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‘It made me feel powerful’: women’s

gendered embodiment and physical
empowerment in the martial arts
a a a
Philippa Velija , Mark Mierzwinski & Laura Fortune
Health and Life Sciences, York St John University, York, UK.
Published online: 12 Jul 2012.

To cite this article: Philippa Velija, Mark Mierzwinski & Laura Fortune (2013) ‘It made me feel
powerful’: women’s gendered embodiment and physical empowerment in the martial arts, Leisure
Studies, 32:5, 524-541, DOI: 10.1080/02614367.2012.696128

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Leisure Studies, 2013
Vol. 32, No. 5, 524–541,

‘It made me feel powerful’: women’s gendered embodiment and

physical empowerment in the martial arts
Philippa Velija*, Mark Mierzwinski and Laura Fortune

Health and Life Sciences, York St John University, York, UK

(Received 7 November 2011; final version received 18 May 2012)
Downloaded by [University of North Carolina] at 10:55 06 October 2014

This paper presents data collected from 11 females and explores their gendered
and embodied experiences of the martial arts. Our research suggests that through
their involvement in the martial arts, women develop physical strength, which
leads to individual physical empowerment. Furthermore, the women note their
involvement in the martial arts increases their confidence to defend themselves
and challenge their gendered embodiment. However, despite acquiring physical
strength that challenges their previous forms of gendered embodiment, their
experiences remain predominantly at the level of individual empowerment.
Thus, the women do not problematise normative views of gendered embodiment
which position women as weak and men as strong. Nor do the women in this
study question the pressure on females’ bodies to be toned and feminine. Draw-
ing predominantly on physical feminism, we question and problematise the con-
cepts of women’s empowerment and gendered embodiment through women’s
experiences of the martial arts.
Keywords: gendered embodiment; gender; empowerment; martial arts; physical

Whilst there is evidence of a growing body of sociological literature examining the
development of sports such as the Mixed Martial Arts (Downey, 2007; Sanchez
Garcia & Malcolm, 2010; Spencer, 2009) little research has explored women’s
involvement and experiences of the martial arts. Women’s involvement in the mar-
tial arts is significant because it challenges views about gender and femininity as
women develop physical strength and are involved in activities such as sparring
and fighting that have traditionally been associated with men and masculinity
(Mennesson, 2000). This paper draws on the concept of physical feminism, advo-
cated by McCaughey (1997) to explore the extent to which women are empowered
by, and challenge their gendered embodiment through involvement in the martial
arts. To do this, we firstly outline the theoretical perspectives that inform the paper
and draw on previous literature of women’s experiences of the martial arts. Sec-
ondly, we discuss the methods used to collect the data. Finally, we explore 11
females’ experiences of the martial arts exploring the nature of empowerment and
gendered embodiment in the women’s narratives, and in particular, we problematise
the notion of empowerment through sports such as the martial arts.

*Corresponding author. Email:

Ó 2012 Taylor & Francis

Leisure Studies 525

Theoretical considerations: gendered embodiment and empowerment

Within the sociology of sport, the body has become increasingly centralised as
Davis (1997, p. 15) emphasises, ‘bodies are not simple abstractions but are embed-
ded in the immediacies of everyday, lived experiences’. Embodiment is therefore
part of our interactions with others and bodies are invested in power, this is particu-
larly the case when we consider that our bodies are gendered (Howson, 2007).
Research on the body has emphasised gender as a key aspect of embodiment, and
feminists have identified gendered embodiment as being linked to practices of
power (Davis, 1997). Within feminisms, it is accepted that the female body is
impacted by discourses that justify social inequality and position women’s bodies as
inferior to male bodies (Davis, 1997). Gendered embodiment focuses on how gen-
der is lived and inscribed through bodily practices, however, gendered embodiment
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is not fixed and bodily comportment can be altered, through practices that challenge
concepts of female weakness (Castelnuovo & Guthrie, 1998). In relation to sport, it
is widely acknowledged that bodily practices in sport are gendered and that often
women are socialised into accepting the forms of bodily comportment that stress
weakness (Hall, 1996; Young, 1990). Research on gendered embodiment, predomi-
nantly from a feminist perspective, such as Hall (1996), Theberge (2003) and
Whitson (1994) have identified that sport can be physically empowering for women,
particularly sports that enable women to experience force and power. Although
there are many strands of sport feminisms that have contributed to our understand-
ing women’s experiences of sport, this paper is not going to offer an overview of
these, as readers can access these arguments elsewhere; for instance, the work of
Caudwell (2011a, 2011b), Hargreaves (2004) and Flintoff and Scraton (2001) offer
an excellent overview of the debates that exist between feminist theories and differ-
ences between different feminist traditions. In this paper, we adopt the concept of
physical feminism to problematise the issue of empowerment in women’s experi-
ences of the martial arts.
Physical feminism developed out dissatisfaction with elements of feminist theory
that ignored physical strength as a form of empowerment for women (McCaughey,
1997). In particular, McCaughey (1997) and Castelnuovo and Guthrie (1998) are
critical of how many feminists have ignored the importance of women developing
physical strength. Physical feminists emphasise the importance of women develop-
ing forms of embodiment which enable them physically, but they also stress that
this should be combined with a realisation that women also need to question forms
of gendered embodiment that position women as weak to challenge what
McCaughey (1997) refers to as rape culture.1
In a later article, Roth and Basow (2004) also emphasise the importance of
women developing physical power to challenge the concept that women are physi-
cally weak. Roth and Basow (2004) argue against feminists who suggest women
should reject violence and aggression, as they note, it is only when women are able
to be physically dominant can they choose not to be. Roth and Basow (2004) dis-
cuss how some feminists have sought to discourage women’s involvement in
aggressive sports for fear of adopting the ‘male model of sport’ (Roth & Basow,
2004). In McCaughey’s (1997) Real Knockouts, she critiques such views within
feminism and argues that self-defence and physical activism for women can be
physically empowering for women. Some cultural feminists have largely been
critical of male violence and power. They are concerned that if women engage in
526 P. Velija et al.

