Introducing one of my oldest martial arts friend – Master Liza Jost. She introduced me to this fabulous community of martial arts. She was a black belt at the time and I was but a new white belt. I thank her wholeheartedly for everything she’s done for me in the martial arts world, and of course, for being the first woman to interview for the Portrait Femme Fatale series.
1. Tell us a little about yourself
My name is Liza, I am 26 years old and I am currently finishing my Masters Degree in Berlin, Germany. I have been a Tae Kwon Do practitioner since I was 8 years old and have the privilege to carry the rank of 4th Dan black belt in ITF Tae Kwon Do.
2. What do you think makes a strong woman?
The question should not be what makes a strong woman. The question should be, what makes a strong person. For the answer is the same for all people. Strength is not a lack of weakness, it is accomplishing your goals despite your fears. It is determination, hard work, and knowing when to ask for help.
3. Society tends to make women out to be weak, to be the victims. “Hit like a girl”, “Run like a girl”, “Fight like a girl”. How do you think martial arts has helped you defy society’s picture of a woman?
I think that we are lucky enough to live in a time where society’s views of women have begun to progress away from these stereotypes. There are more and more strong female role models in media and sports, especially in martial arts representations, like through MMA. That said, there is still work to be done and while I could generally care less what society says about me, I do care what they think about women. The best part about being a woman is the bond women have with each other. The more we stand together and build each other up, the greater a force to be reckoned with we will be. Personally, while it may not immediately be obvious to people I meet that I am a martial artist (being a 5’1” blonde throws off the scent), I was recently reminded by a friend that I always carry my martial arts experience within me, wherever I go. I do not see myself as a inferior, lesser, or as a victim of a disadvantageous social hierarchy. I am a leader, an explorer, a teacher. Plus, anyone who thinks I hit like a girl is welcome to strap up and join me in the ring. I want all women to feel the same way.
4. If you could offer advice to the young females of the world, particularly those who are in martial arts or who might need martial arts, what message would you give them?
Martial arts have helped me in more ways than I can count. Becoming a martial artist isn’t just becoming an athlete; it is becoming a member of a new family, joining a community, and entering a global network. Martial arts are therapeutic, empowering, and cathartic. Learning to defend yourself is invaluable on its own, but the side effects are also pretty awesome. Martial arts build confidence, self-worth, and continuously reward you with a feeling of accomplishment, allowing you to set you goals infinitely higher than you ever thought you were capable of reaching. This is a feeling which then becomes addictive, spilling over into all facets of your life. And also, there is no better cure for the break-up blues than kicking and screaming as hard as you can, especially if its through a stack of wooden boards.
5. What advice do you have for the young men in our culture- on the subject of women?
I am a believer in the saying:
“We always teach young girls how not to get hurt by men. Why aren’t we teaching young boys how to respect women?”
I also believe that, while times are changing, there is still a disconnect between how men and women view feminism. Empowering women is not about hurting men. On the contrary, feminism is about equality and inclusion for all people. Young men are integral in achieving female empowerment and thus a better society in general.
6. Who has been a positive and strong role model for you? How and why?
I have two answers to this question. In relation to strong women, my mother (yes, how stereotypical of me) is the strongest woman I know. An immigrant to the US with two small children, she and my father built a business from nothing, went to night school, and took care of my brother and I with no local family support network. Now 25 years later, she has made the incredibly difficult decision to once again relocate continents to take care of my ill grandparents full time while still supporting her two children through higher education. She is the toughest, no bullshit, most disciplined person I know, and I hope to be half the mother she is someday.
In relation to martial arts, I will again answer with the most stereotypical response there is: my instructors. I have been incredibly lucky in my martial arts career to have been surrounded with multiple support structures and role models throughout our local community. But my Grandmaster specifically is my second father who has taught me how strong I really am by challenging my to be the best I can be, even if I was scared or didn’t see my own potential at times. Legend has it that he was born without sympathy. I’d edit that to say that he has a deaf spot for whining and an extreme aversion to the word “can’t”.
7. You’ve been involved heavily in martial arts since you were 8-years-old. Is there a recurring message that’s been drilled into you by Grandmaster Dunlavey about being a female martial artist? Or perhaps a challenge you’ve come up against constantly as being a female martial artist?
It’s true. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to train (albeit often from afar while I travel) with the same instructors my entire martial arts career. The biggest lesson that was drilled into me about martial arts was and is the mutual respect and support from a community of equals. I was never seen as inferior because I was a female martial artist. I was valued on my commitment to my craft and my integrity as a person. One of the first things we learn at our studio is the five tenants of Tae Kwon Do: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. They are integrated into not only every rank testing, but into our daily lives. This is the most important lesson I have ever had drilled into me.
On the subject of being a woman, both my instructors and my parents, all of whom have both boys and girls, have always agreed that a girl should know how to defend herself. This is both physically and mentally. Learning your own capacity for excellence and achievement are just as important as being able to land the most amount of force with the least amount of effort on the most strategic target. Self-defence begins with confidence in your abilities through practice, calculated decision making, and strategic planning, all of which martial arts are excellent in developing. My instructor also always made it clear that as a strong, smart, and capable woman, I should never let traditional female social roles or expectations influence my ability to achieve my goals of education, travel, and career. Well, in not so many words anyway.
8. As a female martial artist, surely you’ve had many different reactions to informing people of your hobby. What’s a common reaction you’ve received, and can you share your most interesting reaction?
This is a funny question with a funny response. I think all martial artists are accustomed to the typical reaction of:
“OHWOAHWOAH watch out!”
“OH we got ourselves a lil’ ninja over here!”
…when we tell people about our training, especially if you mention that you have a higher rank. Everyone (thinks they) understands what ‘black belt’ means. Most of the time I smile and nod responding with something like “yup, I’m a ninja alright” or “yeah martial arts is awesome” and change the subject quickly because I know the second question is always:
“So… you think you could kick my ass?”
For anyone who has ever done martial arts, this is a silly question. It’s annoying really. Especially for me sometimes. Like I said, I am quite short, so when I speak to most people I’m looking up at them, meaning they are looking down at me. Then, when they question me about my ass-kicking abilities they usually move closer and flex, trying to show me that because of their superior height and/or weight, I’d have a hard time with taking them on in some back-alley street fight, or whatever they are imagining I do with my free time. This is awkward and uncomfortable. People, don’t crowd short people! One guy even picked me up once and held me under my armpits like a child so that our faces were the same height and said:
“oh yeah, now what, karate kid?”
That was the worst.
People, never. ever. pick up a short person without their consent! Especially when I am then at the perfect angle to kick you in the soft spot with a kick that has gone through five wooden boards. (Note: I didn’t actually kick him because I wasn’t in any danger, but boy oh boy did I think about it!)