Myth Busters: Women and Upper-Body Strength

28 01 2008

This entry is a follow-up/sister post to the one I guest-wrote on The Capoeira Blog, “6 Keys to Building Upper-Body Strength“.

So, I have a confession to make.  Originally, the guest post I wrote for Faisca wasn’t supposed to be a general guide to building upper-body strength.  Originally, it was going to be something with a title like “Upper-Body Strength-Building for Women”.  It was my idea, but it wasn’t until I actually started working on the post that I realized something like that would actually go against everything I’ve/this blog has been standing for!  Mandingueira is not for women; it is about women, and for everyone. 

The reason I changed my mind is because to write an article about “strength-building for women” would imply that it is separate from the same for men; yet a strong woman would need the same level of advice as a strong man, regardless of her gender.  By the end of my first draft, however, I realized that my post read more like a beginner’s guide to strength-building—but all my information had come from purported “women’s guides” to strength-building!  Is anyone else seeing a pattern here

Abada capoeirista shows how it's done!There was one thing in particular that nearly every article I came across had in common:

“Women generally have far less upper-body strength than men.”
“Typically women do not have strong upper bodies.”
“These statistics merely illustrate what everyone knows, that women naturally develop less strength than men.”
“In terms of inherent upper body strength, we really are the weaker sex.”
“Most women have trouble performing a standard push-up.”  (And adding insult to injury: “To perform a modified push up, simply push up from your knees.  Most women can perform a push-up in this position.”  Really, now??  Some of us actually CAN do knee push-ups?!?  That’s AMAZING!!)

Wow, I feel weaker already.  Kind of ironic, considering all these articles purported to help you build your strength, not doubt it!

The age-old myth of women having less muscular strength than men do is just that—a myth.  This excerpt from Shameless Magazine puts it best:

Many people believe that all men, as some sort of single unit, are stronger than women. And reason says that simply isn’t true. Men’s strength is just as variable as women’s. Men, on average, are bigger than women, with a higher lean body mass-to-fat ratio. But women generate the same force per unit of muscle as men. That is, muscle pound to muscle pound, women and men are similar in strength. A strong woman is strong, full stop. (emphasis mine)

This observation was confirmed by a study from the US National Strength and Conditioning Foundation, which adds that although women and men have the same muscle strength, the reason many men appear stronger on the surface is because they have more muscle mass from being bigger (as opposed to muscle strength), have a higher lean body mass-to-fat ratio, and have different fat distribution in the body than women do.

Wait a minute (I can hear someone say), aren’t we just picking nits now?  What does it matter if technically women’s muscles produce the same amount of power, if due to the other factors mentioned above, a woman’s body altogether still produces less power, on average, than a man’s body altogether?  And if this is true, what’s wrong with saying so?

First, this distinction is important to make because it’s actually a pretty big one, with implications and consequences depending on whether one makes it or not.  Stating without qualification that women have less strength than men, period, is inaccurate and suggests that this is an inherent trait in women, something that can’t be changed.  As mentioned though, women’s muscles have the exact same strength as men do, and it is in fat distribution and lean body mass where they differ—factors which are variable and can be changed through training or exercise. 

Moreover, even though muscle mass is cited as a contributing factor of men’s strength, the same studies have shown that women build strength the same way men do yet without building as much muscle mass—which is interesting, because if both men and women build strength equally, but only men’s muscles build much mass to go with it, to me that suggests that in the end, women’s muscles would actually have more power per inch/pound than men’s, to do the calculations!  And as Shameless said, if a strong woman were matched with a man with less muscle (or lesser built muscles), more fat, and less lean body mass, she would in that case definitely not be “the weaker sex”.

Second, making this distinction is important because it affects how people approach this and related topics, and this ties in to the last question above.  There is nothing wrong with explaining why many women have less net strength output than many men.  After all, a fact is a fact, right?  The problem arises when people start making unqualified statements like the ones at the beginning of this post, and making them frequently and thoughtlessly.  Although clearly I was kidding when I said “I feel weaker already”, can you imagine what the effects of reading or hearing statements like that over and over again would be on someone’s mindset, whether consciously or subconsciously? 

