XX in a sea of XY

“I’m not wearing a cup, Miss!” blurted out Jose*, a hard-working 15-year-old who is one of the most polite guys at the dojang. He’s quite good in sparring, so there wasn’t much of a risk of me clocking him in the criticals with a front snap kick. It took me a few seconds to stop laughing and compose myself.
He flashed me an embarassed, braces-lined grin and proceeded to beat the tar out of me. Other than a precocious six-year-old who is my rank I am the one female in a lump of grown men and boys. I grew up with a brother, work on a team of all men, and spend most of my down time with my boyfriend so I’ve had more than one glimpse into the male mind. It was still a bit of a dudeland culture shock when I made my way to the more advanced classes.

I have experienced the following working out exclusively with men and boys:

  • Expect at least once a night during sparring class to give the silent “Oh crap, did I hit you THERE?” look.
  • Preteen boys are mind-boggling. I once heard the same boy in one night softly singing a Spice Girls song to himself and then blurt out “YOLO swag.”
  • Little boys AND grown men whine when you make them do Spiderman push-ups.
  • Expect an embarrassed double-take from the guys when you come to class straight from work wearing makeup and a dress.
  • Guys from kindergartners to seasoned black belts think it’s HILARIOUS when they slip and fall during a jump spin kick.
  • Somehow Minecraft will come up in conversation while waiting in line during drills (before the instructor yells at them to be quiet). Consider yourself warned.
  • Don’t ask a boy how many game systems he has unless you have five hours to spare.
  • The older teenage boys visibly display their internal dilemma of wanting to goof around with the younger kids or be treated like a contemporary by the men. It’s a little jarring to watching a high schooler remain focused and serious as he coaches his classmates during kicking practice and then immediately grab a younger kid in a headlock and dissolve into giggles on the floor.
  • It’s a bit like a junior high school dance at first. The men (mostly instructors and black belts) weren’t quite sure how to have a conversation with me. Despite being in the same room for the exact same reason it can be hard to find common ground.
Other than one instructor who likes to goad me into a shoving match during sparring and a giant lanky tree of a black belt who delights in kicking at my head and swatting me away with a push kick, the guys go pretty easy on me. The instructors nod silently in sympathetic approval when I do a panicked workaround for jumping over obstacles during flying side kick practice. One day during one-step sparring practice one of the biggest men kept clutching the lapels of my dobok and gently floating me to the ground until I yelled at him to throw me down the right way. I can take as long as I want getting dressed and undressed since I have the ladies’ room to myself.
I wonder, however, if being surrounded by all that testosterone has skewed my perception of myself.

Am I inviting this special treatment? I’m all for chivalry, but am I selling myself short by letting them treat me like a delicate flower? Sometimes in the workplace I feel like men (not ones in my department) speak to me like I’m a pretty little thing to patronize or worry that they might make me cry. More than once I have been mistaken as my coworkers’ assistant. (Thankfully I have very supportive coworkers who always introduce me as their “peer and colleague.”) I tout my multiple degrees and accomplishments and invite challenge but secretly sigh in relief when someone else has to do the dirtywork. I’m pretty, small, and can–sometimes–get away with murder. That is a double-edged sword that I am still figuring out how to wield.

In the course of one week my apparent lack of self-esteem and confidence was pointed out and pitied by three well-meaning men who play important roles in my life. Do I really lack confidence or do I just not portray their idealized version of a confident person? My confidence does waver from time to time, but are they viewing me through blue-tinted glasses?


Being the only female in the dojang has also heaped some responsiblity on my shoulders. I have discovered through hastened coversations with parents in the observation room that their daughters look up to me. I’m a little embarassed but secretly delighted that the young girls have someone they can relate to and aspire to become. I’m educated, financially independent, and have a pretty sweet roundhouse kick. If I were a seven-year-old I’d look up to me too. I want to encourage them to believe in their own magic before they’re crushed by the realities of the world. I want them to feel proud, strong, and truly happy at their core the way I never did when I was their age. I feel like I should adopt a Mr. T voice and tell them, “stay in school; don’t do drugs.” This adds another layer to the expecations of me as a future black belt, and I’m honored to carry that torch but would be even more honored if some more girls and women donned doboks and joined me.
Until a few more women and girls join the ranks I can appreciate the different perspective boys and men bring to the gym, to work, and to life. Plus I don’t have to worry about the toilet seat being left up in the dojang bathroom.
At the end of sparring class another teenager, who had received his black belt last year, whirled around as he was leaving, looked me dead in the eye and said with complete seriousness, “Oh by the way, if you’re not wearing a cup and you fall on the ground it REALLY hurts.”
*Name changed

Style Guide for the Fashion-Forward Fighter

Femininity tends to go out the window when your main concern is avoiding kidney punches from your 16-year-old sparring partner who just discovered how to fight dirty. However, by incorporating a few simple changes and healthy practices into your martial arts lifestyle you can enjoy the fruits of your physical labor while not looking like a lumbering swamp beast.

