10 Years in BJJ Part 2: Blue to Purple and Beyond

This is Part 2, you can read Part 1: The White Belt Years here

This month marks 10 years rocking and rolling with my metaphysical boyfriend, BJJ. It has been quite a journey, and I’m looking ahead to more good years. It is a big milestone. It is time to take stock. Time to reflect on how successive stages of BJJ development have changed my perception of the art. Perhaps some of what follows sounds a lot like your own experience, or perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum. I’d love to know; share your insights in the comments.

Blue Belt: Thinking I Know Something

I was promoted to blue belt about 6 months before my second knee injury. After the experience of rehabbing an MCL tear with physiotherapy, I was inclined to believe my first orthopaedic when he suggested I could get away without having an operation. I lived and trained around a ruptured ACL for 4 years. Throughout blue belt and into my purple belt. Keeping myself safe while rolling without an ACL changed my game and meant ‘I gave a lot away’. I developed approaches, with the help of my instructor, Dave Birkett of Dartford BJJ, that were suited to training without a 100% fit leg.

A shrimp shrimps

A shrimp shrimps

In spite of a knee injury that effectively ended my embryonic competition career recounted in Part 1, the blue belt years were exciting ones. In retrospect, I learned a lot about myself. Biggest take away, aside from the omni-present importance of persistence? Blue belts tend to reckon they know something. As a teen doesn’t know how young she is, so a blue belt doesn’t know how little she knows. The blue belt journey for me, in many ways, was a process of ‘getting over myself’ (a process still ongoing).

As a woman/smaller person in BJJ, I face particular issues. We all have our own ‘hard’ and my hard is not harder than yours, but smaller players will hear me when I say that this is a tough, tough old game. Offensive ‘wins’ are few and far between when your day-to-day training is with bigger, stronger (younger) partners. It is hella frustrating to rarely get a sub and to have a lot of trouble holding one’s own with one’s belt range – the slimmer the skill gap the more the size advantage makes a difference. This was really uncomfortable for me and my ‘ego’ during my blue belt. This personal challenge led to the creation of the London BJJ Women’s Open Mat.

London BJJ Women's Open Mat

London BJJ Women’s Open Mat

Photo by Fighters in Focus.

Dave Birkett and I founded the London BJJ Women’s Open mat in 2009. The first session was held on 12 July at Dartford BJJ. With 8 participants, we had a humble beginning; from tiny acorns grow mighty oaks. Since our first session, the Open Mat has grown in strength and vitality. We have a large and active women-only Facebook group, and Open Mats held at least once a quarter. I coordinated the Open Mat for the first 5 years, and was happy to pass the baton to Hayley Carter in July of this year; the next generation of London BJJ women is keeping it rolling.

The Open Mat was and is important to myself and local BJJ women for a number of reasons. In particular it allows women to get together in a friendly, non-competitive atmosphere and just train with one another. More and more women are taking up BJJ, yet it is still commonplace for a woman to be the only female in her club. We are still very much a minority in the art and we’re thinly distributed across clubs. Open mats help make up for this and provide a forum for women to roll together. This gives the chance for fellowship and friendship as well as to see how one does when rolling with partners more one’s size. This is important feedback on one’s progress that can be difficult to come by when you’re hugely outweighed and outgunned by everyone else in your club.

Arm bar

Arm bar posin’

Being able to gauge my progress in defensive AND offensive skill with players of roughly equivalent size and strength, was especially important for my morale during blue belt. As I levelled up and grew into my purple belt, I became more resilient to dealing with bigger badder players and had a big conceptual shift in, what I now see, as a sense of entitlement that was holding me back. A manifestation of what we BJJers like to call ‘ego’.

Purple Belt: Sh1t Gets Real

I was very proud to be awarded my purple belt in October 2010. That was a big night for me. The transition to purple wasn’t easy, and I had a good three month period of ‘purple belt blues’ with panic and worrying about ‘defending my belt’. I got over it, and that’s when I really started to hum on the mats.

Meg Stance 1

Purple pride

By the time I went in for an ACL reconstruction in September 2011, I was feeling more empowered on the mats than ever before. It had taken 7 years of dedication, persistence, untold hours of drills, sparring, visualisation and note taking, but I felt I was really getting somewhere. I was starting to appreciate, in a visceral way, what my instructor meant by ‘defence first’ and his assurances during blue belt that once I was ‘confident in my defence’, my offence would come together.

I was mega confident in my defence. I could roll with white or blue belt guys of any size and deal with attacks with aplomb; both ‘surviving’ and escaping with relative ease. I could put myself in triangles with skilful blue belts and escape. I would be lucky to survive a roll with a purple belt guy, but I now had more reasonable expectations. The undeniable fact is, the smaller the skill gap, the more size will play a part in the outcome of a roll. That is not to say that the purples would be muscling me, rather that I need to be significantly more skilled than a larger opponent, so while I might be able to make it annoying for guys in my belt range, it is the very rare occasion that I will get the better of them. The fact that I was dealing with whites and blues without much issue and able to really play about with putting myself in awkward spots was KIND OF A BIG DEAL in my personal journey. I was and still am very much in the midst of getting a good level of competency with the basics – a cool thing about the purple phase; you’re more self-aware of how much there is to master than in those feisty blue years – but in that first year of purple belt, there was a big leap for me.