violence, then they would be seen to be accepting male values which have
oppressed women. For some feminists, they see women adopting ‘male models’ of
sport as selling out and reject physical empowerment for women (McCaughey,
1997). Instead, they argue that women should look to alternatives to the ‘male
model’ of sport arguing that the feminist challenge is for women to focus on non-
contact sports and non-competitive sports that emphasise the joy of movement
(Whitson, 1994). Other theorists such as Oglesby (1990) suggest that sport should
be adapted to characterise feminine qualities such as passive, subordinate, co-
operative and non-violent. However, Roth and Basow (2004) clearly identify the
importance of women developing physical strength as being essential in women’s
physical liberation, and they also note the difference between women learning vio-
lence and learning physical power. They argue that women’s involvement in the
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martial arts is not violent but instead note how women in such activities learn phys-
ical power that enables them to defend themselves against forms of violence.
Castelnuovo and Guthrie (1998) argue that through being involved in sport, this
may develop women’s physical strength but that this does not necessarily result in
the development of a feminist consciousness for women, prompting the question,
what is empowerment? The authors argue that women may be empowered
physically through their involvement in sport but not necessarily mentally. Thus,
Castelnuovo and Guthrie (1998) suggest that physical development amongst women
needs to be accompanied by a feminist consciousness. An example of this is Blinde,
Taub, and Han’s (1994) research on female athletes in America. Their findings
emphasised that although women were actively engaged in sport, they did not cri-
tique gender ideologies in the structure of university sport that disempower women
and they rejected feminist issues. Similarly, Theberge (2003) notes that despite
female ice hockey players developing strength and playing a sport traditionally
associated within masculinity, the players in her study did not question the domi-
nance of the male model of sport and instead viewed gender equity as simply being
related to having the best opportunities to play, thus advocating a liberal feminist
perspectives that emphasises facilities and opportunities but does not question sport-
ing structures that position women as weaker, and therefore less important, than
men in sport. Velija and Flynn’s (2010) research on female jockeys identifies how
despite training with male jockeys and having opportunities to race against them,
many women do not question gender ideologies that position them as weaker than
male jockeys and they largely accept the established (male) view that they are bio-
logically less suited to being a jockey than males. Thus, alongside evidence that
sport can individually physically empower women, it is important to consider from
a physical feminists perspective, if and how women in sport challenge the oppres-
sive forms of gendered embodiment. Therefore, in this paper, we broadly adopt a
physical feminist perspective to problematise and question the nature of women’s
physical empowerment and gendered embodiment through the martial arts.

Women, embodiment and the martial arts

McCaughey’s (1997) research, as mentioned above, focuses on her own embodiment
through her experience of participating in a range of classes such as self-defence,
firearm courses and martial arts. She describes how she ‘learned to jab, punch, poke,
pull, kick, yell, stomp, shoot and even kill with my bare hands’ (McCaughey, 1998,
p. 278). She argues that through involvement in self-defence courses, women can
Leisure Studies 527

reject common held assumptions that women’s bodies are weak and vulnerable.
Through their involvement in self-defence, she suggests that the body can become a
site of resistance. The majority of the classes she was involved in were underpinned
by feminist pedagogy that aimed to problematise women’s weakness and empower
women through physical strength and rejection of the victim narrative. In contrast to
these, McCaughey (1997) explains that one of the courses she attended was a martial
arts course that lacked this feminist pedagogy. On reflection she accepts that whilst
this class taught her physical skills, there was no focus on dealing with women’s fear
of developing physical strength or on deconstructing aspects of femininity that disem-
power women. Therefore, the course did not focus on women overcoming their fear
of being hurt or on women increasing their self-esteem. This was radically different
from the female only courses that operated within a feminist pedagogy that empha-
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sised the need for women to overcome trained helplessness.

Castelnuovo and Guthrie’s (1998) analysis of the female body in the martial arts
centralises embodiment, and their research emphasises the benefits of the martial
arts for women, focusing on females within a female only dojo.2 The authors’
research centres on Thousand Waves dojo, a feminist run centre, specifically for
women that teaches martial arts. The pedagogical method of the Thousand Wave’s
centre is explicitly feminist and aims to ‘reconstruct gender relations through the
empowerment of women’ (1998, p. 72). Their findings suggest women who
completed courses in Karate at the Thousand Waves centre were able to develop
physical skills that empower their mind and bodies, enhance their body image,
enhance their perceptions of other female bodies and enable them to engage in
healthier relationships with men (Castelnuovo & Guthrie, 1998). Castelnuovo and
Guthrie (1998), like McCaughey, argue that physical empowerment is vital in
women’s liberation. The Thousand Waves centre which they focus on is different
from other dojos because they argue at the centre are values such as co-operation
and equality which are emphasised and rewarded over competition and dominance.
The empowerment of the women who attend courses at Thousand Waves is, accord-
ing to the authors related to physical and psychological empowerment as it alters
women’s bodies and minds. In their research, empowerment is not linked to physi-
cal strength, but also related to the deconstruction of gendered embodiment of
women as weak and questioning women’s weakness as well as developing
enhanced body image. The authors emphasise that empowerment amongst women
occurs when the activities are combined with raising feminist consciousness and
this can deepen participants’ overall feminist awareness, regardless of whether or
not they began with a feminist mindset.
DeWelde (2003) discusses a similar form of empowerment in her research. She
discussed how women who completed an intensive self-defence course were able to
develop physical skills which helped them to reject the narrative of victimisation.
Her research focused on a four-day self-defence course designed specifically for
women. She concludes that the self-defence class is a site where resistance can
occur and dominant portrayals of femininity can be rejected, predominantly through
the classes which emphasise physical strength and also the rejection of forms of
gendered embodiment that position women as weak. She also argues that women’s
experiences of activities such as self-defence are processual and contradictory at
times. DeWelde (2003) concludes by highlighting that dualisms such as passive/
active, body/mind and powerful/powerless are not useful as self-identities can be
528 P. Velija et al.

