Guest Post · martial arts

“Don’t ask me to twirl.” (Guest post)

by Sylvia Burrow

I am done with people saying to me “Better watch out for you!’ when they find out that I am a black belt in karate. I usually don’t say anything about doing karate to people in general, just those who I consider friends, precisely because of comments like that. First, just because I train in karate does not mean I am wildly or indiscriminately aggressive. Second, people in karate do not go around whacking people whenever they feel like it. Third, I am not impressed with the subtle mocking. I am going to focus on this last point because I am a woman martial artist and from my experience, women in a male-dominated pursuit like karate are subject to unique forms of criticism , dismissal, and put-downs that men do not typically face.


It might seem difficult to diminish the skill or expertise of someone who has been training for 20 years in karate. But over that 20 years I have had more than my share of comments aiming to do just that. Saying “Better watch out for you” suggests that I lack an ability to discern when I might need or not need to engage in self-defence. Let’s see – I train in karate for a myriad of reasons that shift and change as the years roll by. Primarily I am grateful to have handed down to me an extensive repertoire of self-defence techniques to use in mild to moderate to severe situations.


I have used two or three of the most moderate of techniques to avoid confrontation over the years, such as flicking away a stranger’s hand grabbing my hand. Mostly my self-defence techniques consist of crossing the street or otherwise leaving someone’s company. These are fairly banal things that will not impress anyone. But the karate training I have done has equipped me to discern when a situation merits or does not merit my full attention out of concern for my safety or the safety of others. That skill of discernment is one that has done a lot of important work and has only come about after years of practice. To suggest that I might not know when a situation might require me take self-defence action belittles my experience and knowledge of self-defense application.


But I don’t take that attitude toward me personally. I take the belittling as a symptom of a bigger picture, a picture painting women as generally inept or unskilled at sport unless that sport is “meant for” women. If the sport is meant for women then it predominantly has women athletes, often is a less-attended/ less funded version of the men’s game, or otherwise is devalued as a sport. I can only suppose that the underwritten message is that the sport itself does not demand much skill or athleticism. So then the flipside would be: if the sport is “masculine” then it is much more demanding of skill, talent, athleticism, prowess. And then the result is this: if a woman engages in such a sport then she might know what she is doing, so the view goes, but only if she is an exception. And so women are mocked, belittled, or questioned as competent and capable athletes. Even if they are exceptions.


Those women who are the exception show the world they are in fact quite skilled top-tier athletes who would seem to have by fiat crushed the possibility of mockery and diminishment. Yet it is remarkable that in media coverage and other forms of popular recognition, these women are rarely respected or revered as athletes. Consider Eugenie Bouchard one of the world’s top-ranked tennis players. She was recently asked to “take a twirl” for the media ( To ask that of a top competitive athlete disrespects her as tennis player and as a woman. Sometimes the trivializing of women athletes takes the form of questioning whether or they are actually women. Yes, the idea is that an athlete performed so well we should wonder, “Can a woman actually do that?” – Or so the view goes, which we see in full glory in the case of Caster Semenya. She is a South African runner who won gold at the 2009 World Championships and silver at both the 2011 World Championships and 2012 Summer Olympics. She was subject to gender tests by the IAFF (International Association of Athletics Federations) and disallowed from any international competition until the tests concluded she was, in fact, a woman.


The less recognized and most pedestrian trivializing of women athletes occurs in conversations like those I have endured. I am not a top-tier athlete and I have experienced no media attention. I am simply a woman engaged in a male-dominated athletic pursuit but I have to endure attitudes that I really can’t do it. I couldn’t take a man down, I couldn’t actually be successful in a self-defence situation, or I couldn’t otherwise demonstrate skill and expertise. And so I join those women who are routinely disbelieved that they can be successful in their athletic pursuits. Medals and awards do little to dispell such harmful attitudes. World champion Tracy Stankavitch won gold in 2012 Strongman championships and yet when she walks into a gym to lift weights she has to endure “Don’t hurt yourself” and other comments assuming she doesn’t know what she is doing ( Every day, women are subject to such dismissive, trivializing attitudes for engaging in their chosen athletic pursuits. When will the day come that women might actually be presumed experts in their sports, revered as champions, attended just as much by audiences, or flooded with sponsorships and awards just as men are? Attitudes have to change.


Sylvia Burrow/KarateJane enjoys karate, yoga, and meditation as complementary practices allowing her to be a calm feminist fighting the good fight.



4 thoughts on ““Don’t ask me to twirl.” (Guest post)

  1. Thank you for writing this article. I am also a woman with a black belt and I work in a male dominated field….yep, a double whammy.

    I thought I was alone in dealing with the sorts of comments your article describes. It’s at least nice to know I am not alone.

  2. Saying “Better watch out for you” suggests that I lack an ability to discern when I might need or not need to engage in self-defence…

    I’d say it’s not about a lack of ability on your part – it’s the lack of ability of the part of the belittler. An accomplished female martial artist can be intimidating to many men, and they respond with put-downs in a feeble attempt to preserve their self-image. I can guess they even see it as a backhanded compliment.

    In my Aikido club, women are often the majority of our new beginners in a session. I wish more of them would stick with it, but most don’t. I would really like to know why, because the sensei and senior students go out of their way to make everyone feel welcome and respected. And in ten years of training I’ve never observed a gender issue. It may be that Aikido isn’t the “self defense” kind of martial art they were expecting.


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