Confidence in my defence, made offensive success more possible. Rather than the odd submission, here and there, or with the occasional partner of my size and strength – my regular partners started at 10-15 kilos heavier and went up to 30 kilos heavier – I was consistently getting those subs. I had not (and have not) yet developed skill in tricking and baiting opponents for submissions. That’s a future milestone. I was, however, developing some pretty hot timing, if I do say so myself, and could regularly capitalise on the mistakes of others. As when I snagged an armbar when rolling with a blue belt for a rashguard review:


Not totally pleased with my technique there, but hey, it is all about progress rather than perfection.

Greater offensive capability helped me to overcome 2 entitlement-demons that had haunted me through blue belt. First up, I would get really REALLY up tight when I felt that a training partner was ‘patronising me’ by putting themselves in awkward spots and letting me have an advantage. As a blue belt, I ‘understood’ that stronger or larger or more skilful players should modify their games when outgunning a partner but – oh man! – I resented that this should apply to me. I felt so insulted, that me, ME with my badass blue belt was still treated gingerly by a lot of people. I thought a coloured belt and a couple of stripes entitled me to a leveller playing field. Nope! It took a lot longer for me than most of my clubmates to more easily play around with lower grades of varying size. Once I got to that point, I too needed to ‘keep it playful’ and put myself in vulnerable positions in order to practice escaping, or new sweeps or a fancy sub or a refined basic, whatever! I never thought/think less of my partner when I did/do this. As a blue, my insecurities had led me to believe my partners did think less of me when they modified their games for me. (NOTE: Plenty of guys didn’t go soft on me, or only very subtly. Apart from Dave, guys I’ve trained with for a long time were more than happy to smash me about in a controlled way. I really appreciated being treated like a smaller person rather than as ‘a girl’, with some of the baggage that can be attached to that label in a sporting context.). Adapting your game to your partner’s level, is a great chance for both players to work in a different way. Why settle for the same-old-routine of one or the other dominating the whole time? Where’s the chance to try something new and evolve? Once I could more fully appreciate the value of dropping to a partner’s level, I no longer felt resentful and insecure when I was/am on the receiving end.

A more balanced diet of defensive and offensive success changed my BJJ-feedback loop. This helped me to overcome a second entitlement-beast that had sat on me since blue belt: muscling isn’t fair – wah! As a blue, I spent a lot of time and energy feeling sad/mad/frustrated when I’d get muscled into a submission or, as was more the case in blue belt, have a partner muscle out of a submission. That sucked. It didn’t seem fair. I wanted to play too!

BJJ grrl LOLs

BJJ grrl LOLs

Guess what, that’s your opponent’s right. Not to injury you or to place their desire not to be submitted or to submit over your safety, but certainly to turn on the juice in a last ditch effort to get what they want. Suck it up. Because guess what, that sh1t will come home to roost. If, when push comes to shove, your bigger/stronger/more aggressive partner falls back to those attributes, rather than their technique, they are simply robbing Peter to pay Paul. You, my smaller-player-friend, you aren’t doing that. Okay, maybe you are, but you’ll grow out of it sooner than the bigger folks. Or you won’t, and then you probably won’t last in the game. It may take 5 years, 7 years, 10 years, 30 years! but eventually the fact that every time the pressure was on you had to use technique to deal with it will make you more powerful than you can imagine. When you get to the point where you are super confident with your defence, you can escape and hold your own and work your technique and timing rather than relying on attributes, you’re offensive scores with bigger people will increase. You will have your way. You will be the hammer. You’ll still be the nail, but you’ll get your long-denied share of hammer-time. In the end, you can’t fight fire with fire. You’ve got to use water. Let them come, let them go hard. Lock up shop, keep yourself safe, bide your time, escape, reverse, and when they start to freak that you’re all over them, have that sub.

Oh those were some good times. I felt that I made some big conceptual leaps and conquered some toxic burdens of entitlement to make lasting progress. BJJ and I were getting really deep and I was putting increasing energy into blogging, writing for magazines like Jiu Jitsu Style – I got the cover of the first issue, hell yeah! – attending every Open Mat I could, even being an extra in a grappling-inspired video to launch a Bella Freud collection. Madness! See for yourself:

I felt on top of the world. Then it was time to have a knee operation, a pregnancy, and an infant. While I stayed active through all this, it ended up as a 2 year ‘BJJ sabbatical’. What’s worse than getting muscled all the time? Putting in the hours to overcome that, going on break for health and family, coming back and realising timing, muscle memory, technique and core muscles disappear! That hurts. Hey, just another problem to be solved, another challenge to be faced.

