One unexpected thing I’ve come to appreciate in my years of practising combat sports (Brazilian jiu jitsu, Muay Thai, and other similar grappling / striking arts) is the body positivity.
In combat sports / martial arts, there’s far less of a focus on being “shredded” or “ripped” than in other sports like weightlifting, Crossfit, or regular gyms, especially the “bootcamp” style things like F45 or Barry’s. In fact, almost nobody talks about body shape.
Yes, your weight matters, but only for one thing: The class in which you compete. Usually, people talk about weight in one of two ways. Either they’re trying to put on weight as part of getting stronger, or they’re trying to cut weight to get to a lower class while maintaining strength.
But almost nobody talks about things like how fat someone is, whether someone is hairy, or even if someone is sweaty (maybe if it’s excessively so, and if you know them well). People will rarely even talk about smell, unless it’s an obvious hygiene issue.
Another post you might like: Lessons I learned from “You Can’t Screw This Up” by Adam Bornstein, an approach to diet and health that’s based in common sense and science, and which is designed to be difficult to fail.
The Fixation of Other Gyms on “Looking Good Naked”
Before finding Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and Muay Thai, I was really into CrossFit. It had a transformative effect on me. I really enjoyed the community, the way I changed my perception of myself (from a “guy trying to get fit” to an “athlete”), and the way I became noticeably stronger and more agile.
In my years in CrossFit (on and off for around seven years, eventually morphing into my own strength and conditioning program), I became very strong and very fit. I got to a 1000 lb total (barely), and could do all the various moves of importance, like strict muscle ups, double unders until I got tired, and so on.
But I was always frustrated by the focus on body image at CrossFit. In theory, CrossFit is very body positive. It’s supposed to be about performance. My best coaches told me that they try to build “better humans”, which doesn’t mean humans with huge arms or low body fat percentages.
Reality is different, though. Guys who can swing it like to work out with no shirt on. Instagram pics are often shirtless. Men and women wear the latest athletic gear that flaunts every curve and muscle. Some gyms even have things on the wall like “LGN” as an aspiration.
Combat Sports and Positivity: It’s What You Do
This is where martial arts and combat sports are different. People care much less what you look like, what you weigh, or what your gear looks like.
Instead, people in combat sports focus on other things that are more important to combat sports, and sports generally:
- Are you respectful, kind, and friendly?
- Do you show up to training often?
- Do you try to improve?
- Do you have a positive attitude?
- Are you aggressive without being violent?
- Are you competitive without being egotistical?
All these things are more important than what you look like. So combat sports — if accidentally — actually promoted body positivity (or body indifference, at least).
What I really enjoy is that all of those things (trying to improve, being respectful) are inner qualities. What I like even more is that you can perceive them very quickly, non-verbally, during sparring or rolling.
When I roll with someone in Jiu Jitsu (rolling is the term used for sparring in a wrestling sense, trying to pin them and apply a hold), I’m instantly extremely intimate with someone. It might be someone I don’t know at all — I don’t know their name and maybe I’ve not even seen them around.
But within minutes or seconds we’re in each other’s intimate embrace, trying to hold the other down, threatening harm (through a joint lock or a stranglehold) but without ever harming them.
When I’m that close with someone else, I’m saying a lot of things non-verbally. I’m saying: I trust you to not hurt me. I trust you to be accepting of me, and to not pay attention to things like fat on my body, sweat on my clothes, or even odour that’s a natural result of training (and not a hygiene issue).
I’m also saying: I want you to know that you can trust me, too. I accept you in whatever shape you come in. The most important thing is that you try not to hurt me and that you treat me with respect.
One benefit of non-judgmentalism in combat sports, by the way, is that it helps us get out of our own heads and into a flow state, in which we’re focusing on the task, not on some unrelated thing like what we look like.
In Muay Thai or boxing, it’s similar. I can tell within seconds whether someone is doing a technique-focused sparring round, rather than being overly aggressive and trying to hit me in the head. It’s not quite as physically intimate, but it still involves a lot of trust. I’ve quickly lost trust in sparring partners or trainers who don’t hold back, despite the fact that they clearly outclassed me, and never trained with them again.
Shower and locker room culture also helps. In martial arts, it’s healthy and hygienic to shower afterwards at the gym. Sometimes, the showers are communal. It’s super uncool to talk about bodies in such an environment. And people can be very chatty!
Finally, my experience is as a man. But there are women who have had similar experiences of evolving in body image from practising combat sports / jiu jitsu — e.g. this post on the blog for the Toronto No-Gi gym.
The relationship between combat sports and body positivity is a little accidental. People aren’t trying to practise body positivity; they’re just prioritising other things.
And combat sports aren’t perfect. There’s a natural relationship between doing the sports and your body’s shape.
If you do a lot of BJJ or Muay Thai, you’ll likely lose weight, and the shape of your body will change. You’ll notice, and it would be natural to associate that with “progress”.
And a consequence of weight cutting for competition is that practitioners are often “shredded”. So it becomes, on some level, something to aspire to.
Finally, people who are “small” in combat sports are constantly reminded of the fact. No matter how good you are, more weight (assuming no weight divisions in competition) helps!
And as I mentioned, people do talk about weight and diet, usually as part of a focus on changing competitor class. So this can lead to some unhealthy habits around exercise and diet.
At least at the amateur / non-competitor levels, I can escape all that. But in general, I do really think that combat sports prioritise performance and attitude far above what your body looks like.