I've always had mixed feelings about the idea of "martial arts being empowering for women". Maybe it's because I'm really small and most of the arts I train are ones where hard sparring is a part of the curriculum, but for all I do agree that "technique is a force multiplier", there comes a point where the laws of physics apply. There are plenty of day one new guys that could destroy me in a "fight" and I've got over 2,500 hours of time on the mats. Do I beat those guys when they're playing by "BJJ rules" and wearing a gi, sure. But if the rules go out the window and a big guy wants to hurt me they can. I don't find martial arts empowering. I find them to be a huge eye-opener as to how small and fragile I actually am.
Except for one thing.
Wearing a Gi is Pretty Liberating
I've been self employed for over a decade. Before then I worked in an industry that had a dress code of "well, we'd appreciate it if you'd at least wear pants". Before then, I was at college/uni and I was a metal head so I wore jeans/leather pants and dark t-shirts 90 percent of the time. I've never dressed smart and I only dress girly for other people's weddings.
Last week I had cause to dress up slightly. I still only wore "smart casual", but the girly pants I was wearing had a tighter cut than my jeans. The top I wore had cosmetic buttons on it that were sure to rip off if I carried anything bulky and heavy, and they were tight on my biceps (and I assure you, my biceps aren't massive). The bag I had to carry had thin straps and was nowhere near as big or comfortable as my usual backpack. The shoes felt flimsy and weren't good to run in.
I never wear makeup. It feels like dirt / oil on my skin (even the expensive stuff, I've tried). I hate having my hair long because it gets in the way so I get it cut at a barber's shop. Dressed smart, I felt like it was hard to run for the train, it was hard to carry anything heavy. I couldn't just 'climb over that wall as a shortcut', and when I got to the dojo and needed to demonstrate something for someone, I couldn't because I didn't have the same freedom of movement as I normally do dressed like a, well, bum.
I Like My Armour
One of the parents of the kids I teach saw me dressed 'smart' and they said "You look different without your armour on!". They were joking, but it's true - my rashguard and spats are like a suite of chainmail, and the gi is like plate on top. Since I train every day and I go to the dojo wearing the rashguard and spats, I feel like I'm always ready to do something physical.
If most women (or most men, for that matter, I've heard guys say 'I can't demonstrate a round kick in these smart trousers') wear the clothes I was wearing every single day, then no wonder the feel "empowered" when they stick a baggy gi on and start moving their body more freely.
Modern clothing sucks. To me, it's not that martial arts or other forms of exercise are 'empowering' - it's that the way we're forced to dress to work in the average office is incredibly disempowering.
I like to be able to run, climb, jump and carry things at a moment's notice. I like to wear layers so I'm never too hot or too cold. I feel good like that. I may not turn heads or win any fashion awards, but who cares? My confidence comes from what my body can do, not from whether my top is the right color to go with my shoes.
That's not to detract from people who like fashion. I certainly like how it looks - I just don't like how it feels to wear it, and it's given me a new perspective as to why some people like to train casually and say that it feels so good.