Before the knee op and the baby, I trained every day of the week: 3 sessions at the club; 1 session on the home mats; 1 weights session; solo drills on the ‘off days’. I spent hours visualising technique and kept meticulous notes in a training diary to help with retention. These days, I aim for 1 session a week, with the occasional double-class week. With a family and a business that I love and limited local support with childcare, there’s little space for BJJ-mind cycles or working around my club’s timetable. I train as much as I can in my personal circumstances, and I continue to keep good notes. While I’m not yet back to where I’d like to be, my timing and technique are remerging, if heartbreakingly slowly. Like a language you’ve stopped practicing, it is still in there, but it is going to take some practice to regain fluency. I’ve also been working hard on diet and exercise since last July with an awesome PT, Vicky Busby. Vicky can work around my obligations and I’m able to do 2 sessions a week with her. All about the weights and intensive intervals. She has helped me loose most of the baby-weight and take my strength to and beyond my pre-natal levels. Feeling good and moving in the right direction.

What’s Next

Not only has it been 10 years in BJJ, it has been 10 years with my instructor, Dave Birkett. 2015 has some big changes in store for me, which will mean finding a new club. My family and I are leaving London and moving to my hometown, Rochester, NY in February. We are very excited for the new opportunities that await us. Surely, we are the people most excited to be in Rochester in February in the history of the universe. For perspective, this was March last year.

Dave Birkett and Meg Smitley

Dave and I

I’ve been researching the local clubs and there’s one I’ve got my eye on. Fingers crossed that we’re a good fit for one another. Assuming I can build a relationship with a new BJJ club, I’m looking forward to more opportunities to train once in Rochester. You’re pretty much 20 minutes from anywhere, I’ll have a car, local family-networks, and the Rochester clubs seem to have a greater number of classes throughout the day than what seems more typical around London. This all adds up to more chances to work BJJ into my weekly routine. That’s an exciting prospect.

I’m sorry to say ‘goodbye for now’ to friends and family here, but looking forward to saying ‘hello’ to friends and family there. In BJJ terms, I’m really sad to leave my club. There’s a lot of water under the bridge with the men and women at Dartford BJJ and my instructor, Dave Birkett, has been incredibly invested in my journey from the get-go. Dave has set the tone but the guys I’ve spent years training with are really special too, I’m looking at you: Ryan, Lee, Ricky, Gary, Barry, Danny, Sky, Charlotte and Kate, Hasan, Jamie, Will, The Family Birkett (Anne, Katja, Graham), Monique, Cat, Ben, the Ilford Branch crew, and all the other sh1t-hot men and women at Dartford BJJ. Not to mention my ‘3rd party training partners': John, Keelin, Sooze, Lisa and Husna. I love you people, thank you for everything. A supportive club has been key to my progress to date. There’s a reason that it was Dave’s voice in my head on the cab-ride to the birth of my son saying, ‘You’re a warrior, you can do this!’. I’ll carry Dave and my loyal, tough, and impressively technical Dartford BJJ crew in my heart as I hop back across The Pond.

Dartford BJJ

Dartford BJJ

10 Years in BJJ Part 1: The White Belt Years

This month BJJ and I are celebrating our tenth anniversary. We met way back in the autumn of my 29th year, and have been going steady ever since. There’s been ups and downs and times when we’ve been ‘on a break’. Through all the challenges, blood, sweat, tears, frustrations, euphoria, big wins and little wins (mostly little wins), I can say that knowing BJJ has made my life better. While we may not be spending as much time together just now, I know we’ll see it through and keep the fire burning for another decade.

With so much behind us and so much to look forward to, it seems only fitting to mark this anniversary with a reflection on our shared history, and some wishes and goals for our future.

Meg as white belt

Crouching and grinning after my first competition.

Those Heady White Belt Years

When I found BJJ and my instructor Dave Birkett of Dartford BJJ ten years ago I already had 6 years martial arts experience and a black belt in Shorinji Kempo. As grapplers know, striking and working from standing may be fun with challenges all their own, but being on the ground is a whole other ball game. While there were transferrable skills I brought into BJJ – primarily a willingness to persist – I went through the same ridiculous white belt phase we all do. So full of keenness, vim and vinegar and a whole lot of heart. Light on subtlety and surprised and frustrated by the slowness of progress in the art.

It took me three years to get to blue belt and the white belt years we’re pretty euphoric. The first 3 months or so were a real eye-opener. I would tap out just from being smothered under someone’s mount and got my arse handed back to me in a most regular fashion. I loved it though and saw the potential. My instructor, Dave, met me halfway. He helped me deal with each set of problems. We took little first steps like getting to my side to relieve pressure on my ribs and breathe when being crushed and manhandled. By tackling problems little by little and just keeping on keeping on, I eventually gained enough confidence in my defence to keep myself safe with bigger stronger players, and start to get the better of men and women closer to my own size.

I was getting traction. BJJ and I talked every night before bed and I recorded our time together in a BJJ Diary, that continues to this day. It was all going so well. Then the test case for why white belts don’t do heel-hooks in sparring left me with a torn MCL and off the mats for 9 months.

Persistence, again, was the key to getting the leg rehabbed and my behind back in the dojo. I was working in the City of London at the time and was able to easily visit the gym every lunch and do my physiotherapy exercises. My dedication to this process didn’t go unrewarded and in 6 months I was ready for striking work and by 9 months I was rolling again.

The 9 month break didn’t dull my ardour nor my skills by much. I ramped up quickly to where I’d left off and then BJJ and I were off and running again. Next milestone together was trying out competition.