1. Nutrition:

Other than pizza on the weekend, sports nutrition goodies (Gu, Powerbar, Clif, the triumvirate of manufactured tastiness), and the occasional sweet I’ve cut out most processed foods. I feel as Outkast would say, “so fresh and so clean.” You’re an athlete. Your temple needs fuel. Do it justice.
green juice

I am the danger.

I am the Heisenberg of juices. After many trials and errors including an unpleasant run-in with beets I’ve finally perfected my home-pressed juice recipe. Basically I cleaned out the fridge and got lucky. Juicing provides nutrients that we don’t get if we typically reach for potato chips over vegetables, plus it’s good for your skin and sense of self-riteousness. It’s sweet with a hint of gingery bite, and smells like freshly cut grass, which isn’t necessarily a great thing, but it means I get it all to myself since no one else will touch it.

Green Belt Goddess:
-Green apple
-Ginger root

Shove them into the juicer and watch the magic happen. (Tip: line the pulp catcher or whatever that thing is where all the refuse goes with a plastic bag so you have one less item to clean)

2. Eyes
Several years ago I was having dinner with an Indian couple. “Have you ever tried eyebrow threading?” the wife asked innocently after gazing intently at the spot right above my eyes. I took the hint and her referral to the nearest threading salon. Aesthetically shaped and neatly groomed brows give your face instant yet understated glamour, like Jackie O going to the gas station. You might be splotchy and dripping with sweat, but your eyebrows are job interview-ready. Once in a while I’ll leave my mascara on as a pathetic attempt to hold onto some semblance of beauty, as if long black lashes could detract from my hair being plastered to my glowing red face. If you must dress up your eyes try a liquid-based liner and waterproof mascara. At minimum groom the eyebrows so you don’t look like a martial arts Muppet.

muscles mascara

3. Skin
See my juicing recipe. Don’t worry if you have a pimple; if you’re in taekwondo you’re likely working out with a lot of teenagers so you’ll fit right in. I use a gentle moisturizer with SPF (the Simple brand is a welcome newcomer to the market) or sometimes splash my face with a glycerin and rosewater mix before class and after the post-workout shower. The Yes to Carrots brand makes a great make-up remover wipe that doesn’t sting my eyes or burn my uber-sensitive skin. I still look like a wrecked 10-years-older version of myself after class, but at least I don’t have sweaty gross foundation seeping into my pores.

gym makeup

Don’t be That Girl–you know, the one who goes to the gym with an inch of makeup caked on and can therefore only muster a slow spin on the recumbent bike while reading People magazine. You’re going to sweat, stink, and turn bright red, at least if you’re putting any effort into it. Deal with it or get out of the dojang. I’ve been tempted to sneak on a little lip stain, but that’s just an invitation to smear itself on my white dobok. I stick with a beeswax-based balm to prevent my lips drying out from all the yelling and heavy breathing. Be sure to wash your hands immedately after practice and shower the moment you get home. If you can smell yourself I suggest stepping away from the screen and jumping in the shower right now.

4. Hair
Unless you’re rocking a pixie cut or you are a 6-year-old girl who can pull off long curls and a giant bow, you will have to come to terms with hair management. My hair is straight, fine and when provoked it’s also fuzzy, so after a few jump roundhouses I start to look like the cat lady from The Simpsons. If I have time I’ll slick back my hair with Garnier Fructis gel. If not I’ll secure flyaways with clips or slip on a stretchy elastic headband. I have learned from experience to put my hair in a low ponytail rather than a high one. If you’d like to see how I learned that lesson put your hair in a high ponytail and do a turning back side kick…..hurts when your hair slaps you in the eyes, doesn’t it? Talk about a blind study. Don’t even try a purposefully messy topnot. It will fall out halfway into your first spin kick. If you have a body like Meisha Tate’s knock yourself out with the schoolgirl pigtails. If you don’t…well then…just…don’t.