contradictory and women can be simultaneously powerless and powerful, reminding

us of the fluid nature of gendered embodiment as it is not fixed and durable.
In the papers discussed above, the focus is on women’s embodiment and
empowerment in essentially all female spaces, but more specifically on courses that
are generally underpinned by a feminist ethos (either explicitly or implicitly) of
‘physical feminism’. However, more recently, Guerandel and Mennesson (2007)
focus on judo interactions between men and women in mixed training spaces. In
their research, they explore how men and women interact with one another within
training sessions and how gender is framed. They observed the way men and
women conform to gender stereotypes by displaying masculine or feminine charac-
teristics. For example, the females often have long hair, and dress fashionably with
tight fitting clothing, before the session females often discuss boys and clothes
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whereas the boys discuss judo, sport and their performance. The environment of the
mixed training setting, despite having females present, is a place to ‘celebrate mas-
culinity’ (Guerandel & Mennesson, 2007, p. 173). The authors focus on interactions
between men and women in what are considered predominantly masculine spaces
and where interactions largely reinforce gender hierarchies.
In our paper, the context in which the women experience the martial arts is sim-
ilar to the Guerandel and Mennesson paper, and quite different from the contexts
described by Castelnuovo and Guthrie (1998) and McCaughey (1997). The women
in our study practice the martial arts in mixed gender clubs that do not have a femi-
nist ethos.3 We focus on women’s experiences of gendered embodiment and
empowerment through the martial arts in these mixed club settings and seek to
problematise these concepts through the application of physical feminism.

This paper embraces an interpretative paradigm that recognises the complexities of
the social world through centralising human beings and the meanings they attach to
multiple realities (Andrews, Mason, & Silk, 2005; Holloway, 1997). In order to
explore multiple realities, a qualitative approach was adopted, of which Hargreaves
(1994) argues is more appropriate when seeking women’s experiences of sport. In
an attempt to explore ‘what it is like’ (Willig, 2001) to be a female in martial arts
empirical data were collated from 11 semi-structured interviews. Thorpe and Holt
(2008, p. 118) state ‘the qualitative interview has moreover become the most perva-
sive mode of generating knowledge of other human beings’. Given embodiment
was of central focus interviews allowed the researchers to understand the perspec-
tive of the respondent they could not directly experience (Patton, 2002). In order
for the participants’ voices to be heard, questions were focused on their embodi-
ment and involvement in martial arts (Charmaz, 2006). To facilitate the flexibility
and probes within the interview process, a semi-structured approach was adopted
(Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Questions within the interview guide were centred on
the following key themes: (1) women’s initial involvement in the martial arts;
(2) women’s experiences of the spaces of the martial arts environment, both in the
training and competitive environment and (3) females’ experiences of their bodies.
This paper focuses on the women’s experiences of their bodies and their changing
embodiment through their participation in the martial arts.
Contact with participants was made through local clubs in the North East of
England. Unlike the feminist-orientated ‘Thousand Waves’ dojo (Castelnuovo &
Leisure Studies 529

Guthrie, 1998), participants within this study attended mixed sex martial art
clubs, of which held no pedagogical feminist stance and the gender ratio was
predominantly male. All Martial Art Clubs in a town in North Yorkshire were
contacted by the researchers in order to find out if they had females in the club
and if so for the researchers to come and discuss the research at a session at a
training session to approach women about their willingness to be involved in a
short interview. The sample consisted of 11 females, who after meeting the
researchers, consented to be interviewed. All interviews took place at a time and
place that suited the interviewee as interviews should ‘take place on the individ-
ual’s own territory’ (Silk, 2005, p. 79). To ensure accuracy, all the interviews
were recorded using a Dictaphone and later transcribed by the interviewer. The
interviews were conducted by Mark and Laura, and after each interview, the
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research team met to discuss the interview process and reflect on the interviews.
Although we are aware of the feminist debates surrounding males interviewing
women like Ortiz (2001, 2005), we believe that it is possible for men to inter-
view women, and we were aware of the potential impacts of power relations in
the interview process and discussed these as a research team and we did con-
sider issues such as gender management as discussed by Ortiz (2001) and also
encouraged reflectivity on the part of the interview process, especially in relation
to gender. However, as a research team we felt that through reflection and
awareness of these issues we were able to manage the quality of the interviews,
and in particular, in one interview conducted by Mark, the interviewee discussed
her experience of domestic abuse, something she would not have done if she
had not felt comfortable in the interview context. Thus, reflection and discussion
of gender and the issues apparent in male-to female interviewing enabled a
sense of awareness that could be managed in the interview process. Furthermore,
given the women’s experiences of training in mixed sex martial art environ-
ments, the women were used to men. In sum the social experience of the
females, in conjunction with interviewer reflectivity, acted to nullify potential
gender management issues cited by Ortiz (2001).
The term ‘martial arts’ is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range
of activities and the women involved in this study were involved in a variety of
different martial arts (Table 1). Given the diversity of martial arts and the cen-
tralisation of embodiment a contextualisation of the levels of aggression within
different forms may prove worthwhile. Musser and Lang (1999) suggest Karate,
Taekwondo, Okinawan and Kenpo are examples of hard martial arts whilst softer
styles include Aikido, Jujitsu and Tai Chi Chauan. As Table 1 demonstrates one
of the females was involved in Thai Boxing, six were involved in Kick Boxing,
two in Shotokan Karate, two in Karate and one had experience in both Thai
Boxing and Kick Boxing. The women had varying involvement in the sport
from beginners to those who had been involved for more than 10 years. There
was also further variation in those who were involved in fighting and those who
did not fight (see Table 1). Although findings are drawn from a small number
of respondents and are not considered representative of all females in the martial
arts the interviews offer an important contribution to the literature on gendered
embodiment. All the names used in the paper are pseudonyms.
530 P. Velija et al.