Competition

I prepared hard for the Gracie Invitational at SENI 2008, cutting 5 kilos in 6 weeks; awesomely, regular training let me keep that off no problemo. Lots of practice, visualisation and concentration on the idea that I could win but didn’t ‘have’ to and I was ready.

It was a fun day, with 2 fights in front of the huge SENI crowd. Again, persistence. It was all about not giving up and trusting the technique, which helped me escape how many armbars?! You tell me:

That was a really tough match for me. My opponent, Zoe Hall, was all over me; younger, more experienced and really strong, she was great. I remember clearly feeling so tired of having her smash me and thinking, ‘I can end this with a tap’ (around 2:57 of the video), then rallying – ‘No! This isn’t training, keep going, fight, fight!’. I escaped and got to my feet. When she used her hand on her knee to stand up I knew she was tired too. I gave a big smile, ‘I’m fine, not dying inside – haha!’. I knew she’d go for another great takedown and got ready to sprawl – yes! Worked my technique and found the back and finished with an RNC. I brought home the gold that day.

That year I also took part in the Kent BJJ Open where I had 3 fights. With the experience of SENI under my belt, I trained for the competition and went in there with the goal to work my takedowns and sprawls better this time. Sprawling was more proficient at this comp, and my takedowns really came together, some nice single legs in my second fight and this peach of an ippon seo nagi in my first fight:

Hot damn! There is no substitute for reps! I drilled that throw so much before that competition. I don’t think I ever really expected to pull it off, but I loved throws from the old Shroinji days, and why not give it a try! I was really happy about meeting my goals for that competition and I brought home silver that day.

My plan was to compete every 6 months or so. To have regular competition as a part of my training process but not the heart of it. To this day, I see competition as an important part of a balanced training diet, not more not less. For me, competition is part of the means, and not the ends. In my case, an amateur competition career was cut short by knee injury number two, a ruptured ACL.

Lessons from White Belt

I’ve carried two principles with me from white belt. Or, perhaps more precisely, two principles employed prior to my BJJ-birth, were really important for framing my progress in those early years.

Lesson 1: it just takes time. I came to BJJ with some life experience that prepared me for a long haul. On the one hand I’d already achieved a black belt in another art, so I didn’t feel that crazy rush to move up the ranks. I was more prepared to put in my time and take it easy; it would come. On the other hand, I’d attained a PhD a few years prior. I was familiar with dedicating myself for the longer term with consistency and tenacity. On the mats, the understanding that skills simply take time and practice to master, that things don’t come easily, really helped me to keep plugging away in a very challenging art and to value the small increments of progress I made over time.

Lesson 2: measure progress in tiny units of improved technique. Rather than focussing on how many times you submit or submit others, put the emphasis on your hit rate for the thing you’re working on. Moreover, break down your bigger goals into smaller chunks. Need to work on your mount escape? Start with mastering a fraction of the escape. Perhaps you’re ready to add a sweep to your arsenal. No easy task, and you can benefit from patting yourself on the back when regularly getting into the position for your sweep, even if you don’t get the desired outcome. Measuring success solely in submissions (taken or given) is a dark road. Down that path too much measurement of yourself versus others. Yes, improved technique may be realised by how many submissions you get. However, in the end the race is against yourself. A more fruitful focus in the longer term can be on the development of your basic technique.

Any of this sound familiar? Wildly different from your experience? Let me know in the comments. Liked this post? Check out Part 2.

Rockin’ Green Athletic Wear Detergent Review

When Rockin’ Green invited me to do a review of their sports detergent, I was skeptical. While I loved a lot about the brand – made in the USA, eco-friendly, family friendly – I wasn’t sure I could determine the efficacy of a detergent with my 5 senses and no laboratory, no controls and no team of microbiologists to confirm or deny Rockin’ Green’s cleansing power. Though true that I cannot offer a clinical review of Rockin’ Green’s athletic wear detergent, I can certainly share my thoughts on using the product and report the findings of my 5-senses, and I can assure you that my sense of smell was particularly delighted by the process.

Rockin' Green Athletic Wear Detergent

Rockin’ Green Athletic Wear Detergent

As a company, Rockin’ Green has a lot to recommend it. Founded by a mother and concerned Earth-citizen, Rockin’ Green soaps contain no harmful or skin-irritating substances such as petroleum by-products or artificial fragrances. The icing on the cake? Aside from producing effective and planet-friendly soaps, the family behind Rockin’ Green also rolls together. What’s that on the wind? A sweet-smelling BJJ-family, walking the walk of positive contribution.

Rockin’ Green is available worldwide and you can find your local retailer on their site. Rockin’ Green Athletic Wear Detergent retails for $15.95USD.

The Nose Knows

I used Rockin’ Green to wash my Fenom Blue gi, as well as my gym kit and the detergent worked well with cotton and synthetics. The soap comes in a powder form, and it seemed to have dissolved and rinsed away completely; I could detect no powdery residue. I washed my items on a cooler 40C wash as well as 60C and was impressed with how well the Fenom’s colour held. This may be due to a number of factors, but in my experience coloured gi do loose colour quickly on the first few washes and it may be that Rockin’ Green worked well with the gi’s own colour fast properties.