Let’s see what they look like AFTER a few rounds with a foam sparring helmet squashing their heads.

5. Nails
Your feet get nasty in taekwondo, even more so if you’ve had your feet in pointy heels all day before letting them “breathe” in the dojang. Give your feet a good exfoliating scrub once in a while so the person holding your leg up in partner stretching doesn’t have a malformed hoof in their face.Long nails are not allowed for safety reasons, so at least keep them short and clean. I like to round mine off and buff them to smoothness. Sometimes I paint them just to have a little color, plus it’s kind of funny to see dainty red nails on a little foot slamming a side kick into a practice pad.Forget about professional manicures and pedicures. (1) I’ve never found nail polish that doesn’t chip (at least on my fingernails) the next day after application so I might as well do it myself and save money and (2) while polish on the toes seems to last longer they’re probably going to get some black smudges and scuffs from kicking pads and people….but you’ll have some street cred.
If you have found a polish that doesn’t chip just by looking at it please let me know. Seriously.


“Is that OPI Get Cherried Away?”

The best manincure I’ve ever seen in the dojang was on a 17-year old girl who joined a few classes at my school to prepare for her black belt test. Her long delicate fingers were topped with smooth oval-shaped nails that were impeccably painted a matte shade of ballet slipper pink. I managed to squeak out a compliment before she beat the living hell out of me.

6. Pre-workout Fashion
The martial arts gym isn’t a catwalk, but if you just have to work it from the entrance of the building to the locker room stick with a lightweight jacket or sweatshirt, a fitted dri-fit shirt, slim-cut shorts or stretch pants, and functional but attractive slip-on shoes. I have a pair of closed-toe and very supportive flats from the yogawear brand Ahnu, and they are adorable…well they were until my boyfriend told me the name of the shoe sounds in Spanish exactly like a body part we all have but would rather not talk about.


But can you believe she’s a fourth dan?

7. Fitness
Unless you go to class 5 days a week and consume nothing but Green Belt Goddess juice your TKD workout may not be enough to help you maintain your happy weight. Cross-training not only keeps you on target for bikini season, but it helps you strengthen your endurance, core, balance, strength, and flexibility, all of which are crucial to kicking it TKD style. TKD can be pretty taxing on anyone who’s well past the voting age. You need to strengthen your muscles and bones to protect your body from injury. Your joints are vulnerable, your muscles stiffen up, and unless you’ve been running 15 flights of stairs every day for the last 20 years your first sparring class will make you feel like you’re going to die.I balance out my TKD workouts with swimming, weight lifting, and cardio, which helps me improve my explosive power and sprinting endurance.Yoga has proven to be one of the best complementary exercises to TKD. On the physical side you’re heavily focused on balance, strength, and flexibility while on the more meditative side you can stay calm and focused. Plus I smoke all the boys in push-ups.

Yoga poses for TKD power:
Big muscle burners: Warriors I and II, deep lunges
Hip openers: cobbler’s pose, happy baby, half pigeon, triangle
Balance: tree, that thing where you grasp your toe in your “peace fingers” and stretch your leg to the side (yeah I know, “peace fingers”), Warrior III, balancing half moon
Upper body: cat & cow stretch, chair, downward dog, plank, crocodile (if you have the opportunity to lead the class incorporate these into the warm-up and literally hear grown men cry. It’s glorious.)Bonus poses
Recuperating after class: plow, child’s pose, supine twist, corpse pose
Keeping your cool: mountain pose, seated meditation
Freaking out your instructor: eagle, side crow, eight-angle pose, shoulder stand. Eagle gets a double take and an eye roll every time.


When the class does push-ups for punishment she shouts for joy.

Once you’ve mastered basic grooming and healthy habits your only dilemma will be how to rock a sundress with ugly shin bruises.

You’ve Got Me…Well Who’s Got You??

“Keep your head up when you fall,” I said gently to Pablo*, a sweet-natured chubby 7th grade green belt who always has a shy smile, even when the instructors are scolding him. I had just thrown him to the ground during one-step sparring practice. That led to a quick lesson in falling safety. My instructor threw himself on the ground, his head remained tucked upright with a confident stare, and his hands whacked the floor with a loud satisfying slap. He then had us lie down like upended bugs and roll to the side to demonstrate the last moments of a fall–head up, one arm protecting the gut, the other arm slapping against the floor. In one-step sparring we know the takedown is coming, but it’s also useful for slip ups in sparring or when you trip because you always catch the carpet when wearing certain shoes. Uh…I know NOTHING about that last example.
Takedowns results in a final blow after our attacker is on the ground. We wait until our partner delivers the finishing move (a punch to the face, a strike to the throat, a kick to the side of the head) with a loud ki-yahp (yell), signaling the end of the sequence. Rising before hearing our partner’s signal is very dangerous. 