Table 1. Information on interviewees involvement in the martial arts.

Length of time
Interviewee Type of martial arts involved Fighting
Emma Kick boxing and Thai 12 years Yes
Louise Boxing and kick boxing 2 years Yes
Katie Thai boxing 8 years Yes four professional titles
Natalie Karate 10+ No
Anna Shotokan karate 3–4 years (gave No
Rebecca Kickboxing 3 years No
Rachael Shotokan Karate 24 years Yes
Helen Kickboxing 18 months No (but is seeking this
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Catherine Kickboxing 5 months No
Lily Kickboxing 1 year No
Eva Karate 8 years Yes but only for belts

Data analysis
Once interviews were completed they were transcribed by the interviewer verbatim.
Data were then analysed using NVivo 8 by the project leader. NVivo 8 was used as
a data management programme. Data were organised into free nodes using catego-
ries created by the first author and then a process of refining, defining and regroup-
ing of data and themes through the use of NVivo tree nodes were implemented.
These themes were then discussed by all researchers for a process of re-defining,
re-grouping until a consensus on the themes was reached, a process often adopted
within qualitative data analysis (Patton, 2002). This process enabled the researchers
to discuss issues of embodiment and to refine the themes. The following section
will explore the following key themes that emerged from data collected focusing
specifically on those relating to women’s experiences of embodiment and empower-
ment and in particular their changing gendered embodiment.

Results and discussion

Physical and mental empowerment
One of the key themes emerging was related to the sense of physical empowerment
that the women felt as a result of their involvement in the martial arts and develop-
ment of physical strength. For all the women, their involvement in the martial arts
was the first time they experienced physical strength via exerting force over others
in sport. The realisation of physical strength was often experienced when they were
in situations that enabled them to exert their strength over another person. When
asked how it felt the first time she hit someone, Emma (Kick Boxing and Thai
Boxing) expressed that, ‘it was brilliant, you don’t realise your own strength till
you do it, it’s quite a good feeling you feel quite alive’. Similarly, Louise, also
explains her first experience of hitting someone, ‘it made me feel powerful, because
you are exerting a force over someone, it’s your force on them’ (Louise, Kick Box-
ing). The realisation of physical strength and force enables women to reject the
weak, passive female body, a form of embodiment that these women may have
been used to embodying prior to their involvement in the sport. However, similar to
Leisure Studies 531

Castelnuovo and Guthrie’s (1998) research, there is evidence that empowerment

expands beyond physical power. As Lily (Kick Boxing) notes the martial arts
enabled her to change the mindset of physical and mental weakness:

a lot of it is mental as well as physical I mean there are times, when I have been in
the class and I think I can’t do this and you have to think I can do this.

Lily (Kick Boxing) is able to develop physical skills and learn to persevere with
developing these skills and reject notions of physical incompetence. Thus, by perse-
vering and remobilising her body to become physically competent she is able to
physically and mentally reject dominant perceptions that emphasise female weak-
ness and learn a form of bodily compartment that recognises the importance of
practising bodily movements. Involvement in the martial arts can also be more than
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physically empowering for some women. As Rachael (Shotokan Karate) mentions,

her involvement in the martial arts enabled her to regain confidence after experienc-
ing an oppressive relationship:

I was in a bad marriage over the years I had suffered abuse through mental cruelty. I
was quite psychologically damaged and had even contemplated suicide because I had
got so low but I did not want to leave my kids. I had even planned the suicide around
trying to get the insurance money so I had to make it look like an accident but then I
thought why would I want to leave my children with this person. I was really at a low
ebb, I have always been quite strong but he just tore me apart mentally and I needed
something and you could say I was reborn through martial arts. It just gave me that
strength of character back that I had lost so I am very grateful to martial arts and I am
very proud of what I have done. (Rachael, Shotokan Karate)

The martial arts were part of enabling Rachael to develop a new form of embodi-
ment that rejected the victim narrative and rediscover her strength of character. She
is able to reject the disempowerment experienced through a destructive relationship
and talks about being ‘reborn’ through developing both physical and mental
strength in the martial arts. In addition, Eva, who had experienced depression
throughout her adult life, notes that she found her experience of the martial arts
gave her the opportunity develop self-esteem and that the martial arts had enabled
her to deal with other issues in her life,

I have had a few problems with depression, so I have built up self-esteem. So I actu-
ally found karate therapeutic which may sound strange as it involves fighting but the
discipline side of it I found rewarding and personally I feel that karate as well as my
marriage and job have made me a much more settled person. (Eva, Karate)

Although not solely the result of the martial arts, she notes how the positive experi-
ence of the martial arts helped her to cope with her depression more effectively.
These narratives demonstrate the possibility of women becoming individually
empowered through developing physical strength which resulted in them also gain-
ing mental strength.
Despite evidence of acquiring physical strength which resulted in physical empow-
erment females were or had been reluctant to become physically strong and dominate
others. As Young (1990) has documented in her work on gendered bodies, females are
too often socialised into using their bodies in ways that take up less space and are
apologetic. Such socialisation can encourage women to embody weakness.
532 P. Velija et al.