If you imagined the logical, you’re right: other studies have shown that women significantly underestimate their own strength, compared to men.  Because we’re told we’re weaker, we think we have even less strength than we have to begin with.  This affects everything from whether or not a woman will reach her full potential while weight training, to whether or not she’ll choose to fight off a man who attacks her in the street, or just “let it happen” because to fight back would make it worse (according to another disastrous, popular myth). 

It’s all woven into one more narrative about what women are or aren’t or should be or shouldn’t be, whether it’s a young Mestra Edna’s relatives telling her “martial arts aren’t for girls”, or today’s average female capoeira student only able to find articles reiterating how weak she is compared to all the male capoeira students in her class—which may be true, but also just as well may not, and who’s the article’s author to say?  So mulhers é meninas, remember this the next time you aim for that macaco/s-dobrado/bananeira/cool upper-body strength-requiring move!

Picture source: http://www.worldartswest.org/Assets/Performers/AbadaAndyMogg.jpg

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Can Capoeira Change the World? Part 2

6 01 2008

Grupo Nzinga Capoeira AngolaIt has been all along, right under our noses—just not our regional ones!

From FICA Archives: Celebrating 25 Years of M. Paulinha:

M Paulinha writes about the growth of Capoeira Angola as an ever-widening vehicle for marginalized social expressions following efforts by the Brazilian state to turn capoeira into a “national sport”. She traces Capoeira Angola’s growth as part of the black movement, as a growing space for women (in large part due to the work of Paulinha and Janja themselves), and most recently, as a zone of international and cultural understanding. Here is a bit:

In the beginning of the 1980s, the creation of the Grupo de Capoeira Angola Pelourinho (GCAP) in Rio de Janeiro and later in Bahia marked a significant change in the situation. Founded by Mestre Pedro Moraes Trinidade (Mestre Moraes), GCAP implemented a series of actions promoting the re-valorization of Capoeira Angola and the recognition of the importance of old and famous mestres, such as Mestre Pastinha himself. With an ideology that affirmed capoeira’s African roots and denounced the injustices suffered by so many capoeiristas and Afro-descendents, this group was the precursor of a movement that became wide and diverse.

Through the realization of events in homage to Mestre Pastinha, GCAP managed to reunite old practitioners of Capoeira Angola and attract new admirers and people interested in learning the traditional game. The format of these events was innovative because it created bridges between the practitioners of Capoeira Angola and other segments of society such as: religious leaders, especially those linked to the Candomblés of Angola; anti-racist organizations of the “black movement”; organizations involved with other forms of black culture; intellectuals and scholars; and governmental organizations, especially in the cultural area. In some years, these events gained larger proportions, assuming a national and international character, and began to be held by other nascent groups of Capoeira Angola, mainly during the 1990s. Such events were established as an important part of a regular calendar activities that helped to construct the new community of “angoleiros”.

One important aspect of the ideology and actions implemented by the Capoeira Angola groups created in this period involves the denunciation of racism in Brazil. The events promoted in memory of Mestre Pastinha, carried out on the date of his death (November 13th), soon became part of the agenda of commemorations and reflections of the National Day of Black Consciousness (November 20th). More than a coincidence of dates, this approximation reveals a process of growing politicization in the universe of Capoeira Angola, synchronized with the general trend in the black cultural scene in Bahia…

… This community became very heterogeneous – including people of various ethnic and racial origins, social classes, nationalities, genders, ages, and sexual orientations- and this has been the backdrop for the construction of the angoleiro’s identity. Therefore, affirming oneself as an “angoleiro(a)” today implies dealing with diversity, rejecting any ideal of purity and homogeneity.

I think I joined the wrong style…!  (Kidding, but it’s food for thought.)

Follow-up to come—eventually.  I was doing research for a write-up on Mestra Paulinha and couldn’t just sit on this!

Click here to read “Can Capoeira Change the World?” (Part 1)





True Mandingueiras: Warrior Women in Capoeira and Brazil

19 12 2007

Chronicles of Capoeira 

I was lucky enough to find an online capoeira newsletter last week, with a headlining feature on famous and formidable women in the history of capoeira and Brazil!  Instead of reinventing the wheel, I will direct you to the article here, and wish you a good read (which it is)!





Playing Women in the Roda

9 12 2007

Never underestimate your opponent in the roda, no matter who she is. 

