Tag Archives: respect

Fighting Misogyny (updated)

December 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Fighter” is a very connotative word. People hear it and think of large, brutish men knocking each other out for money. They think broken homes, difficult childhoods, and a last resort. Women are an afterthought, usually in the form of the devoted and completely dominated girlfriend or as the victims of domestic violence. The occasional person, when prompted, remembers Ronda Rousey’s infamous loss to Holly Holm—or how hot they both are. Typically, people respond so negatively to the idea of women in combat sports that I don’t even bring up the topic. Upon mentioning an upcoming fight or my training for the first time, the initial question people usually ask is not where do I train, or what’s my record; they ask what my boyfriend thinks of it. The readiness of this question, of the mindset that prioritizes the manner in which I relate to men as the most important part of my identity, is a big part of the reason I fight. The implication of that question answers the usual follow-up question of how I got into mixed martial arts.

I had my first cage fight in January of 2016, at 110 pounds. I invited only four people outside of my team to watch, three of them women. I defeated my opponent via unanimous decision, meaning the fight went the full three rounds but the judges agreed that I was dominant throughout. It felt like a victory for not only myself and my team, but for all the skinny little girls around the city who are constantly being told they are too small or cute to get into any sport rougher than tennis. Afterward, I felt a little better equipped to handle the frequent instances of random men deciding to follow me on a run or asking me to get into the car as they drove by. My only battle wounds were bruised knuckles and a small bump to the left of my eye that quickly faded into a minor, reddish bruise. I loved having the visible symbol of my victory on my face. In part, because combined with the right amount of “resting bitch face,” it seemed to deter creepy strangers from approaching me in coffee shops or while walking down the street.

To me, “fighter” means being relentless, indomitable, dedicated, nurturing, receptive, empathetic, soft spoken, and even-tempered.

But I wasn’t quite able to wear even my minor injuries, symbols of a well-earned victory and a major milestone in my life, with pride like the male fighters can. I remember my boyfriend coming out of his first fight, his only loss to date, with a badly broken nose and blood in his eye. Everyone’s first assumption was that he had been in a fight; I know because strangers approached him, excited to talk about how he had engaged in the most masculine of sports and emerged in reasonably good shape. Where he was met with excitement, I was handed cards with hotline phone numbers from sympathetic gas station employees who didn’t believe my story. For the week or so that my bruise was noticeable, any boy I happened to be walking around with that day was on the receiving end of accusatory glares, head-shaking, and lots of poorly muffled whispers. Outside of the martial arts community in the area, it was like my victory was something I should have hidden behind closed doors. Apparently, even after all those days of getting up at 5 a.m. to train and then spend hours at the gym, I still looked like an easy target. It wasn’t my first time being silenced about something I was proud of. Gradually, I realized that MMA will not change how most people see me, but it has changed how I see myself.

During the month leading up to my second fight—this one at 115 pounds—I still encountered the stereotypical ways that women are perceived in relationship to the word “fighter.” But impositions of societal norms were not my concern during that time. Four weeks out, being a fighter means nothing about gender roles; it means constantly eating. Specifically, it signifies the consumption of a constant stream of protein shakes, eggs that I am beginning to accept will never taste good no matter how many different ways I cook them, supplements, vegetables, and what feels like gallons of water. I have put on close to 10 pounds of muscle since my first fight, in order to be able to cut a few pounds of water to make 115 pounds before weighing in, and then rehydrating back to a heavier weight the night before the fight. Beyond my diet, being a fighter means balancing the commitments of a full-time student working toward a double major, an internship, and a job while doing everything I can to win in the cage.

As a junior in college, fighting means training at an offensively early hour so I can get all my studying done before morning classes, so I can get school and work knocked out before maybe having time to eat an actual dinner, all so I can focus on working out and night training. It means trying to get to bed around 10 p.m. so my body can recover and I can do it all again the next day with a little more weight added to every lift and a little more of a push to get my 3.57 GPA up to a 3.6. It means discipline, and making adjustments when I need to study. I love my routine right now. I love training and then letting whatever Jiu Jitsu or kickboxing techniques I learned simmer in the back of my mind while I study, then letting my brain process information about Renaissance Europe and sonnets while I lift. My interests in academia and in sports complement each other, and I have heard the same from other fighters—contrary to the myth that fighters tend to be uneducated.

