking. I was uncomfortable with thinking of myself as being strong. I always held myself back and made excuses like "I'm too short," "I can never be as strong as him," and "I don't want to hurt anyone." In reality, I didn't want people to think of me as being mean or scary. After earning my 2nd-degree black belt the idea of not wanting to be mean turned to a fierce desire for respect and admiration by the boys in my class. Yet no matter what I did it seemed to me that the guys would always see me as a joke. While they commended my effort, I could never be on the same level as them. It got to the point where guys I was sparring would "take it easy on me" by sparring on their knees or putting their hands behind their backs. I cannot express how infuriating that was. I felt like it wasn't worth my time to just be patted on the head and told "better luck next time."
To this day I still get some of those reactions. While all the other students in taekwondo respect me for my abilities, when I tell people that I'm a 4th degree black belt the reactions vary a lot. Some guys make jokes about how they'll make sure not to get on my bad side. A lot of guys dismiss the twelve years of literal blood, sweat, and tears that I've put into taekwondo and say "yeah that's cool but there is still no way you can take me."
I'm not trying to deny that there are differences between males and females. Physiologically, males are naturally stronger, taller, and more athletic. It would be unfair if, when I competed in a tournament, I had to spar a guy. That being said, being male doesn't make you invincible. I've trained long and hard to make sure that I am able to defend myself against any attacker. I might not be able to tackle you to the ground but I will make sure that you don't ever want to come near me again.
That fierce determination to be taken seriously has gotten me a long way. Along with being a student I have also been an instructor for the last four years. If I hadn't decided a long time ago that I was going to hold myself to the same standards that any of the guys in my class were being held to, it propelled me forward. Had I not done this, I would not be an effective instructor. I no longer cringe or apologize when someone calls me intimidating or scary. I know that if I was what females are expected to be--soft spoken, cooperative, feeble--I wouldn't be respected the way the male instructors are. All the kids still like me and want to work with me but I force them to respect me the way they respect any male. Unfortunately there will always be a kid here or there that will refuse to listen. While I probably can't change the way they perceive women single-handedly, I can show them that I will not tolerate being disrespected.
The day an orange belt looked me in the eye and asked, "How am I supposed to learn anything about karate from a girl?" will always be outweighed by the day a women came up to me and thanked me for being such a positive role model in her granddaughter, or the day that an eleven-year-old who used to be afraid to speak in class tells me that one day she wants to be an instructor just like me, or the day a little girl tackled me to the ground and said I was her best friend.
What I learned from loving a male-dominated sport?
"Today not possible. Tomorrow possible." -Grand Master H.U. Lee