The best feature of the soap to me – apart from its credentials as environmentally friendly and made in America – was the wonderful fragrance. Rockin’ Green’s sports soap includes tea tree oil, which in addition to its anti microbial properties, leaves your stinkiest kit fresh smelling. This isn’t a heavy, artificial perfume – I don’t go for that and my sensitive skin gets very irritated by conventional brands and their perfumes – it is a subtle, clean, fresh smell. The coolest part, though, is that scent keeps going, even in the midst of a training session! There I was, sweating away and lo and behold, I caught a whiff of my gear near the end of my session and I smelled a light tea tree fragrance, not mildew or BO or any of the other malodours that typically waft off of well-used training gear. For me, while not founded on a solid clinical body of evidence, this was all the further convincing I needed. Many grapplers take a great deal of time over their hygiene – as they should! – and it is a bummer to start class smelling fresh and clean, only to be spreading a bacterial stench by the time the sweat permeates the cloth. My experience of Rockin’ Green was a much cleaner smell after a sweaty session, and that rocks.

Disclaimer

All reviews are based on my independent observations. I have no formal qualifications, I am not sponsored by any company and I do not endorse any one brand. If you chose a product based on my review, please let the manufacturer know that MegJitsu persuaded you. This will not benefit me financially, but can help me to get more cool things to review for you.

Credits

Thanks to Rockin’ Green for offering me the soap to test and review.

New Coordinator for London BJJ Women’s Open Mat

The London BJJ Women’s Open Mat is moving to an exciting new phase! I am resigning as the group’s coordinator and passing that honour on to Hayley Carter. Hayley trains with Kevin Capel, Roger Gracie black belt, at RGA Bucks in Aylesbury, and also attends classes taught by her boyfriend, Stuart, at RGA Bucks Milton Keynes at Total Dojo. She earned her blue belt from Kev Capel and Roger Gracie in November 2012 and has been practicing and competing in BJJ for about 3 years. In her own words, she is ‘well and truly hooked!’.

Hayley Carter Sparring

Hayley Carter (white gi), RGA Bucks Blue Belt

I am really proud to have begun the London BJJ Open Mat with the support of Dartford BJJ back in July 2009, helping to kick off a global phenomenon of women’s open mats that continues to this day. The London BJJ Open Mat has so much unrealised potential beyond its great use as a regular get together for like minded BJJ women looking for a sisterly, non-hierarchical, non-competitive, safe space to train and chat with other women in the art. As a parent and co-founder of a growing business, Sproutee Solutions, my circumstances prevent me from capitalising on the Open Mat and really nurturing and growing the group’s potential. Enter Hayley! Hayley, represents a next generation of BJJ women in the UK and Southeast and she’s keen to put together a committee of BJJ women to build and expand the London BJJ Women’s Open Mat in exciting new ways.

Hayley Carter Open Mat

Hayley Carter (centre), London BJJ Women’s Open Mat

I look forward to seeing how Hayley and the women of the Open Mat move things forward and I hope to continue having a supporting role with group, in particular in launching a new website for the Open Mat and helping with the group’s online tech needs. My great thanks and love to the women who have supported and grown with the Open Mat over the years. While I’m sorry to be stepping aside, I know that Hayley will do the group justice and take the Open Mat into the future. Let’s start by getting to know Hayley a little in her own words.

Meg: Why did you start training?
Hayley: I started kickboxing and MMA initially just to keep fit and have some sort of hobby. I moved on to BJJ to improve my MMA but ended up enjoying it so much that now I only train in the gi.

Meg: Why do you still train?
Hayley: Now, jiu jitsu is more of a religion than just a hobby. It’s had a massive impact on my life on many different levels. It has changed my attitude towards the way I think. My diet and overall health is now my top priority. Not forgetting that I have made some incredible friends and met my partner through the sport. This is why I still train, and will continue to, for as long as I can.

Meg: What makes you love the Open Mat?
Hayley: I love the Open Mat because I can share my BJJ experience with other women. I love training and rolling with other girls, there are no egos, they’re always a good laugh and I always come away from them having learnt something new. Since attending my first one in 2012 and meeting Esther Tang (one of 4 female black belts in the UK) I was inspired to host my own straight away. I can’t wait to see how much bigger and better the open mats will be in years to come as the female BJJ population keeps growing. I’m looking forward to organising the future Open Mats and hearing from everyone who wants to get involved.

BJJ Women Bring the Smiles, (Hayley centre right)

BJJ Women Bring the Smiles, (Hayley centre right)

You recognise her in yourself, don’t you? Passionate, excited, dedicated, and totally in love with BJJ and how transformative it can be for one’s wellbeing. I hope the BJJ women of London and the Southeast will throw their support behind Hayley as she embarks on this new role and seeks to build a network of BJJ women to evolve the Open Mat in line with the wishes of its participants while remaining true to the sisterly, noncompetitive core values of the Open Mat.

Women’s BJJ Gi Review: Fenom Dark Blue Curvy Fit

When you think of women’s cut gis, what do you think of? Fenom. Yes, there are some great offerings for women from a range of brands – and we thank you! – but there is no doubt that Fenom sets the bar for great-looking, affordable women’s gis. It’s what they do, gis for women and girls and this narrow focus helps them continue to craft better and better fitting gis for you and me (and Slideyfoot).

