A cocktail dress makes a certain impression, and never so much as when you wear it in the mat room at the gym. We’re having a special training week at my martial arts academy, when we’re encouraged to wear street clothes and practice fighting in real-world conditions. I take this seriously. It’s when I’m wearing evening clothes that I feel the most vulnerable. Exposed skin, tight skirts, and truly stupid shoes: this is stuff I only really feel safe wearing in the company of a group. I figure it will be good for me to train in something a little less comfortable.
Glamor is silly. It’s never ceased to amaze me that people fall for the trick where the plain girl takes off her glasses, shakes out her hair, and suddenly looks gorgeous. Can’t you see her? This is just a costume change. She’s still the same person under all that. Do people really only see cosmetics, clothes, and coiffures? Apparently so. I train with these particular people every day, barefoot, in yoga pants and a t-shirt. I walk in wearing a Lycra dress and a bib necklace, having spent five minutes flat-ironing my hair, and suddenly everyone is flustered. Rather than feeling nervous and constrained by this get-up, I start to feel more confident and stronger.
I’m new at Krav Maga, see. I’m used to being the slowest, clumsiest, and least experienced. Standing in the mat room in my workout clothes, I’m below average. Standing there in my Vegas clothes, I’m elevated into some kind of sultry Bond villain.
We train. Our warmup is twice as long as usual. I do pushups, my necklace clattering on the floor. I do sit-ups, my bike shorts doing exactly what they’d do if I wore them with a shirt instead of a dress. I jog around the room. I jump rope. A large rhinestone flies off. I stuff it down my top, to the consternation of the instructor.
“Or that’ll work,” he says.
What I realize, as I look around the room, is that I’m having an easier time than the students who wore jeans. Men and women both are constantly yanking at their waistlines. Jeans tend to be tight in some places and loose in others, yet not in any ways that are compatible with much jogging, kicking, or rolling around on the floor.
I get a male partner. I feel privileged by this, because we usually self-sort by gender. I’m in the room to learn not to be flustered or triggered by full-body contact, specifically from males. My partner shows his respect by treating me exactly like any other opponent. We straddle each other in full mount and take turns throwing each other around. “Now if you get attacked by anyone who weighs a buck and a quarter, you’ll be prepared.”
Training with men is great, actually. I’ve found it the same in the weight room, on the trail, and now in martial arts. The vast majority of male athletes are delighted to train with women.
I wish my mom
I wish my sister
I hope my daughter
Many men carry a ‘white knight’ image deep inside themselves. They’ve been waiting their entire lives to come to the rescue of a woman in peril. The idea of another man inflicting physical violence on a female is one of the worst things they can think of, something that fills them with intense loathing and disgust. This is why they’re so pleased when we train to defend ourselves. (I’m just as interested in defending myself against an attack from a wild animal, but). When we train together it’s a mutual triumph.
This is part of why I wasn’t surprised when I talked to my husband about my training. I asked him how he felt about me studying martial arts. “Relieved,” he said. RELIEVED. He travels on business, and every time, he worries about me sleeping alone. We practiced together a little, and it was funny to see how he lit up when he realized how quickly I’m improving, especially when I almost kicked him in the forehead. “That was a good one.” I’m just barely good enough that I aimed to miss, and missed. If he’d caught me a week earlier it might not have gone so well.
It’s already working. I’m learning that I can skin my knuckles and not feel it all that much. I’m learning that I can be tossed on the ground and jump back up, giggling and ready for more. I’m learning to stand still and hold the foam targets and brace myself against dozens of kicks and punches. I’m learning to boil away the part of me that freezes in fear. I’m learning to walk tall, knowing that the element of surprise is on my side. Already, if someone comes for me, I’ll have at least a few seconds to create a different destiny for myself. Not today, buddy, not today.
The next time I walk down the street in this particular cocktail dress, I’ll remember how I wore it today. Fifty snap kicks, a hundred palm strikes. Inside the dress I’ll know I still have full range of motion. Now all I have to do is reattach a few rhinestones.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.