Changing what it means to be a woman (by hitting the crap out of things)
The day before my trip to Austin for the I Am Power Retreat, I went for a walk. I had just finished my last day at my old job and needed to ground and reflect. During my walk (which was less than an hour), four men cat called me, which unfortunately feels normal.
But one man made me feel particularly uncomfortable, as he didn’t stop at a simple one-liner. Instead, he continued to follow me in his car, trying to talk to me as he matched my walking pace. “Hey sexy. I like your tattoo. Let’s talk. Come on, I just want to talk to you."
My reaction was what it always is in these types of scenarios: I froze. I ignored. I didn’t react except that my head dropped down and my shoulders shot up to my ears. My palms were cold and sweating, my heart was racing and I kept walking. Just keep walking until he leaves. Please just leave me alone. Pleease. This will be over soon.
Thankfully, he left after spotting a construction worker in front of us. I felt relieved, and angry that anyone would think this behavior is OK, but I brushed it off and moved on.
I’ll come back to the story about this asshole.
When I learned that the I Am Power Retreat involved Krav Maga and self-defense training, my breath quickened and my body tightened. I decided to be open to the experience, but quite frankly I expected to hate it.
The closest thing I’ve done to this type of training is boxing, where I didn’t receive great instruction on how to punch and was told more than once to “stop hitting like a girl.” I didn’t love it.
The first day of the retreat, we were asked to write our old mantra about ourselves — something we’ve always believed to be true. It didn’t take me long to write mine:
I am weak.
When that boxing instructor told me I hit like a girl, I was offended by the sexist remark but I agreed with the sentiment: I am weak. I mean physically weak.
Why do I believe this about myself?
I believe it because as women, we are taught to be polite and accommodating. We are the peacekeepers. We don’t fight. We don’t hit. We please others.
I believe it because when boys were encouraged to play football, we were encouraged to sing and dance — to entertain.
I believe it because “hit like a girl” is an insult.
I believe it because when I said “No,” I was forced to comply with his “Yes.” And as I learned last week, this is a story shared by what I now believe is nearly every woman.
But my story is written by me, not by historical norms. I can change what it means to me to be a woman. And I want to.
I don’t want to comply. I don’t want to cower when a man makes me feel uncomfortable on the street. I don’t want to shrink when a man spreads his legs and arms into half of my space on the airplane (which happened on the plane to Austin). I don’t want to say “I’m sorry” when I’m really not. I want to take up space with command.
So let's get to the hitting things part.
When I took my first hit on the pad, it was with the same soft timidness I’m accustomed to. The next one was harder, as was the next. But I still hesitated. I was so unsure of it and felt self conscious. I can’t hit. This isn’t for me.
Then Jarrett walked by and said the words I needed — the opposite of what I was saying to myself. “YES, Cara. Great job."
Who me? I’m doing a great job? Really?
My partner was thrown off by my next hit and forced back from the blow. “Whoa, you hit hard.” I do? Really?
That encouragement was the key that opened the gate to the power I’ve kept locked up inside. I unleashed. I hit unapologetically with full force. And it felt fucking amazing.
It felt strong. It felt raw. It felt real. It felt like I was giving a middle finger to every man who has ever taken space from me.
It was incredible. And it was also incredible to watch the transformation of the other women.
(Love this photo of Jen choking me. Never thought I'd write that!)
I heard stories through personal conversations of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence and other forms of abuse that probably make you squirm to read, as they should, but I believe more than ever should be spoken about so they can be stopped. The stories I didn’t hear I understood from body language and eyes that had clearly endured a lot. The details of our stories were different but we had one larger shared story: We were made to feel weak because we are women.
The last day was … well, one of the most special things I’ve ever experienced. During the final exercise, we faced an “attacker” in a protective body suit. I’m not even sure how to describe the event. Power is the best word I can use, and not just because of the name of the retreat.
It was a ceremonious reclaiming of power.
*Trigger warning: The self-defense video below contains violence
We weren’t polite. We didn’t aim to please anyone but ourselves. We faced trauma and oppression and sense of powerlessness and kicked the shit out of it. We cried with blissful anger and the energy in the room radiated with beautiful power and healing rage. I have goosebumps writing this as I recall the moment.
I am ready to change my story of what it means to be a woman. I am ready to take up space. I’m ready to see fear as a helpful tool rather than weakness. I am ready to be unapologetically me, not backing down because it’s polite or expected. I am ready to face that asshole in his car and tell him with command not to talk to me like that. It’s not OK. And it's OK for me to tell him that.
It won't happen overnight and like all things, it will take practice. But I know it will happen because I want it fiercely. It's already happening.