Fenom Dark Blue Embroidery at Shoulder

Fenom Dark Blue embroidery at shoulder

I’ve had the opportunity to test and review Fenom’s Dark Blue Pearl Weave kimono. While I’ve reviewed Fenom’s Classic Black and their Lotus gis in their slim-cuts, this has been my first chance to try their ‘curvy’ fit. It is brilliant! As I’m still carrying a bit of baby-weight many of my old A1s are a bit tight and ill-fighting, however I’m not tall or broad enough to move up to an A2. Fenom solves this problem by offering a curvy cut, which is akin to half sizes in shoes. The curvy cut gi provides just a little more room particularly in the trousers so that ladies who carry their weight in their lower bodies can still get gi meant for their height. Just one of the ways Fenom keeps innovating for the benefit of their customers. The Dark Blue Pearl Weave retails at $100.00USD and this review is of the A1 Curvy.

The Look

Fenom Dark Blue trousers

Fenom Dark Blue trousers

The Fenom Dark Blue Pearl Weave is a very minimal gi, with a single bit of flourish at the shoulders. On each shoulder there is a somewhat elaborate ‘F’ embroidered patch. These are nicely executed and in my opinion add just enough ‘pizazz’ to maintain a minimal look without being bland. The colour is a rich dark blue and the embroidery is black with white accents. The trousers are ripstop and unembellished apart from a small Fenom-logo patch on the right upper thigh.

Fenom Dark Blue top

Fenom Dark Blue top

The Fit and Performance

I was delighted to have the opportunity to try the Fenom Dark Blue Pearl Weave in curvy fit, as I’m still working on the baby weight, so while I’m bigger here and there, I’m no taller. The following table illustrates the changes in my measurements.

Pre- and Post-partum Measurements

 Pre-Pregnancy20mos Post-Partum
Bust86.4cm/34″93cm/36.6"
Waist68.6cm/27″80cm/31.5"
Hip91.4cm/36″93cm/36.6"
Thigh51cm/20″55cm/21.7"

Thigh measurements at widest point. Waist measurement at narrowest point of torso. Before pregnancy I wore a UK10/27″ jean and a UK8 top, I am currently wearing a UK12/29″ jean and a UK10 top.

Fenom’s curvy fit can be thought of as a half size, as you get with shoes, and it offers a great option for women whose proportions suit a larger size’s weight range, though not the larger height range. In the words of Fenom founder, Triin Seppel:

The whole idea behind the curvy pants is: when we started offering mix and match options, most of the ladies went with A1 top and A2 bottom because they needed more room in the bottom. Instead of having them take the pants to get hemmed, we went ahead and made the shorter but wider version. It is half way to the next size.

A1 top and bottom are the number one seller, followed by A2. 80% of total sales are A1 and A2 (and mix/match in these sizes). By far the biggest mix and match size is A1 top and A1 curvy bottom. From our data, it is not the gi top that determines the best fit, but it’s the pants. Making a jacket .5 inches slimmer or wider does not have as noticeable impact in comfort, but making small changes in pants makes a huge difference how women feel about their gi fit.

I agree that trousers, rather than jackets, seem to be the hardest things to ‘get right’ when it comes to the sizing. For me, the body of the jacket on the Dark Blue is a little big, but the extra room in the trousers makes a perfect fit. At this shape and size, the regular A1 top with the A1 curvy bottoms would be the perfect combination for me.

I love how this company has really listened to, responded to, and evolved with their customers. I’ve long harped on about how brands should offer mix and match to help more women fit better in their gi. Fenom listened. Then they took it further. They listened to their customers, they collected the data and realised that what women really needed was access to ‘half sizes’. I can’t name another brand that has put that sort of risk and effort into tracking and responding to women’s requirements for a great-fitting gi.

Fenom Dark Blue Measurements

Area of Gi
Measurement (cm)
wingspan146
underarm to underarm56
base of collar to hem of skirt69
width of cuff16
outerseam89
front rise18
rear rise20
width of thigh (outer to base of front rise)28

Gi measurements after 3 washes – one warm 60C and 2 cooler 40C. No significant change from pre-washed state.

Comparison with the Lotus Crystal Weave

Lotus v Dark Blue skirt

Lotus v Dark Blue skirt

When setting out to review the Dark Blue Fenom, my goal was to draw comparisons with the Fenom Lotus, as I have worn both of these and, as it happens, the Lotus is Fenom’s top selling gi, so perhaps this comparison can add helpful context for readers. While there are some similarities between the cuts, after discussion with Triin, I understood that this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison as the gi jackets are crafted from two different weaves: the Lotus is a crystal weave; the Dark Blue a pearl weave. The crystal weave is a much softer fabric, while the pearl weave is much rougher.