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With all of these things considered, people wonder why I would choose to be a fighter. I grew up playing softball and soccer, and have no formal background in combat sports. I am attending college on full academic scholarships and do not fit the stereotype of a cage fighter. So why would I, at 19 years old, decide to add cage fighting to my resume alongside mission trips and semesters on the dean’s list? I guess I can see how on the surface the choice might seem a little incongruous, but to me mixed martial arts is the most natural thing in the world to pursue. The long answer as to why I fight is that I live in a world where I once didn’t get hired because I wasn’t “willing to consider leaving my boyfriend” (according to the man who was interviewing me). With such experiences in mind, I don’t get how becoming a fighter could be anything but a logical course of action. In a world where women are still considered annoying if they speak, people listen to me when they see MMA on my resume. The short answer is that I like it, just as I like soccer and softball. The sport fits my personality.

Random men still follow me and yell rude comments if I’m downtown at night. Realistically, I don’t think there’s much I will ever be able to do about that. Even as I’m writing this, there’s a boy I’ve never met at the table behind me yelling “hey” every time I stop typing, but no matter if they’re a heavyweight (205 pounds and up) or a third-degree black belt in taekwondo, almost everyone I have encountered in the MMA community has shown me nothing but respect. Yes, I train ground game and standup with men, but I have never had another fighter follow me to my place of work, stand outside the door, and yell for the girl in the dress. Even if I do look like an easy target, instances of disrespect I have experienced in this most “masculine” of sports are nothing compared to the disrespect I get from men on the street on a daily basis. I think there’s a lesson there, with regard to our society’s skewed perception of what it means to be masculine. The guys I fight with are not the same guys who are treating women like inferior beings on the street or in their relationships.

The fundamental message that fighters fight to convey is simple: “I will not be dominated.” To me “fighter” is not a word synonymous with troubled home life or hyper-masculinity or misogyny. To me it means being relentless, indomitable, dedicated, nurturing, receptive, empathetic, soft spoken, even-tempered—I think all of these words describe most fighters better than whatever people think of when trying to come up with reasons I shouldn’t be one. With all due respect to those trying to look out for me, I don’t see how it’s unsafe for me to be locked in a cage with another woman my size compared to how dangerous it is for me to walk down the street. Or to, in general, be a woman who physically exists and takes up space in the world. Silencing my interests won’t fix the real problem.

“Hey” boy just invited himself to have a seat at my table. He has started talking to me despite having been pointedly ignored for at least 10 minutes and the fact that I am obviously in the middle of something. I am not polite in response. I have no interest in being dominated by a culture that puts women in boxes and has taunts at the ready in case they try to fight back. I have no interest in being quiet about my sport in order to protect people from a discomfort that I’m guessing doesn’t compare to the discomfort of a 14 year old having her ass grabbed by a stranger. I don’t care if it’s “inappropriate” for me as a “young lady” to be excited to get into a cage and physically beat another girl. I’d rather autonomously lock myself in a cage than be folded neatly into a gender role. I don’t care what your perceptions are of what it means to be a fighter, or what you think it means to be a size 0 and 20 years old with blue eyes. As my coaches and training partners are constantly reminding me, I’m not here to apologize. I’m here to dominate.

“Fighting Misogyny” was originally published Friday, Oct. 14 online at omahamagazine.com.     

Postscript

At Ralston Arena (on Friday, Oct. 14), I lost my second career fight via TKO in the final 10 seconds of the final round. The following Saturday morning by 8:30 a.m., I was back in the gym and on my way to becoming a stronger fighter.

I am not happy about losing, but I am also not devastated by getting punched in the face. I’m not fighting for perfection. I’m not perfect, and an imperfect record does not end my ambition in the cage. Rather, I’m fighting for all the girls who have contacted me to give support or share their story of fighting misogyny in their lives. I’m fighting for everyone who has told me it empowers them to see me get in the cage at all.

I want to take this opportunity to thank my incredible coaches, Mauro Siso and Sergio Rangel, and everyone at Legacy Martial Arts for supporting me on this journey. With lessons learned from defeat, we are making changes in my training regimen for the next fight.

Visit facebook.com/pg/lmaomaha for more information.

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Just a Little Respect

January 16, 2015 by

I can’t believe this,” Troy says.

“Sorry, Troy,” Nate replies.

“Yeah, me too…f**,” Troy says, using a homophobic epithet as he walks away.

And that starts it all.

