|In classes for teen girls I’m often asked what to do when some guy, either a stranger or someone they barely know, approaches and begins asking overly personal questions. A simple “I don’t want to talk at this time” is certainly polite, and right to the point. “I don’t give out that information,” said in a neutral tone, is also direct and sets a boundary without being nasty.
But some girls still take issue with a direct response. Because it’s “rude.” And I hear from some adults who work with girls that it’s just “who they are.”
Who are you, really?
Are you always the person you wish you could be?
Food writer Ruth Reichl faced similar questions, but in a different context. As the restaurant critic of The New York Times beginning in 1993, Reichl knew that her reviews would powerfully influence the rise and fall of restaurants big and small; a great review could mean vastly increased revenue and prestige. Restaurant kitchens, she found, had Reichl’s picture plastered on the wall and a reward for any staff member who spotted her. Reichl’s clever solution was to come up with disguises for her dining excursions. And her disguises went beyond wigs and makeup — she envisioned what kind of person she’d become. With the help of an acting coach, she transformed herself. And it worked, sometimes too well. She found herself falling into her roles–often to the delight, but sometimes to the dismay, of her dining companions.(Reichl details her escapades in her charming book Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise.)
“Chloe” was a blonde bombshell who seemed to know precisely how to intrigue men. “Brenda” was warm, funny, kind, and approachable. Elderly “Betty” blended into the furniture, and was treated as a castoff. “Emily” was brusque and bitter. All different personalities, yet along the way Reichl recognized them all as elements within herself (and she decides she wants more Brenda and less Emily). Reichl had the epiphany that controlling how others treated her could be as simple as changing the way she dressed and projected herself. She tested this out, and for her it worked.
Reichl was able to effectively reconstruct herself for a slice of time, over and over, in different guises. She got her job done.
Do you know precisely what you would do in any given situation? Do you ever do things that amaze you? That disappoint you? Do you ever say things you wish you could take back the minute it came out of your mouth for all the world to hear? Do you ever wonder how you had the presence of mind to say exactly the right thing, and wish you could do it more often?
That’s resilience in an uncertain world. Grace under pressure. Cool, calm, collected. What’s not to like about those qualities?
As I tell my class participants, self-defense has a performance component. Regardless of who you believe you are, you all have the same job to get done, of keeping yourself safe. You can act. You can project yourself as a skilled, confident person on your own mission, and pity the fool who tries to mess with you.
Personally, I believe my time is valuable. I feel I should choose with whom to spend, not squander, my time. Otherwise I’ll end up treated as someone else’s entertainment, emotional barf bag, or — at worst — victim.
My mother would have been 90 years old this month. In her long life she experienced a lot as a member of the Greatest Generation: the Great Depression, Second World War and its Holocaust, the Baby Boom, better living through chemistry, the cultural upheavals of the sixties and seventies, feminism, the Cold War, Reaganomics, undeclared “wars” across the globe, declared “wars” on poverty and drugs. Unprecedented prosperity and change. She got her first computer at the age of 87. She outlived most of her friends.
She never outlived her values.
My mother always knew who she was and what she thought important. Regardless of the mores of the day, her certitude of what was right and what was wrong never wavered. She was not shy about conveying these values to her children. By the time I was 12, I knew precisely what she would reply to any request.
Mom and I disagreed often. She played very safe, which I felt was far too restrictive. I am more inclined to assess challenges and take calculated risks. But despite our differences, what I learned best from my mother was to know your own values and boundaries, and honor those first.
The first items on my Safety Plan worksheet ask about your goals and plans. What gives your life meaning? What do you value most? Because, regardless of their approach to risk, women who are clear on these will keep themselves safer.
PS – to learn more about planning for safety and other self-defense strategies, sign up for a self-defense class.
“Awareness” is a key component of self-defense, yet as a practice it is ill-defined. For many of my students, the line between color-coded anxiety and recognition of real risks is blurry at best. This is exacerbated by our media environment (where violence sells anxiety, and anxiety sells airtime, and airtime sells . . . ).
Examples from my feline friends proffer useful guidance.
Know where you are vulnerable.