Lotus v Dark Blue arm length

Lotus v Dark Blue arm length

Softer weaves, like that used with the Lotus, are lovely on the skin. However, softer weaves are ‘looser’ and will move and shrink more over time. This is very clear from the really short arms on my beloved Lotus as compared with the Dark Blue; when worn the Lotus sleeves have shrunk to be several inches above the wrist which really isn’t very fair for training partners! Courser weaves, like that used with the Dark Blue, are tighter and tend to shrink less over time. The stiffness of the pearl weave can also make a jacket the same size and cut of a softer weave feel bulkier than its softer kin. Again, Triin from Fenom:

Many times it is personal preference. Some prefer an armor-feeling gi. Some like really comfy soft feel. Softer material is easier to grab, so we do not recommend it for competition. If you compete you want a real sandpaper gi so the opponent can’t grab you.

Lotus v Dark Blue trousers

Lotus v Dark Blue trousers

Conclusions

It is all about the right tool for the job! Fenom’s curvy and slim fits and mix and match policy allow women to get the best fit for their personal shape. The range of weaves, lets you choose the right feel for how you want to use your gi, for comfy regular training, or for suiting up for competition. As someone whose shape has been through quite a few iterations over the last 3 years of pregnancy and parenthood, I’m personally delighted with the curvy fit which accommodates my height and weight much better than if I just moved up the weight range to an A2. Finally, Fenom-fans should know that Fenom Kimonos will be celebrating their 5th anniversary this May and there’ll be some great surprises coming up!

Disclaimer

All reviews are based on my independent observations. I have no formal qualifications, I am not sponsored by any company and I do not endorse any one brand. If you chose a gi based on my review, please let the manufacturer know that MegJitsu persuaded you. This will not benefit me financially, but can help me to get more gi to review.

Credits

Thanks to Fenom Kimonos for offering me a gi to test and review.

Q2 London BJJ Women’s Open Mat: 22 June 2014 at Carlson Gracie London

2 Female BJJ players

Sarah Merriner works guard at the Women’s Open Mat

Date: 22 June 2014
Time: 13:00-16:00
Location: Carlson Gracie London
Address: 89 Richford Street London W6 7HJ (nearest tube Goldhawk Road)
Cost: Free

Our Q2 2014 London BJJ Women’s Open Mat will be held on Sunday 22 June 2014 and will be hosted by Sarah Merriner and the fine folks at Carlson Gracie London. We are pleased to invite women, aged 18 and over, to join our informal session of drilling and sparring. No grappling experience is required and the Open Mat is a great opportunity for seasoned players to train with other women and for women new to BJJ to try out the art in a friendly environment. The Open Mat is free of charge.

Email Sarah for more info sarah@carlsongracieessex.co.uk or find her on Twitter

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Why Should Women Train Jiu-Jitsu

Why Should Women Train BJJ A short film, ‘Why Should Women Train Jiu-Jitsu’ was recently published by Ocean County BJJ. This is one of the latest in a collection of blog posts, magazine articles and videos about why women should train BJJ. The video is distinguished by great production values and taking an allegorical, rather than a didactic, approach to the topic. The video also does an excellent job of speaking to women from a feminine point of view, rather than at women or casting women as an ‘other’.

In the film a young woman is trying to enjoy her cosmo when a large, drunken man appears to proposition her. He feels free to approach the woman, to grab her, to lounge on her, to breathe his putrid breath on her. After her initial ‘no’, the man persists, and the woman seeks to use his form of aggression against him – aggression being not necessarily equivalent to violence. The video freezes frames as she steps through a cross collar choke using her aggressor’s suit jacket, and thus offers a creative ‘tutorial’ on one of BJJ’s ‘bread-and-butter’ techniques. You can watch the whole thing here:

I loved this. As a woman and a BJJer it resonated for me. I thought the allegorical approach was superb and provided a innovative illustration of the utility of BJJ for women:

  • the pyjamas we train in aren’t just for show or hygiene, they replicate clothing
  • self defence doesn’t have to be wildly violent or escalate a situation
  • ladies, you have the right to drink your drink in peace, but if he won’t lay off, BJJ can give you options

After enjoying the video, I scrolled through the YouTube comments. I know, why?! That way lies madness. While there are many comments that appreciate the symbolism of the film as well as women’s right not to be grabbed and goaded, there is a good amount of macho bluster that seems to ‘nay say’ and bark from a privileged masculine perspective while, to me, completely missing the bloody point. Two prominent themes:

  1. this technique is not ‘good’ self defence
  2. this woman had no right to choke out a guy who was ‘only talking’ to her

From an impressionistic analysis of the YouTube commentary the first point seemed to relate, in the main, to the idea that BJJ, as a martial art, is no good for self defence. I’m not going to dignify this with a response, as I suspect the majority of people with this view have never practiced BJJ.

The second point seemed echoed by BJJers and non-BJJers and included subthemes to describe the woman’s response as unwarranted because:

  • she was in a public place and should have simply asked for help
  • the guy was not a ‘real’ threat to her

I think these two ideas demonstrate a total lack of imagination. A lack of imagination that hinders: a) understanding the allegory of the film; and b) empathy for someone different from oneself.