Nate’s voice is full of defeat, shoulders slumped, face downcast. Even with glasses, tattered baseball cap and a plaid shirt, Troy is menacing compared to a shorter Nate.

Put yourself there. What would you do next?

This is just one scenario RESPECT, an anti-bullying group here in Omaha, poses to teenagers. Using short theatrical productions, RESPECT hopes to educate youth on how to handle abusive relationships. Standing Up, by Nick Zadina, is just one example of 14 plays these professional actors perform for schools around Nebraska and Iowa.

Executive Director Patricia Newman founded RESPECT as a problem-solving and communication tool for children of all ages. Bullying won’t ever go away, she says, but it can be decreased by education.

Newman, a clinical child physiologist, is hoping students will stop unhealthy and violent patterns early before reaching adulthood. “Kids can self-identify and change their bullying habits,” Newman believes. “The more times you hear it, it clicks.”

Just this year, the Centers for Disease Control reported 19.6 percent of high school students have been bullied sometime during the school year. Newman recalls being picked on as a child because she was poor and from a divorced home. Luckily, she says teachers made the difference by making her feel special. “The power in the classroom is amazing,” Newman says. Millard West junior Cody Janke says Standing Up was realistic and “not your average corny play you see in school.”

Once the play finishes, the actors allow students a few moments to write down anonymous questions on notecards. Greg, one of the 10 professional actors for RESPECT, pauses before responding to one student’s question, “Have you ever been bullied?”

Greg (RESPECT actors asked that only their first names be used) mentions how someone at school had once left a death threat in his locker after he talked to the bully’s girlfriend.

“I was terrified and a freshman so had no idea what to do,” Greg recalls. He ended up reporting the incident to counselors who helped the bully with his anger and jealousy.

The class is quiet and not quick to volunteer, so the RESPECT actors change things up by role-playing. One of the actors plays the part of the bully as he knocks books out of another actor’s hands.

“Okay, okay, so what would you do?” he asks the class.

One brave student, freshman Dan Catania, volunteers to role-play as the bystander. His shaggy brown hair covers his face as he picks up the books scattered on the floor.

“Dude, why did you do that?” Dan asks the actor. “Now, say you’re sorry.”

With an infectious grin, he apologizes and tells Dan “good job.”

With 251 programs each year and around 40,000 students, Newman hopes stepping into the action will teach kids from preschool to college to empower themselves and come up with their own solutions to make their lives safer.

After the RESPECT team leaves, most of the students agree bullying occurs mainly in middle school. Janke, a high school football running back, believes many teenagers outgrow these negative tendencies. Tall and muscular with a bit of a five o’clock shadow, he admits to being the bully once in middle school, although feels some of it was provoked. Now that he is older and more mature, he says he feels it isn’t worth it to put other people down.

Many students also say girls tend to be worse in middle school than boys. One of the freshman female students says boys are more willing to talk it out, while girls do everything on social media or behind someone’s back. Although statistics show boys are 1.7 times more likely than girls to bully, girls show a higher trend of victimizing others through rumors. “They (girls) are vicious,” she says with a laugh. “Guys are just like, ‘Bro, what are you doing?”

Newman agrees bullying today is deadlier because of the intensity and how quickly it happens on social media. She hopes RESPECT will give students one more tool to transform something negative into a positive.

Newman shares a touching letter she received from one boy:

“Thank you. You may have saved my life.”

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Strike Zone and MVP4Life

March 14, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Learning life skills through baseball.” This is the tagline for MVP4Life, a new nonprofit organization aimed at keeping Omaha’s youth in school and helping them succeed in life. MVP4Life has joined forces with Strike Zone Omaha to form school programs, camps and clinics, coaches’ clinics, and the Upper Deck League.

The goal of MVP4Life is to instill a sense of work ethic and teach kids about the importance of contributing to the community. It’s not just about baseball. It’s about producing a rewarding program that encourages kids to work together.

Joe Siwa and Teri Cissell, partners at Strike Zone Omaha, realized the need for after-school programs in the community. It was Cissell who thought up the idea behind MVP4Life. As the nonprofit’s director, she has been working hard on the program for about a year and a half and says it’s almost ready to launch. “We have it where we want it to be and now want to hit the ground running,” Cissell says.

