I became friends with Valerie Worthington a few years ago — our worlds overlapped in both CrossFit and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Val has since earned her black belt and now instructs at New Breed Academy and she trains CrossFit at Team CrossFit Academy. Her dedication has led her to achieve world-champion level in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and submission grappling.
Val is passionate about sharing BJJ with other women and does so as one of the head instructors of the Women’s Grappling Camp.
And Val also has an awesome sense of humor, so it’s a pleasure to share her wit with you.
Do you think it’s hard for people to see women as both physically strong and beautiful? Why?
I do think it’s difficult, though I also think that is changing as women become more prominent in domains like mixed martial arts and CrossFit. More and more women are drawn to those domains, perhaps precisely because they get to give expression to their inner badassery in addition to those facets of them that are more traditionally perceived to be feminine.
I think it’s difficult for people to “allow” women to be both strong and beautiful because we are reacting to a long history of damsel in distress-type stories and expectations. For instance, not too long ago I was watching Lady and the Tramp with my nephew, and when Lady was being menaced by some mean dogs, Tramp saved her by chasing them away. Don’t get me wrong. That was nice of Tramp and all, and I would not refuse help in that situation. But Lady just hid behind a wall rather than helping to protect herself while Tramp did all the work. And this is just one example of how we tend to reinforce, at a very early age, stereotypes about men and women, particularly that women need saving and that men are the ones to fill the need. Even in the animal kingdom! Tramp is brash and brave, while Lady is dainty and demure. (I am no Lady; I would have scarfed down that meatball toute de suite instead of blushing prettily at it. Just sayin’.)
What about being seen as beautiful and smart? Do you think women sometimes think they can’t be both?
I’ll go you a step further. I associate humor with intelligence, and to me, the demonstration of a good sense of humor correlates with a decent level of smarts. And I identify myself as a fairly witty person (at least, I find myself pretty hilarious. Don’t tell me if I’m the only one who does). And it seems that women tend to be seen as either humorous (e.g., the wacky, loud, opinionated sidekick) or attractive (e.g., the beautiful leading lady), but it is kind of rare for women to be able to be perceived as both.
Again, that is changing, thankfully. Women like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Whitney Cummings, Kristen Wiig, Kaitlin Olson, Aisha Tyler, etc, are both hilariously funny and quite attractive, and it seems like maybe the world is starting to make room for women to be beautiful, strong, intelligent, AND funny, the whole nine yards. It seems like we’re at some kind of turning point culturally, which is great. And probably confusing. But that’s a different conversation.
Have you ever felt judged for being too pretty or too athletic, by either men or women?
I don’t think I’ve ever been judged for being too pretty! I imagine it is a real issue for some women, but see above; I have always identified as the funny one, or one of the funny ones, and in retrospect, perhaps that has affected the way people have perceived me aesthetically. In terms of being judged as too athletic, the choices I have made in recent years to become basically a full-time grappler and CrossFit/strength training enthusiast have caused definite changes in my physique, to the point where some of the guys I train with have pulled me aside to ask if I’m on the juice. Obviously, this is the question that every woman dreams of being asked, right behind “Does this look infected?” and “Are you gonna eat that?”
Granted, I have spent the past 13 years working on improving my ability to physically dominate another person, and the past 4 years working on picking up heavier and heavier things. So this combination can definitely affect how I feel about myself, given that my interests and goals may seem to be more along the lines of what men find interesting.
How do you deal with keeping up your feminine side while being an athlete?
I cry a lot.
Seriously, I think about this quite a lot, actually. I keep my hair long, and every now and then I’ll get a pedicure or put on makeup, but in addition to the external things, I have worked very hard to make peace with the fact that there is no right or wrong way to express femininity. I love what I do and am grateful that I get the opportunity to do it, because trying to live up to the challenges and requirements of BJJ and CrossFit make me a much better version of myself than I would able to be if I did not do them. (Translation: I am much less of an a**hole when I train than when I don’t.) I understand that this puts me in situations where feminine energy is kind of put on the back burner, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to do them. I just try to be myself, and to celebrate that I have gotten to a point where I like who I am, that I am a woman, and that my ways of expressing my woman-ness are valid ones for me even if they aren’t common ones for women—yet.
And happily, it seems I am able to clean up fairly nicely, as evidenced by the reaction I got at a wedding I went to recently. I was wearing a nice dress, heels, updo, etc. The people who were there who usually see me on a grappling mat or all chalked up and in my weightlifting shoes didn’t recognize me at first, but then I got several thumbs up.
What is your favorite part of being a woman?
I do get to run the gamut of emotions more than men traditionally feel comfortable doing. I’ve even worked on expressing anger; I think historically women have not really felt okay getting pissed off, but that is changing too. And while I don’t LIKE to cry or be upset, the fact that I am able to means that I feel the feelings and then I move on, rather than burying them or letting them fester, where they will come out in some other way.
What is the hardest part about being a woman?
Long lines for public restrooms or having to answer the call of nature while actually in nature. And notwithstanding my comments about identifying as a funny person, I’m not even really joking that much. Another difficult thing, now that I’m getting older (I’ll be 41 in a couple months), is how much less okay the world seems to be with women aging than with men. I am in better shape and probably healthier now than I was 20 years ago, but I have committed the cardinal sin of spending more and more time on this earth, a sin that men seem to be able to be absolved of more easily.
Do you have any guilty girlie pleasures?
I have guilty pleasures: Ice cream. Judge Judy. Scrabble on Facebook. Naps. I don’t know if those are particularly girlie; as you have probably ascertained, I’m not the right person to ask about the relative girliness of such things. But they are my guilty pleasures, which makes them feminine, in my book.
Did you ever wish you weren’t a woman?
I haven’t wished I weren’t a woman, but I do wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if I had been a man, what things would have been easier, what things would have been more difficult.
Has being female ever held you back in any way? (career, sports, etc)
There are sexist people everywhere, in every domain—grappling, CrossFit, all the professional contexts I’ve ever worked in. And I have experienced some sexism in those domains. But those few negative experiences have been FAR overshadowed by the incredible support, love, and genuine investment in my development and well-being that countless people—men and women alike—have shown in all these domains. I have far more to be thankful for than I have to be bitter about. And when I do feel bitter, I check my own behavior, I check the other person’s behavior, and I try to talk it out.
How has being female been an advantage? (career, sports, etc)
I feel like being ME has been an advantage. A crazy confluence of events has led me to where I am today, and I’m a lucky DOB (as opposed to SOB). I have a wonderful family who support me no matter what crazy shenanigans I get myself into. I have had—and continue to have—amazing opportunities in school, in work, and in grappling and CrossFit to learn from people who are some of the best in the world at what they do. I have been able to take risks and make them work; I like to think I have taken advantage of most opportunities afforded to me, even when doing so has been scary. And since I am a woman, I have to imagine that some of the advantages I have experienced have had something to do with that. I just can’t separate out what is attributable to me being me and what is attributable to me being female.
If you could go back and give your 12 year old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Everything I can think of has been said multiple times before. Be yourself. Live in the moment. Eat your vegetables (and that meatball). Even my favorite quote ever, from the movie Breaker Morant, which is “Live each day as if it’s your last, and one day you’ll be right” has been said a lot, if only by me. (And Breaker Morant.) So in addition to all of those, which I still believe fervently, I’d suggest to my 12-year-old self that she start paying attention to her intuition/inner voice and use it to guide her decisions, even if they seem crazy, ill-advised or unsupported by logic or evidence. Doing so will not make her unsafe, and it WILL get her closer to the most fulfilling life she can possibly imagine.