I came across something written by a capoeirista the other day that pretty much infuriated me.  However, I did promise in my very first post that there would be no ranting, so I will restrain myself! 

(Actually, what I would most like to do is copy and paste what I read here and then carefully, logically, thoroughly deconstruct it line by line for all of you.  However, doing things like that sometimes has repercussions, here in cyberspace.  As a result, we’ll all have to settle for a general post on the same topic, but with a slightly different [read: enlightened =P] point of view.)


When playing women in the roda, do not hold back.
  It irritates me even to be writing this post, as you’d think playing women in the roda (technique-wise, not dynamics-wise) is no different from playing men in the roda; basically, this should be a completely pointless post, with a pointless title, except for the fact that there are people out there who sadly believe otherwise!

Their argument goes like this: Women are naturally physically weaker than men (how true this statement is and its implications, etc., we’ll leave for now).  Thus, men–and let’s say stronger women–should play “down to their level” to level the field, or to protect the woman from accidentally getting hurt in the roda.  Let’s call this the Chauvinist Theory.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the basic intentions behind this way of thinking.  The exact same idea is legitimately applied to beginners: play more slowly and carefully against them because they don’t know quite what they’re doing yet or aren’t strong/quick/good enough yet and might get hurt.  That’s for beginners, people who presumably have little to no capoeira skills yet, and so that makes sense.  It’s relatively safe to assume that you need to go easy on beginners in the roda, because as beginners, they are less skilled by definition.  However, the Chauvinist Theory incorrectly links just strength directly to one’s joga ablity, then assumes that as women, we are less skilled by definition.  Which is interesting, because since there are countless female capoeiristas at levels higher than beginner, do these people think that their mestres have one corda graduation standard for women and another, harder graduation standard for men? 

I’m reminded of a line in the Antigone Magazine blog post to which I directed all of you in my “Why Write About Female Mestres?  The Feminist Catch-22” post.  According to the Antigone post, which was on misogyny in anti-Hillary Clinton facebook groups, “If you dislike a male politician, then there is something wrong with that particular politician. If you dislike a female politician then you often find something lacking in the entire female sex.”  People who buy into the Chauvinist Theory seem to suffer from the same mental lapse: if you accidentally hit a man in the roda, it’s because he wasn’t paying attention or wasn’t quick enough or just basically needs to improve his capoeira skills; if you accidentally hit a woman in the roda, however, it’s because she’s a woman and therefore you should go easy on every woman you play from now on. 

I can hear the bulls bellowing…I think they want their crap back.

What people should do–and this is supposed to be common sense–is assess each opponent individually.  (I’m honestly cringing at this paragraph already; it seems like such a given!)  Maybe she’s a woman who definitely is not athletically gifted, so in this case yes, give her a chance to do something while playing.  And maybe she’s a natural at capoeira, better than you are, and she’s really adjusting her game down to your level.  The point is, you don’t judge someone’s capoeira ability based purely on their gender.  There is absolutely no logic in that–none, whatsoever!  By playing down to all women, you are not only holding yourself back from a chance to improve and from what might’ve become a really good game, you are deliberately stunting the progress of the person you are playing.  This is even worse if you are supposed to be the person’s teacher; your role is to challenge and improve your student’s game, not pander to what you think is their beginner’s comfort zone (if they haven’t progressed beyond it already)!

I know/hope that this post was entirely unecessary for most of you, but I felt it still needed to be put out there.  (Plus, it was either that or physically hunt down the guy and drag him into a few games with some of the girls from my academy, and I don’t have the time for that right now.)

p.s. This entry’s picture was done by a friend of mine!  Isn’t it awesome? :D

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Why Write about Female Mestres? The Feminist Catch-22

5 12 2007

Catch-22 (noun): a no-win situation

If you read the “Update” section on Mestra Edna‘s profile (previously the first half of this post, but I moved those paragraphs for clarity’s sake), they lead up to the main dilemma I encountered while writing about her: Why?  That is, why should Edna Lima be singled out and featured, among all the other mestres comparable to her and who might have accomplished just as much or more?  According to my own blog, it’s because she’s not just a mestre, but a female mestre.  But isn’t writing about her just because she’s a woman just as tunnel-visioned as ignoring her just because she’s a woman?  Aside from the slightly more justified qualification that Edna Lima is not only a mestra, but the world’s first (a reason that won’t apply to the other mestras and mestrandas I intend to write about), I think my response to that would be yes, to a certain extent, but it’s tricky because right now, the world seems to be stuck precariously in a stage between stasis and regression, feminism-wise. 