But what happens when we’re caught off guard in life? Did the people who were supposed to be guiding us and protecting us teach us how to fall safely, or do we bonk our heads against a very ugly rock bottom?  

How do we know when the coast is clear and we won’t be caught off-guard with a deadly blow?

Maybe it takes a few painful falls for us to learn that (1) the fall is coming and (2) you have the resources to protect yourself and pick yourself back up after the danger has passed. Don’t surrender to the attack.

*Name changed

Correlation Without Causation: 10 Health Issues I’ve Had Since Re-entering the World of Martial Arts

Any intense sport is not without its risks, especially when you’re not a spring chicken anymore, but this is ridiculous. Since I started back to taekwondo in April of 2013 I have had the following health problems that I’d never experienced before. Coincidence??

1. Tendonitis where my glute meets my hamstring. Classy.
2. Strep throat
3. A massively thrown out back
4. Two chipped teeth
5. A torn rotator cuff
6. A pulled groin. Even classier.
7. Perpetually bruised shins
8. A jammed toe
9. A concussion
10. A burst varicose vein

Five out of ten of these injuries occurred outside the dojang although I swear jumping around in a sweaty gym with a bunch of kids is what gave me Strep. (And don’t start on me with “Strep isn’t an injury.” The headache that accompanied it made me cry from the pain.)
Can you guess the non-TKD injuries?

I’ll give you a freebie: the first chipped tooth was from a Kind bar eaten between meetings at work, and the second chipped tooth happened just now when I bit into a soft chewy post-workout Powerbar. Sigh…




Accidental Elle Woods

I’ve woken up as the heroine of a romantic comedy.

I HATE romantic comedies. Not only are they predictable, rife with bad acting and throwaway writing, but they made me feel really damn bad about being single. And yet here I am juggling pieces of the perfect equation:

1. Perpetually single and loney overachiever
2. Interesting creative job in a metropolitan area 
3. Education and career pursued methodically (but I don’t “Lean In,” thank you and no)
4. A cute home in a trendy part of town
5. Met the love of my life shortly after I started TKD and watched our relationship growth parallel my martial arts progress
6. At a very low emotional point when I found my salvation in taekwondo last April. Cue the montage of me doing knuckle push-ups, doubling over trying not to throw up while my heart is going all Keith Moon in my chest, being meticulously corrected by my Grandmaster, yelling and kicking at pads/boards/preteens, gazing in the mirror at new ab muscles, and zoning out in an Epsom salt bath (with copious bubbles and candles of course) 
7. Lastly, I’ve been told I look like a dark-haired Scarlett Johansson

Crap. It’s the perfect storm.
No! No! NO! When I imagine my life in celluloid there’s an indie quality with long conversations and private crying sessions mixed in with cuts of violence (real or imagined) against cheery-dark songs like “Care of Cell 44” by the Zombies. The only Beatles song I would allow in the indie film of my life would be the frantic early years cover of “Besame Mucho.” (cha-cha-BOOM!). Woody Allen meets Martin Scorsese at best, a moody high school kid with an outdated camera phone at worst. I have had more than one Ducky moment of sitting alone in my room listening to The Smiths, at ages 15, 30, and beyond.  Besides, if this were a guy’s story it would totally show up on the Sundance channel.
I still wouldn’t mind being portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. 
TKD is the only place where I don’t care what I look like, how I sound, or other than the approval of my instructors, what other people think of me. It is where I am most vulnerable and most free. 

But I’m contributing to my own feminine mystique. One evening I was clicking around the car in my heels, my electric green long coat, and a prim dress with a designer purse in one hand and a sparring chest protector and gym bag in the other. I saw a woman do a double take at the odd combination, and I grinned. I fantasize about that moment when someone can look at me in all my petite coiffed glory and say, “YOU got a black belt?” To which I would bat my eyelashes, flash a smile, and sweetly reply, “What, like it’s hard?” 
I wasn’t always like that. I spent my junior high years dreaming of a cartoonist career. I wore baggy T-shirts and jeans in high school and hung out with the band and theater kids. I was a ghost in college. Something shifted over the years. I started to care and somehow wasn’t present to enjoy my own achievement of the American Dream.

