“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

5 thoughts on “XX in a sea of XY

  1. This post is hilarious. Mostly because some of this was me as a boy coming up through the ranks, and some of it is stuff I see in my students every week.

    “Guys from kindergartners to seasoned black belts think it’s HILARIOUS when they slip and fall during a jump spin kick.”

    It’s a classic!

    “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.”

    Minecraft wasn’t around when I was coming up in the ranks; we compared RuneScape levels. But two of my students in particular will talk to me about Minecraft in one hurried, excited run on sentence for 10 minutes until class starts.

    “Don’t ask a boy how many game systems he has unless you have five hours to spare.”

    Yep. Some level of worth is drawn from how many and what kinds of video games and game systems you currently are did at any time possess.

    1. Thanks, Josh! Sometimes I wonder what those boys think of a woman their moms’ age jumping around with them (although their moms don’t kick them in the head). The little boys are sweet, but the teenagers are SO goofy. I enjoy them probably because I’m not their teacher or their mom, plus they’re always good fodder for funny blog posts. Thanks for reading. 🙂

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