Overcoming the ‘feminine apologetic’ and in particular, overcoming the fear of causing
someone harm was particularly difficult. For some, as Katie recalls, it’s a bit strange, I
still do sometimes, I punch someone and I go ooooh sorry’ (Katie, Thai Boxing).
Helen also concurs and suggests that, ‘I think it harder for girls to be more aggressive,
particularly girlie girls who are very much looking like a girlie girl, it is difficult to
come across as aggressive without feeling stupid’ (Helen, Kick Boxing). This feeling
of being at odds with this is also evident in Eva’s narrative when she suggests, ‘and to
start with I felt odd and like oh sorry you don’t want to hurt them’ (Eva, Karate).
This reluctance to embody dominance may be related to the socialisation of
females into feminine forms of embodiment which situate them as recipients of harm
not the cause of harm. Inherent in these discussions are also ideas about the nature of
men and women and the assumption that men find it much easier to be dominating:
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I think it is my personality really. I have always been a big softie when it comes to
violence. I also find it difficult to spar with the other girls, because I am close to them
and don’t want to hurt them … I think guys don’t find it difficult because they’re a
lot bigger and seem to be able to get hit more often’. That’s the reason I don’t want
to compete because when I first started sparring every time I hit someone I would stop
an apologise and feel guilty, so I am just happy training. (Rebecca, Kick Boxing)

Here Rebecca draws on the belief that men find it easier to hit others is normalised
and accept in way that suggests are biologically supposed to aggression. Thus,
whilst engaging in an activity such as martial arts in which women experience
being the instigator of aggression it does not appear in this case to lead them to ask
questions about gendered embodiment that position men and women’s bodies as
fundamentally different based on biological understandings of the gendered body.

Challenging and reproducing feminine embodiment

All the women in our study discussed how other people respond to their involve-
ment in the martial arts. Whilst men’s involvement in the martial arts is naturalised
through the perception that men embody physical force, when women express
aggression even in a sporting context, the response can be disapproval:

people think they are quite beasty and horrible and aggressive, evil and manly, my
family are quite supportive but other people I think are threatened by it. (Eva, Karate)

According to Eva, people can view female martial artists’ bodies as unusual and unnat-
ural as they do not embody weakness. Another reason for people’s negative responses
to female participation in the martial arts is noted by Catherine (Kick Boxing):

I have not fought yet, I really want to, I have a lot of responsibilities in my life and I
don’t want to go to work with a black eye. So if I turned up with a black eye I think
they would know where it came from and I think they would probably joke about it. I
don’t think they would be put off or think it was disgusting. But the general public
would probably think it was domestic violence so I suppose I could put a little sign
up at my desk saying ‘I am a kickboxer’

The dominant perception of female frailty and passivity means that there is an
assumption that the black eye would have been caused by a male in a domestic
Leisure Studies 533

violence situation. Thus, even as women become physically strong, they can remain
in the eyes of others as victims of violence.
For Rebecca (Kick Boxing), women’s emotions are viewed as something that
get in the way of women’s ability to fight in the martial arts and she is unable to
overcome the guilt associated with hurting another person. She rejects the elements
of the sport that require her having to be dominant over others. Others similarly
recounted the need to apologise for any harm caused:

She came to sweep me and I swept her stationery leg and I said sorry and the coach
heard me and said ‘what you playing at?’ That was a good move don’t say sorry’ I
think that it is an automatic thing and that’s why I think it is a male dominated sport
without a doubt because men don’t have that emotion and men aren’t that emotional.
(Catherine, Kick Boxing)
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For Catherine, the perceived lack of emotion that men have is viewed as fixed and
natural. This enables women to position men as being better suited to the martial
arts. Catherine’s comments also suggest that all men and all women are the same
and this cannot be challenged or resisted. The male coach in this narrative is sur-
prised by her response to causing harm, and does not really tackle the underlying
fear of causing harm to others or use the opportunity to discuss why she might
respond in this way. This fuels the belief that her response is natural and that men’s
response to violence is different. There is evidence to suggest that individual physi-
cal empowerment does not necessarily lead to the questioning of, or the deconstruc-
tion of normalised gender embodiment. The need to apologise is understood as
‘automatic’ and in order to overcome this women need to retrain and reject their
response and learn to accept that being physically dominant over others is a part of
the sport and this is more difficult for some women than others.
Despite the fact some women are able to spar and fight, some women continue
to reject fighting, ‘I have no interest in fighting whatsoever I wouldn’t want to do
any sparring or any contact, I don’t want to get beaten up and I don’t want to beat
anyone else’ (Natalie, Karate). Whilst women have to learn to develop physical
strength and accept that they can cause pain, they also have to learn to be the reci-
pient of physical pain and respond accordingly. The following conversation reflects
this, ‘It hurt, but you didn’t want to show it hurt, where were you hit? On my face,
I had a black eye’ (Louise, Kick Boxing). As Spencer (2009) indicates bruises are
part of the fighters’ embodiment and these inflictions indicate to others that they are
involved in a form of fighting, although for women being bruised is more likely to
draw connotations with being harmed rather than causing harm. The perception of a
woman’s bruised face is likely to draw concern that the women has been hurt by
another person, normally a male, thus for female fighters being bruised can lead to
questions about their well-being and relationships.
Some women learn to overcome the apologetic stage and see harm as part of
the activity, ‘at the beginning I felt odd and like oh sorry but then you get on
with it and realise you have to’ (Lily, Kick Boxing). For those women involved
in sparring or fighting, being the recipient of pain is also part of learning a new
form of embodiment and having ‘bruises’ as Lily notes is part of being involved
in the sport. The women were also reluctant to demonstrate that they had been
hurt and therefore were rejecting narratives that present women as powerless vic-
tims of violence.
534 P. Velija et al.