To me, discussions of what would have ‘really’ happened in the situation depicted in the film are completely and utterly fruitless; totally moot. Let’s start with the fact that this is a film, not CCTV footage. It is a story, a representation, a symbol, you know, ‘art’. To my mind, one of the massive downers of self defence oriented training is the insistence on postulating what ‘will’ happen in any particular situation. Sure, one may have been in a particular situation and one recalls the events and outcomes in a certain way. That’s a useful experience to bring to the table, but an anecdote recalling something from one’s own experience is not necessarily relevant to anyone else’s experience and can, in fact, prevent one from understanding another’s response to similar scenarios. Let’s avoid delving into how our subjectivities colour our recollection of the past, too meaty a subject to treat here and better suited to my former life lecturing in oral history, and agree, for the moment, that while anecdotal evidence has value, its value is limited and cannot be reasonably extended to foretell events.

This brings us neatly to the idea that the woman in the film over-reacted to her aggressor; she had no right to defend herself as she wasn’t ‘really’ being threatened. Besides, she was in a public place and should have raised an alarm. These notions demonstrate, to me, a clear lack of empathy with the lived realities of women; women deal with the predation of men every day. From the little micro-aggressions that can dog a woman’s professional life, to day-to-day sexual assaults such as street harassment, to serious physical, mental and sexual violence as so adeptly presented in a recent Women’s Aid PSA featuring Keira Knightley (warning, a graphic depiction of violence):

While some may suggest many women’s sense of low-level threat throughout the day is wrong-headed. Dismissing women’s perceptions of their surroundings and interactions, ie the failure to appreciate another’s point of view, can be a consequence of immersion in one’s own privilege, in this case, ‘male privilege’. If this concept is new or unfamiliar to you, JiuJiu has a clear discussion of male privilege in relation to BJJ and John Scalzi’s Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is uses a very readable gaming analogy to explain male privilege. Let’s be clear, male privilege does not mean all men are ‘bad’ – of course not! However, it can mean that men can inhabit a ‘parallel universe’ in issues of gender and, by extension, that women’s experiences of male aggression are couched in a different context than men’s experiences of male aggression.

In terms of this film – again leaving aside that this is a symbolic representation of women, BJJ and self defence – it is not for anyone else to judge if a woman felt ‘really’ threatened by the actions of her aggressor. The justification for self defence in the UK is not what others understand of the situation, but rather what the individual felt at the time of the incident. If one can prove that one felt in danger, actions in proportion to the threat as perceived at the time are justified. We’d still need to convince a jury that this woman’s sense of threat was proportionate to her actions and jurors’ sense of privilege can, and does, minimise and dismiss women’s understanding of their interactions with others, partly as evidenced by low rape-conviction rates. So, while another woman or another man may not have felt threatened by the actions portrayed in the film, other women and men, may have found his actions extremely alarming. In cases where a woman is being man-handled and forcibly subjected to a man’s attentions, why is it reasonable that a woman either submit to aggression or put herself in a position of dependence on the (possible though not guaranteed) kindness of strangers? Why the rapidity to condemn the female victim? Looks like a case of male privilege to me. This sense of privilege and perhaps fear that one’s own behaviour could be ‘misinterpreted’ may be an influence on some individuals’ lack of empathy and lack of imagination; in the same imagined situation, would a man be likely to cry for help, or be expected to do so?

My reading of this film has very little to do with whether or not BJJ is effective in ‘real life’ self defence; whether or not the technical details of the tutorial are accurate; whether or not the woman in the situation represented here was justified in her response. Where I think this film has tremendous value is its presentation, in a very female-friendly way, of the practical usefulness of BJJ. This video takes a creative tack on the ‘tutorial’ while linking the abstract and ‘weird’ gi with real-world clothes as well as showing a non-violent response to aggression. For me, striking is a violent approach, prone to escalation, where as helping a drunken sexual predator have a nap, from within a ‘realistic’ posture is both pragmatic and non-violent. This can appeal to women both inside and outside of BJJ; no point just preaching to the converted! In the film, the gi is connected with actual clothing and its use in training subtly explained. The scenario in the film will be familiar to many – if not most – female viewers and shows a response from within a posture likely experienced by female viewers, that is having a larger person use their bulk to drape over, invade, and seek to dominate a woman’s body and personal space. This to me is a seriously effective way to communicate to women the power and beauty of BJJ.

Credits

You can connect with the director of ‘Why Women Should Train Jiu Jitsu’, Mark Ward of Garden State Productions, on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Shannon Meehan, the film’s heroine, can also be found on Twitter.

Shout out to reader, Hugo, for dropping the video in my inbox. Cheers!

Q1 London BJJ Women’s Open Mat: 2 February 2014 at Legends Gym

Ella Wu chokes a happy uke
Date: 2 February 2014
Time: 13:00-16:00
Location: Legends Gym
Address: Unit R, Renshaw Industrial Estate, Mill Mead, Staines TW18 4UQ
Cost: Free

We’re beginning our 5th year of the London BJJ Women’s Open Mat on Sunday 2 Feb 2014, the weekend following the European BJJ Championships. The Open Mat will be hosted by Ella Wu and the fine people at Legends Gym. We are pleased to invite women, aged 18 and over, to join our informal session of drilling and sparring.

No grappling experience is required and the Open Mat is a great opportunity for seasoned players to train with other women and for women new to BJJ to try out the art in a friendly environment. The Open Mat is free of charge.

Email Ella on ellawu101@gmail.com for more info.

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