Over eight weeks, the school program will teach life skills to fifth through eighth graders. The goal is for students to graduate from MVP4Life with a set of essential life skills. “This is a full-circle program,” Siwa says. “Everything is connected with helping these kids become more productive citizens in life. We are giving them that foundation to live upon.”

“We’ve put a lot of thought into this and have really built a strong program,” says Cissell. Cissell and Siwa have created a complete curriculum based on the HOMERUNS life skills: Handle diversity, Overcome challenges, Make good decisions, Encouragement and leadership, Responsibility and respect, Understand and accept situations, Nurture self-esteem and confidence, and Stay focused on personal goals.

“Research shows that if kids are kept in organized school activities, they do much better in school and in life,” Cissell says. “Douglas County Sheriff’s department did research that determined if we could keep just 10 percent of male students from dropping out of high school, we could save Nebraska taxpayers $65 million per year.”

The nonprofit also includes the Upper Deck League, a competitive league for college players in their offseason. These players mentor youth on how to be successful college athletes, as well as attend a leadership conference in exchange for playing in the Upper Deck League. Siwa stresses the importance of giving back to the community and hopes that these 120 college baseball players are passing on a strong work ethic to the kids.

“Our job is to get these kids involved and teach them how to listen to instruction, take criticism, and gain a work ethic. We want to put a desire into these kids…great things happen when you work hard,” Siwa says.

The program will begin in the Omaha Public Schools and filter out to the rest of
the community.

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Fathers and Daughters

July 22, 2013 by

Men hold incredible power over the future their daughters will experience. Sometimes, I have to wonder how many fathers realize that. And how many grieve for realizing it too late?

I’m not just talking about financial security or educational opportunities. The way a father treats his daughter molds her as a person, and especially how she sees herself as a woman. It’s a unique relationship, unlike that between mothers and sons, dads and sons, and mothers and daughters. How fathers choose to manage their relationships with their daughters has a lifelong impact that can be devastating if it doesn’t go well.

“A little girl first learns how to relate to men though her father,” says Pegg Siemek-Asche, statewide administrator for behavioral health at Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska. “If that goes badly, it sets a stage for difficulty as the young woman ages.” If a father never pays attention to his daughter, never spends time being playful, or never expresses his approval of her—her looks, her actions, her behavior—it can create a vacuum of positive self-esteem that the young woman will eventually seek to fill in other ways, most likely negative ones.

Through their actions (or inactions), a father teaches his daughter how she should expect to be treated by men, both good and bad. Young women blessed with warm, loving, and encouraging relationships with their fathers will seek the same in their partners.

Conversely, those who do not have that kind of support will struggle and likely seek to find that approval in unhealthy ways. Young women who report negative relationships with their father say they often have trouble dating, flirting, or even forming true romantic relationships. They simply never learned how. It’s not unusual for these girls to become promiscuous in their frustrating search for masculine approval.

This explains why so many smart women end up in unhealthy and even abusive relationships. It’s what they are used to and comfortable with. They instinctively choose partners who treat them as their father did—and believe they deserve no better. So what, specifically, can a father do to help his daughter towards a healthy adulthood?

“Girls need to hear they are attractive, capable, and smart—from their father,” says Siemek-Asche. “Girls are hyper-sensitive about their appearance and abilities, and they want Dad’s approval.” One misplaced or misspoken comment about her weight or looks can be heartbreaking, and a thoughtful dad will realize he should tread carefully. This sets the stage for positive self-image that will benefit her for a lifetime.

One-on-one time is very important. “You are teaching her how others, especially men, should talk with her, how she should expect to be treated,” says Siemek-Asche. This starts young but becomes even more important as she approaches pre-teen and teen years. Around age 10, especially, girls are incredibly vulnerable and insecure. “That’s when you start seeing a lot of the ‘mean girl syndrome,’ as girls start taking their insecurities out on each other. Dad can really make a difference by being supportive and engaged with his daughter.”

And finally, the relationship between mom and daughter can become very strained during the early and mid-teens, as the young woman seeks her own path away from her mother. It can be hard for both of them, but the father can be a tremendous help in creating a bridge between the two as they get through those trying years. Even if the parents are no longer together, it remains important for the father to treat his daughter’s mother with integrity and respect. Little girls pick up messages from that relationship as well.

And perhaps the most important message of all for dads? Be there for your daughter. Make the effort to be present at every age. She’ll notice. And finally, your daughter will never be too old for a hug and to hear that you love her. Tell her.