…Which leads me to ask…What am I still trying to prove?

Hopefully the point of this journey won’t be lost on me while I’m touching up my lipstick.

Intense and Intentional

“You’re intense and intentional about learning,” my boss said the other day, complimenting me on my tenacity to learn the ins and outs of a field I’ve only been in for about three years. I still think of myself as a goofball whose ideal day is a Netflix marathon with a side order of Doritos, but apparently to the rest of the world I am professional, accomplished, and probably a little Type A. My boyfriend and I have adopted the code word “chicken hawk” to signify when we are in busy mode, running errands, getting up early to go to the gym, checking things off the to-do list and getting sh*t done. It’s not running around like a headless chicken; it’s chicken HAWK-ing. There’s a method to our madness. I am of course referring to Henry the Chickenhawk, the scrappy little Looney Tunes loudmouth who was always trying to kill Foghorn Leghorn. When the organized chaos just goes to chaos I’m more like Henry Hill, a la Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas,” running around town trying to multi-task and just getting more and more stressed out. (minus being all coked up and followed by helicopters)

ImageAm I intense and intentional in the dojang? You bet I am intense. I am hungry for knowledge and a chance to practice what I’m being taught. My mind is open and my heart is ready. I push my body to the point of exhaustion. I ask questions (the Socratic style isn’t really appreciated but I do it anyway) and marvel aloud at the mechanics of the human body. The intentional part is something that will come in time as I mature in my martial art. The lack of it is especially evident in my sparring, which I hated and dreaded as a child but now enjoy it despite my primitive skills. My intention is pretty damn clear when all I have to kick is the air, but my intention and instinct and any hope of strategy goes out the window when there’s a wiggling human being trying really hard to kick me in the gut.

Am I intense and intentional in my relationship? Yes. Today I am celebrating one year with the man I love and am truly experiencing love’s capabilities for the first time. In the past I’ve been purely reactional, flailing blindly in hopes of hitting my target and hoping I don’t get hurt. This time it’s actually working. I’m listening to my partner, I’m watching his cues, I’m learning from my mistakes, and I’m always improving. It takes a concerted effort to manage a relationship just as it does a career and a fulfilling martial arts practice. But when you get the hang of it, when you quiet your mind and trust your heart, it’s the easiest thing in the world.

Are you “intense and intentional” in your life?

Novice to…novice?

“We’ll have to keep our learning caps on,” my boss said during a morning team meeting, trying to allay the fears of a teammate over a new program we’re designing. We had been down this road several times, and more often than not it ended in politely veiled crankiness. There’s been some frustration on both sides around this task, and sometimes it feels like when we take 2 steps forward we take a fall down a chute and get deported from Candyland while the Monopoly man laughs and blows cigar smoke in our faces. We’re supposed to know what we’re doing and our clients are supposed to be able to trust that we know what we’re doing, right? At least that’s the assumption our little band of high achievers holds. We can’t seem to relax and “trust the process” or more so our own creativity and innovation. We’re annoyed that everything hasn’t already fallen into place. Aren’t we supposed to know everything and be perfect on the very first try?

No, I didn’t think so either.

There’s a misconception about taekwondo that the black belt is the pinnacle of your training. When you have it you’re the expert and cannot learn any more. It’s even caught some flak for the speed at which students can attain a black belt, unlike arts such as Brazilian jiu jitsu, which may require 10 or more years of training before even considered for promotion to black belt.

Many people, especially kids, quit TKD once they get the black belt. I’m keeping an eye on my classmates who tested for first dan last month. Will they stick with it without the quick high of a color belt promotion every few months? (Will I, for that matter?) Will they “get” that the black belt simply signifies that the student has completed basic training and NOW the heavy duty learning begins? There’s a play on words with the term for first dan black belt: “jo kyo neem.” After all that work and your mom making you go to practice and explaining weird bruises to coworkers you’re first dan black belt, and guess what? Now you’re back at the beginning again, and the “joke” is on you. You better check your ego at the door and open your mind, Grasshopper.
A black belt embraces humility rather than ego. A black belt accepts learning opportunities from unexpected sources. A black belt embraces patience.
A black belt slows down and trusts the process.