Unlike the women in the studies of Castelnuovo and Guthrie (1998) and
McCaughey (1997) all the women in our study were involved to some extent in
mixed sex martial art settings. For some this was a positive experience, for instance,
Louise (Kick Boxing) notes how mixed sparring is part of the experience of the
sport she enjoys and she notes, ‘I think they enjoy it at time, why do you think the
men enjoy mixed sparring? Because they get to take it easier than with other men’.
Thus, although the women develop a form of embodiment which rejects the notion
of the weak female, they still are positioned within the club as weaker than male
fighters. Other comments on sparring with men focused on the belief that men are
more competitive than women:

I think a man is more competitive so you can get a better workout with a man
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than a women. When you see two guys sparring together they do take it seriously
whereas if you get two girls then they just chat or talk when there doing it and
not putting a lot into it. I am one of them as well sometimes. (Lily, Kick

‘Fighting’ with men gave some women the opportunity to embody new experi-
ences, as Catherine (Kick Boxing) notes, ‘I like to muck in with the guys, if I
can partner with a lad I will because I know that I will have exercised better,
because there is more motivation their’. Men’s seemingly more serious approach
to the sport is understood as a natural result of their embodiment and goes
unchallenged. This is an example of how ‘biology’ can be used by women to
explain gendered behaviour. Despite enjoying sparring with men and enjoying
the physical aspects of mixed sparring and taking their sport seriously, they see
themselves as unusual and do not question the aspects of socialisation that posi-
tion other women as less physical or less serious than male martial artists.
Instead, they largely accept dominant notions of gendered embodiment. Thus,
like in Guerandel and Mennesson’s (2007) paper, gender hierarchies exist within
the training environment, which ultimately position women’s bodies as weaker
than male bodies, because they are compared and in essence this comparison
focuses on differences between men and women’s bodies instead of similarities
(HarmoniJoie, 2009)
Natalie highlights how other people’s response to her involvement in the martial
arts can be one of surprise, ‘because outside of the martial art environment I am
quite girly and I am very feminine’. Her involvement in the martial arts is con-
ceived as being incompatible, and at odds with her normal presentation of feminine
embodiment. Similarly, Helen (Kick Boxing) notes:

when I first told people they were like oh my god. I think they imagine bigger butch
women. But I am fairly petite in size female with blonde hair and I am not like some
big strapping women you know with shoulders and wearing men’s t-shirts.

Again a similar perception is also experienced by Lily (Kick Boxing):

the reaction I have had from doing it is people always seem quite surprised and they
always seem that I could not do it or be physically able to do. Work colleagues are
shocked because they have not seen that side of me and they don’t think I am aggres-
sive and I think that they think you have to be hard and aggressive to do it and I don’t
think you do’. (Lily, Kick Boxing)
Leisure Studies 535

It is not just men who are surprised by her involvement because of her lack of
aggression in other environments but also her perceived lack of embodied strength.
The reaction of others to her involvement in the sport questions how embodied
experiences are influenced by dominant perceptions of femininity both within and
outside of the martial arts. Evident in these comments are stereotypical views of
women that perform in male sports more generally, that is butch, manly, comments
which question the legitimacy of ‘femaleness’ and sexuality of those involved in
these sports as a way of dissuading women from becoming physically empowered.
The reaction to women’s strength is often negative, according to McCaughey
(1997) and Castelnuovo and Guthrie (1998) because people are wary of women
developing strength or enjoying being aggressive, because aggression and violence
are largely understood as negative male behaviour.
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Physical feminism and self-defence

The sense of physical empowerment was for many of the women related to their
confidence in their ability to physically defend themselves. For Anna (Shotokan
Karate), self-defence was the motivation for her parents to send her to karate, ‘I
was at that age when I was starting to go out on my own’. She describes how as a
teenager, Anna’s parents express a concern with the vulnerability of young women’s
bodies and attempt to counter this by empowering their daughter with the skills to
defend herself. They are able to lessen their own worries about their daughter’s
safety; concerns that arise from images of ‘women as victim’ which Castelnuovo
and Guthrie (1998) argue reinforce the idea that women are weak. Anna’s involve-
ment has also empowered her at a time when some women are learning and
emphasising aspects of femininity which weaken them. The narrative of self-
defence was evident in others responses. For instance, Rebecca (Kick Boxing)
claims, ‘it is just that I am more confident where if I was in that situation where I
needed to defend myself I am better equipped than 4 years ago’. Despite the sense
of empowerment self-defence had brought to Catherine, she thought that martial arts
should not be promoted in this way:

I don’t know if I would tell girls to go there because of self-defence because I think
sometimes saying to a girl go there because of self-defence might frighten them, I
would sell it differently. I don’t think there is enough women out there who can
defend themselves which is a real shame. (Catherine, Kick Boxing)

Although Catherine recognises the possibility and importance of women learning to

defend themselves, she recognises the fear of assault that many women embody.
Discourses and narratives normalise women’s embodied weakness and vulnerability.
Not all women in our study noted that the martial arts had given them the confi-
dence to be able to defend themselves. For instance, Helen (Kick Boxing) mentions
that ‘in the winter with it being dark I would not feel comfortable walking home’.
It is also evident that despite some women saying that the sport had encouraged
them to feel more confident in defending themselves, in reality they still avoid situ-
ations where they perceive attacks may be likely. As McCaughey (1997) discusses,
women have too often been socialised into learning it is their responsibility to pre-
vent attacks and therefore their movements are restricted. McCaughey (1997) also
stresses that women’s involvement in the martial arts may need to be accompanied
by women learning forms of self-defence which they commit to bodily memory.
536 P. Velija et al.

Katie (Thai Boxing), one of our interviewees, reflects on her involvement in the
martial arts and her own embodiment:

I think if a women walks across a green in a pair of high heels and her head down
she may get attacked but if you walk across in a pair of trainers with your head up
and think if someone comes at me I could sort it out then the whole persona is com-
pletely different. Whether you can sort it out is irrelevant, the fact they look like they
can and mentally think they can makes you seem much less of an easy target.