We are not so advanced that women are free from discrimination and harassment in business and the workplace, in politics and the government, in entertainment, in the media, in advertising, and in many cases everyday life; yet, we have progressed just enough since the days of the suffragettes for many people to believe that more talk of women’s equality is completely superfluous.  That’s the catch-22: if women really were equal, we wouldn’t have to keep stressing “a woman did this!  a woman did that!”  The actual stressing itself emphasizes the divide.  Yet if we don’t say anything, the divide still remains, and becomes ever more entrenched.  People know, for instance, that women can be CEO’s, doctors, and engineers—but they don’t know that on average, they’d have much lower salaries than male counterparts doing the exact same job, with the same qualifications and experience.  (Apparently, the same goes for short people and tall people, which absolutely sucks because I’m female and short.)  Then there was an article I read about how even though women can run for government, it’s much harder to and they are asked less to than men are, so the overall atmosphere itself still provides an obstacle to a level playing field.  Finally, look up anti-Hillary Clinton groups on facebook, then read this from Antigone Magazine.

Returning to Mestra Edna and the all the rest, I’m not saying that there’s some sort of hidden sexism in capoeira, and I’m happy to say I’ve never encountered anything even near it myself during the whole time I’ve been doing capoeira (although I’ve heard it said, for example, that a teacher would have long been graduated up a level by now if she were a guy).  On the other hand, one can’t really deny the nature of Brazilian culture that of course pervades capoeira, and when Mestra Edna mentioned in an interview that “music is one area in which women…still take part significantly less than men”, it did occur to me that I’ve only ever seen one woman play in or even practice for my group’s performance band, and I haven’t seen that many women play the berimbau during “official” (as opposed to just in-class, for-practice) rodas, either.  Granted, it’s fair enough to say that’s only due to lack of personal initiative on their parts and nothing else, but looking at the big picture, it might still be something worth noting. 

So I guess the conclusion I’ve drawn, then, is that while at times it might seem like making mountains of molehills, or purposely trying to draw things out of thin air, the overall state of things still seems to require that attention be brought to certain issues, lest people settle into casual apathy and slip obliviously into the state of regression mentioned above.  It shouldn’t be that capoeira mestres are spotlighted specifically for their gender, but until society collectively achieves a mentality where gender truly doesn’t matter (aside from the obvious, e.g. repopulating the human species–which itself might be a dubious goal to a lot of people), this seems like the best we can do.





Ie Viva Meu Mestra, Camara

1 12 2007

Remember that pop quiz in this blog’s introduction post?  Never be caught unwares again, after we’re through with Ie viva meu Mestra, Mandingueira‘s very first post series!  Focusing on the lives and accomplishments of female mestres, or mestras, around the world, this series seeks to redress the balance of prominent figures offered to capoeira students as hero(in)es to revere or look up to.  From Mestra Suelly, the first and possibly only (please correct me if I’m wrong) North American mestra, to Mestra Edna Lima, the first mestra ever, these women should have wider recognition for what they have done, as inspirations to women and meninas everywhere who do capoeira today.  Please come back soon to read our first profile and biography, on Mestra Edna Lima!

Update: Just so there’s no confusion, mestranda and contra-mestra are terms used for the same rank in different grupos, indicating the level right below mestra. 

Ie Viva Meu Mestra: Archives

Why Write about Female Mestres? The Feminist Catch-22

Part 1: Mestra Edna Lima
Part 2: Mestra Suelly
Part 3: Mestranda Marcia/Cigarra
Part 4: Contra-Mestra Marisa Cordeiro
Part 5: Mestra Janja
Part 6: Mestra Paulinha
Part 7: Contra-Mestra Susy
Part 8: Mestra Jararaca

Part 9: Contra-Mestra Cristina 

Videos:

Mestra Edna Lima, Mestra Suelly, and Mestranda Marcia
Mestra Marcia/Cigarra
Mestra Janja and Grupo Nzinga
Mestra Paulinha
Contra-Mestra Susy (Grupo Vadiacão, Capoeira Angola)
Mestra Jararaca








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