For example, I often shlep lots of stuff to my car. Hey, I teach self-defense classes, so I’m hauling kicking shields and handouts and mats and other bulky, unwieldy stuff. This is a vulnerable point for 2 reasons. One, my arms are usually full. Second, and more importantly, my mind is already occupied with how the heck I’m going to fit all this junk in my car (I can always drop stuff to free my hands, but it is takes more effort to drop stuff out of my head when surprised).
|Sokol, ever watchful, at repose.|
Enter Sokol, my cat.
Sokol (also known as “stealth kitty”) was brought into our home as a 14 month old feral. While she’s adapted well to life as an indoor kitty, even after 7 years she hasn’t lost her feral edge. She does not like being picked up or even petted (until she solicits attention). Lap cat? No way. Ever at rest, she’s also alert to any and all new sounds. If I enter the room, she’ll keep an eye on me until she’s convinced that I’m not about to try to (gasp!) pick her up. If I’m in the room she wants to nap in, she’ll keep an eye on me as she settles in.
The key here is awareness at key points. Going back to loading my car, I know I have to leave Point A (my house, or the building where the class is held) and approach my car. I make it a point as I am leaving the building to scan the area. I’m looking for anyone who is paying attention to my activities. I get to my car. Before I unlock my car and open the trunk, I again scan the area. And if it takes more than a second or so to rearrange my baggage, I pause to scan again. And, if necessary, again.
I have to say I’ve yet to encounter a scary person. However, I have encountered the first spring blooms on the wild roses, the emergence of the fall crocuses, and a hummingbird almost within arms’ reach. These little happenstances round out life, and are constant reminders on why you want to stay safe. To be able to enjoy daily special moments, sans the trauma of a distressing surprise.
Maybe you saw a demo at a health fair or shopping mall about women’s self-defense, and you’re considering taking a class. The group putting on the demo seemed friendly and knowledgeable, and now you’re wondering if their program would be a good fit for your needs. Here’s two important keys to watch for.
In many self-defense demos, you see a male instructor as “attacker” and a female instructor as “defender.” So far, so good. Now, who does the talking? Is it a male instructor, or female? Yes, this IS important! If you are teaching women to strongly face a real-life assailant, she should be the one talking to the women in the audience.
Second, watch carefully for either (or both) of these two things to happen: the female defender does her moves but in a tentative manner and a male instructor describes her as being “nice” to her attacker,” and over the next 10 minutes the demo actors get shifted so a male instructor has taken over showing the moves.
Is this empowering for women? (Hint: the answer is no.)
I’ve seen this scenario happen several times now. I have no doubt that these are very nice and well-meaning people, and their techniques can be effective. However, until the women show a real lead in their demos I have a hard time believing that the women they are trying to recruit as students will get two of the most essential self-defense lessons. Which are, of course, to take charge and use your voice.
Self-defense teacher and author Ellen Snortland wrote a really to-the-point article in the Huffington Post last week, which you can read in it’s entirety at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ellen-snortland/license-to-live-time-to-m_b_253316.html.
Ellen convincingly argues that teen girls should be required to take a self-defense class as part of drivers’ education. I need no convincing. After all, self-defense are critical life skills for the most at-risk group of women in America.
And in case you won’t be clicking on the above link, below are Ellen’s most basic rules for personal safety:
- Give up property. If an assailant wants money or the car, give it to them. They might go away.
- Do not give up your body. Do not go with anyone to a secondary crime scene. Better to resist or run from the primary encounter. Resistance from the intended victim is apt to result in the perpetrator giving up, witnesses reporting/helping, or in the worst case, at least leaving forensic evidence for clues.
- Work out a “code” word so your family knows you’re in trouble. Agree that if and when you call and say something agreed upon like, “Is that Lassie barking?” it actually means, “Help me.”
- If you’ve been taken, look to escape every chance you can. Don’t give up. Injuries from jumping out of a car can be less hazardous than getting further along with an increasingly desperate criminal.
- Do not believe a person who says “Be quiet go with me and I won’t hurt you.” They have already hurt you by committing the crime of kidnapping. Be loud and don’t go with them.
- Insist that schools provide a state required self-defense component.
I’ve heard parents ask me why self-defense classes are not routinely offered in the public school system, and I have no good answer for them. Perhaps that is the next level of self-defense, making sure others in your community have much-needed tools to keep themselves safe.
For more information, visit Self-Defense for Teen Girls Only.