As DeWelde (2003) emphasises, such forms of embodiment can help women to reject
the victim attitude, and physical strength enables young women to feel confident in
their bodies and therefore lessen their fear of attack as they feel more confident to be
able to respond to attacks and defend themselves. For Katie, the experience of the
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martial arts has enabled her to consider the importance of appearing strong and reject-
ing forms of feminine embodiment by not trying to minimise the space she takes up,
thus realising the way girls and women are encouraged to develop forms of bodily
comportment that minimise space and emphasise weakness. For some, the martial arts
can help women to reject the position of subordinated body by rejecting weakness and
becoming more physically powerful and confident, however, this is not universal.

Gendered embodiment
Despite the sense of physical empowerment gained from involvement in the martial
arts, the women’s discussions of their bodies were at times contradictory. In particu-
lar, many of the women mentioned the importance of weight loss and being toned
in their experiences and motivations for being involved in the martial arts.
Dominant discourses that emphasise women’s beauty and thinness are common, as
suggests women’s involvement in sport and exercise can empower them but at the
same time they use sport or exercise to conform to societal expectations of the fem-
inine thin body. Women continue to comply or agree with the ideas of feminine
beauty and thinness through their involvement in the martial arts because of the fit-
ness element and choose to reject the ‘fighting’ element, ‘it is not all about fighting,
a lot is about fitness’ (Emma, Karate) and Louise maintains that one of the main
motivations for participation is ‘fitness’, which is often associated with weight loss
in fitness discourses. Emma stresses ‘it made me lose weight before, like when I
was doing the boxing for the second time it increased my confidence a lot because
it made me lose weight’. Ideas about the ideal weight and pressure for women to
conform to this disciplined female body can be a motivation for women to be
involved in the martial arts, ‘definitely, to get fit, because I did not really have any
form of exercise so I was getting quite unhealthy so I thought it was about time I
did something’ (Emma, Kick Boxing and Thai Boxing). As Helen explains,

Yes, I, definitely, like I went on holiday to Cyprus to see my mum and dad and I have
not seen them for a year and I said to my mum that I think I have toned up a bit more
than I have ever been. Although I have stayed the same weight. I definitely feel more
toned like my legs, bum and stomach feel more toned through doing the kickboxing and
yeah I feel more confident in the way I feel about my body. (Helen, Kick Boxing)

Being toned and using the martial arts for toning was something Eva also identified
as important to her, ‘I have become more supple but my weight goes up and down,
I haven’t necessarily lost weight but I have gained strength’ (Eva, Karate).
Leisure Studies 537

Arguably female bodies, and increasingly male bodies, are expected to be thin and
toned and being toned whilst not necessarily the motivating factor for starting the
sport may encourage women to stay involved. Although being toned is not the
same as weight loss and fitness, it does stress an importance for the female body to
look a particular way. In some ways, this may question the empowering nature of
the martial arts experience. As previous research on fitness cultures, Maguire and
Mansfield’s (1998) argue that weight is linked to wider issues of power relations
between men and women, what Shilling (2003) refers to as internalised self-
surveillance. Females in this study mentioned how they control their weight and
appearance through their own involvement in the martial arts. Women also police
other bodies, and as Catherine (Kick Boxing) hints the environment of the martial
arts may not be very inviting for those bodies that do not comply, ‘I think that is
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probably one thing that the club does not have and that is any overweight people’.
Thus, the environment of the martial arts and the embodiment of fitness may not
encourage those with bodies that do not conform to attend and ultimately may
suggest that power relations exist between fit and toned women and those who do
not embody these qualities.
It is important to note that women are able to be critical of mediated female
bodies as Natalie suggest the position of females within the martial arts is often one
of sex symbol and she recognises how this imagery denies physical strength:

one of the things about the media perception you know like combat magazine if you
get a women on there, they are always scantily clad done up to the nines looking like
a model, on the one hand I don’t have a problem with that but then on the other I
think actually why are you sexualising the fact that this women is actually very strong.
(Catherine, Kick Boxing)

Images that deny the physical empowerment of women through the martial arts
make the sport and women involved less threatening to men and the current gender
order, whilst maintaining a conventional view of femininity. The difficulties faced
by women in the martial arts are documented in Guerandel and Mennesson’s
(2007) study of mixed judo environments who observed that women were keen to
demonstrate signs of strength in the environment but females who were strong and
able to fight with men were seen by men as athletic but not womanly. Pfister
(2010) suggests that women’s involvement in traditional male sports such as body-
building does not necessarily result in the dissolving of gender dichotomies instead
they often result in women emphasising femininity in spite of their development of
physical strength.

Concluding thoughts
Although the study draws on data from a small number of participants, the women in
our study demonstrate the importance of developing physical strength which has the
potential to change their gendered embodiment and is individually empowering. This
demonstrates the importance that the martial arts can have in developing women’s
physical strength and enabling them to embody strength and confidence in their
bodies. Thus, more research exploring different forms of martial arts and women’s
experiences of these at competitive and recreational level may offer a more in-depth
understanding of how women experience their bodies within these sports.
538 P. Velija et al.

