A Warrior and A Girl


Ever since I stepped onto the blue and red martial arts mats of Carson ATA Black Belt Academy at just 9 years old, I fell in love with martial arts. I lived and breathed it. I thought breaking boards was so cool. I was giddy every time I picked up a nun-chuck and learned how to properly use it. I loved excelling in rank, and I loved competing at tournaments.

But people refused to believe I did such a sport, and refused to believe I was good at it. I remember bringing my 1st and 2nd place trophies from State and National Taekwondo Tournaments to show and tell in my 5th grade class when a boy stood up and said: “Those aren’t real! You probably bought them on the internet!”


Eyeroll.


I’ll never forget that moment though, because I grew up believing I could do anything. My mom, dad, and two older sisters (usually) encouraged my tenacity, and never once told me I couldn’t do something simply because of my sex. So at that moment, when the blond-haired, gatorade-stained mouth boy stood up and said that, I trained because I loved the sport, but also to spite him.


I know, not my best idea, but it took me a few years to figure that out.


Yes, I loved my sport, but I definitely did not love being a girl.


I wasn’t interested in girly things, I didn’t like makeup, and I despised the color pink. I would see thousands of ads depicting the entirety of the female race as weak, and I guess somewhere in my brain I associated things like dresses and nail polish with badness. I didn’t want to be girly whatsoever because of so many ads, conversations, and things said to me that made those feminine ideas a symbol of weakness. So I swore off everything female.


While my friends were busy straightening their hair and doing their nails, I was off learning armbar techniques and double-leg takedowns. I thought this was how I could finally be accepted, and how boys would finally recognize me as the force of nature I really was (especially those blond-haired, gatorade stained mouth ones). But all it did was torture me more.


My friends would make fun of me at sleepovers because I didn’t know how to put on mascara. I remember my best friend at the time handed me a pallet of eyeshadow during one of these nights and said: “Put this on, but I’m gonna watch because it’ll be so funny.”

I remember another time when I showed up to my friends birthday party not wearing any makeup (we were headed to California for a sleepover at her grandmother's house) and her mom came up to me and said: “You’re really going to go out like that?”


Why did it matter that I wasn’t wearing makeup? Why was it “so funny” that I never learned how to paint my face?


I was at a loss. To avoid these situations, I forced myself to paint my face and adhere to the social norms of femininity.


But as I dodged some bullets, I was pelted with others.


My instructor would constantly praise me for “beating up the boys” and would mock my training partners for getting beat up by a girl. During conditioning I would push myself over the edge only to hear him tell my friends: “Even a girl can do this! How does that make you feel?”


Not only this, but many of the male students liked to belittle me, too.


I remember knocking out a boy my size with a roundhouse kick to the body, and the next day he said: “You kick like a girl.”


I remember knocking the wind out of one of my training partners and him saying: “I’ve been hit harder.”


I remember a parent thanking me for not being a prissy girl, and me asking him what he meant by that, and his words being: “Uh, like… you know, those girls that are… oh, you know what I mean.”


I remember standing up for myself after my instructor and a few other male students said something degrading about females, and one of the students turned to me and said: “Oh, what, you’re a feminist now? You need to calm down.” He laughed when I turned bright red.


I didn’t realize I was in a toxic environment. Not for a long time. I let my friends berate me, I let my instructor make backhanded compliments to me, I let males make fun of me, and I let myself spiral because of it.


Through this time fighting with being not girly enough and just the right amount of girl wherever I went, I endured an eating disorder. Because I did martial arts and because I have hypoglycemia, I have always been slim. And everyone felt it their duty to mention it any time they could get.

I would constantly hear things like: “You’re so skinny, it’s just wrong!” “It’s disgusting how nice your figure is.” “You look anorexic.” “Eat a cheeseburger, huh?” and many, many more.


This obviously didn’t bode well, and with all of the other negative things around me, I lost control. I was spreading myself too thin; literally and metaphorically.


It took awhile to regain that control. From the ages of 13 till 17 I lost sight of who I was, and who I was really training for. Originally I trained because I loved what I did. But I realized after, what, 10 years? that I was really training out of spite. I wanted to prove people wrong and show that I was a warrior. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it was bad for me because that was the only reason I was training.


And reality kicked me in the face when I started my own all girls class. It was in the smaller of the two rooms at the academy, but I didn’t say anything about it. I named it Kick Like A Girl. Here I coached girls aged 7 and up martial arts techniques and gave them life advice.


It wasn’t until I started teaching those girls to love themselves that I realized I was going against my own teachings, that I was in a bad environment.


At the end of each class, I had my students ask me questions that they might be too scared to ask anyone else, and I specifically remember a day when one of my students asked: “If it’s not bad to be a girl, then why does the instructor always laugh at boys who get beat up by us?”


Another student piped up: “Can I be strong if I like pink? It’s just a color…”


And another: “Why aren’t there more girls in martial arts?”


And: “Why do some girls like makeup and others don’t?”


And: “Is it okay if I don’t like nail polish but my friends do?”


And: “My friends make fun of me for doing martial arts but my mom is proud of me. Who is right?” Warning sirens blared in my head after that.


That’s when I started to notice. And that’s when I started to live my life for myself.

The summer of 2016 lead to me terminating my relationship with Carson ATA. Although I had more than enough reason to leave on my own, other things turned up that furthered my want to separate from that establishment.


I also ended my friendships with every person who belittled me, who shamed me for being slim, who shamed me for being a female martial artist, who shamed me for not being girly enough, and those who were just all around bad for me.


I did this because I remember a saying from my old instructor: “You become who you hang around.” And that was exactly what was happening to me. I wasn’t ever in an environment where I could be a warrior and a girl. I had to choose which to put on display constantly, and even though my family home was the only place I could really be myself, I was just too exhausted at the end of the day and didn’t care who I truly was.


But now?


Now I’m excelling. And thriving. And it’s because of the people who I choose to be around. They accept me when I’m strong, they accept me when I go on and on about the most recent Women’s Strawweight fight on UFC, they accept me when I gush about how pretty my new dress is, they accept me when I wear makeup and when I don’t, and they accept me for me.


And to all those who still doubt me, who still doubt that I can roundhouse kick someone in the face while wearing a floor length ball gown, then you might want to re-check your facts.


Because I am a warrior.


But I’m a girl, too.


Emily Eiswert

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