The women in this study clearly challenge forms of gendered embodiment that
position women as weak by becoming physically strong. However, their involve-
ment also allows them to be complicit in accepting dominant notions about female
bodies. For instance, the women in this study noted that their bodily comportment,
abilities and self-image had improved through their participation in the martial arts,
yet on the contrary they were keen to uphold the notion of male strength and equate
this to their natural suitability to the martial arts and fighting. This suggests that
women can simultaneously experience multiple forms of embodiment. Thus, it is
possible to feel empowered and dominant whilst also striving to embody more tra-
ditional notions of femininity, such as thinness, a point made by DeWelde (2003).
In McCaughey’s (1997) advocacy of physical feminism, she stresses the impor-
tance of the spaces of the classes she attended, noting that those that were female only
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or underpinned by feminist philosophy focused on challenging the perception of the

weak female body. These feminist pedagogies enabled women to develop physical
strength whilst simultaneously allowing for the space to critique traditional forms of
gendered embodiment that position women as weak, thus challenging learned help-
lessness that position women’s bodies as weak. Thus women, in these contexts were
empowered physically and mentally but also developed a sense of feminist conscious-
ness which enabled them to critique gendered embodiment which emphasises physical
weakness. The extent to which individual empowerment and the deconstruction of
gendered embodiment happens in other sporting contexts may need further consider-
ation, and is something Castelnuovo and Guthrie (1998) stress in their research.
It appears through the narratives of the women in this study that it is possible to
be individually empowered by physical and mental strength, yet on the other hand,
the women do not question dominant notions of gendered embodiment that position
women’s bodies as weaker than male bodies as they naturalise and accept that male
strength ensures they are better suited to the sport, can this be empowerment?
Castelnuovo and Guthrie (1998) argue that resistance needs to expand beyond
individual power struggles as it requires a commitment to a shared agenda whereby
physically empowering practices need to replace ideas about the female beautiful
body. In their research, similar to McCaughey (1997) they identify how the spaces
of the martial art dojo environment that focuses on empowerment underpinned by a
feminists ethos enables women to move beyond individual empowerment, to con-
sider a more collective resistance that results in the destabilisation of the gender
order. McCaughey (1997) stresses the importance of the spaces in which women
develop physical strength as being important in this goal as her research indicates
that the performance of self-defence does in itself empower women to question
gendered embodiment that emphasises weakness in women’s bodies.
Some of the problems in theorising physical empowerment and gendered
embodiment are evident in contemporary sport feminist debates. In particularly,
Hargreaves (2004) captures the problem for feminists in her comprehensive review
of sports feminism when she recognises that, on the one hand, young women are
now benefitting from involvement in a range of sports, however, she expresses con-
cern with some third wave sports feminisms that move away from a political
agenda within feminist theorising, as well over-emphasising individual narratives
and personal agency. Whilst she accepts that personal agency is important, it can
arguably be emphasised at the expense of deconstructing gendered experiences that
position women as weaker than men in sport. The focus on individual agency and
choice in women’s sport is also problematised by Caudwell (2011a, 2011b) who
Leisure Studies 539

discusses football and in particular the emergence of a ‘footie chick brand’ as well
as other issues such as female players who pose nude for media coverage for fund-
ing and stresses that these issues need to be interpreted by a broad feminist political
agenda. She discusses how strategies that focus and promote individualism impact
on women and feminism by diluting the importance of feminisms. As McRobbie
(cited in Caudwell, 2011a, p. 341) identifies words such as ‘empowerment and
choice’ can become part of everyday discussions that focus on individualistic dis-
courses at the expense of feminist politics. Messner (2011) makes a similar point
about the emphasis of ‘choice’ in youth sport suggesting that the concept of choice
can enable biological views on gendered bodies to be reinforced as the language of
choice presents feminism in ‘individualistic’ terms whilst it continues to position
boys as naturally aggressive and physically/mentally strong.
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Our study makes some important contributions to our understanding of women’s

embodiment in sports such as the martial arts and demonstrates the potential for the
martial arts to develop women’s physical and mental strength. However, we suggest
that it is important to consider in what circumstances are women empowered in
sport? How is this empowerment, whether it be physical, individual, mental, experi-
enced by women in a range of sports including those previously considered ‘male
appropriate’? (Snyder & Spreitzer, 1989) and how does participation in sport enable
women to challenge the forms of gendered embodiment that position them as weak?
What forms of gendered embodiment are empowering? Is individual physical
empowerment enough? Or do women in sport need to reconstruct and challenge the
traditional views of gendered embodiment more broadly to be empowered through
sport? We realise this section throws up more questions than answers, however, in
the light of women’s continual increasing involvement in sport and exercise, it
emphasises the importance of research on gender that uncovers women and girls
experiences of sport and their ability to move beyond individual physical empower-
ment to challenge their own gendered embodiment as well as to challenge the struc-
tures of sport that position men’s bodies as naturally aggressive, active and
competitive. More research on women’s involvement in sports such as the martial
arts and women’s experiences of their bodies in these sports are needed.

1. McCaughey (1997) draws on the women of Buchwald, Fletcher and Roth (1993) to
explain that rape culture is about normative gender expectations that consider rape and
other forms of sexual assault on women as acceptable, according to McCaughey (1997)
rape culture is evident in western societies, as the power differential between men and
women leave women vulnerable to male violence. McCaughey (1997 argues as women
embrace their power to thwart assaults and interrupt a script of feminine vulnerability
and availability, they challenge the invulnerability and entitlement of men and, by exten-
sion, the inevitability of men’s violence and women’s victimization” (McCaughey, 1997,
p. 178).
2. The term ‘dojo’ is used to describe a martial arts training place.
3. More detail about the clubs is presented in the methods.

Notes on contributors
Philippa Velija is a senior lecturer at York St John University. She has published research on
female cricketers, female jockeys and girls gendered embodiment in GCSE PE. Her research
focuses on understanding female’s experiences within sports that are traditionally perceived
as male sports.
540 P. Velija et al.

Mark Mierzwinski is a lecturer in the sociology of sport at York St John University. His
research interests focus on women in the martial arts and currently he is working on his
PhD exploring the issue of bullying in Physical Education.

Laura Fortune was a research assistant at York St John University. Her research has
explored women in the martial arts and the experience of elite male dancers.

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