© Copyright 2023 by Leah Rose
Photo by RODNAE Productions at Pexels.
feel the heel of my foot make contact with the wood, but it doesn’t
give way. Urging myself to not get discouraged, I close my eyes, blow
out a sigh, and return to a starting position, preparing to strike
I hold my breath as I await his answer, worried that he might think me weird for asking such a morbid-sounding question. Thankfully, however, I see him smile and nod, and I am reassured that he understands what I’m trying to get at. “You test for your black belt,” Master Hart told me simply. “That’s how you’re gonna get the old you to die.”
I don’t immediately respond. Instead, I take a moment to reflect on our conversation thus far and all the advice that he’s given me. Some of it has been practical, such as the key to more controlled kicks and how I have to retrain my instincts in sparring. The rest of it, though, pertained more to my growth as a person than my development as a martial artist.
I’m sitting cross-legged on the sweaty mat, across from a 5th dan black belt in taekwondo who has decades more experience than me in both life and in the ring. We are so different in so many ways, and yet, after hearing his responses to my carefully thought-out interview questions, it is clear that we have faced similar struggles while progressing through the ranks of taekwondo.
Mitchell Hart began taekwondo at the suggestion of his father, who had hoped that it would help to boost his confidence and self-esteem after years of being bullied by his peers. He was unhappy with his body and hoped that he would improve his fitness by participating in the sport, which he ultimately did. He was also much smaller and younger than the other students when he first started, meaning he was often underestimated by his classmates and instructors. It wasn’t until he received his 1st dan black belt that he was finally able to leave the past behind him. After competing at a national level and fighting off intrusive thoughts telling him that he would never be good enough, he finally felt confident in saying that the young boy from his past was dead and gone.
Hearing his story brought me straight back to my high school days, though it had been more than a decade since I’d graduated. I had been underweight since middle school and had never truly felt comfortable in my body, no matter how much weight I managed to lose. My eating disorder first developed in roughly the 3rd grade, when one of my “friends” told me, semi-jokingly, that I was easily the heaviest girl in the grade. It continued when I saw that starving myself was the only way to get attention from my parents, who were often too busy with their careers to pay much attention to their offspring. It eventually got to the point where every meal was a competition with my older sister; if she wasn’t eating, then neither was I.
Our body weights had dropped so low that our parents started pulling us out of school to go to monthly weigh-ins at the doctor, which of course had caused the other students to start asking a whole bunch of unwanted questions. Before every appointment, I would eat a heaping bowl of pasta and chug an entire bottle of water, leaving me desperate to use the restroom and my weight artificially high. I had even tried to wear all the jewelry that I owned once, but they’d unfortunately realized what I was up to and made me take it off before stepping on the scale. In addition to the weigh-ins, we would be forced to speak to therapists who claimed to specialize in eating disorders. The therapy sessions were thankfully easier to navigate than the doctor’s appointments. All I had to do was tell the therapists what they wanted to hear, such as that I had never before realized how much they photoshopped magazines or portrayed unrealistic standards of beauty in the media, and they would seem to be satisfied.
By my freshman year of high school, I had started using my eating disorder as a way of garnering attention from not only my parents, but also my peers. I grew accustomed to people viewing me as cute and little, hoping to subconsciously evoke in them an antiquated desire to protect me. I would secretly love it when my fitness teachers told me to grab three-pound weights, despite the fact that they had told everyone else to grab eights. I even passed out in class once after not eating lunch and, when a student who had witnessed it asked in another course that we shared how I was doing, I pretended not to remember the event, hoping that he would recount it for the rest of the students and cause them to grow concerned for me, too.
It was only when I became interested in writing that I developed a desire to change the way that people viewed me. In the YA sci-fi novel I wrote, which I am currently trying to get published, the two male protagonists are portrayed as strong and brave, risking their lives on a regular basis to try and protect others. These two characters, Cole and Alistair, started out as what I hoped to find in a significant other: someone who clearly cared for me and who I knew would protect me at all costs, both physically and emotionally. My novel, entitled Interdimensional, features a self-insert character named Stella who is scrawny just like me. By living vicariously through Stella, my writing, and my overactive imagination, I was able to create the exact social supports that I needed at the time but had been unable to find in real life.
I took to “channeling” Cole and Alistair when times got tough, asking myself how they would likely handle the difficult situation that I was facing. When channeling Cole and the unconditional love that he felt for me, I would speak to myself in a manner much more kind and encouraging than I normally did. When channeling Alistair, which I tend to only do as a last resort, I feel empowered and confident, ready to do whatever it takes to get the job done. After realizing that I liked this version of myself much better than I did the “Stella” version of me, I set out to finally take control of my eating disorder and change the way that others viewed me. I no longer wanted to be seen as the one who needed to be protected. Instead, I wanted to leave that all behind and step into the role of protector.
I had tried to follow Master Hart’s sage advice and extend my
leg fully on the 360 reverse turning kick, my second attempt to break
the board proved just as futile as my first. I let out a noise
somewhere between a growl and a sigh, resisting the urge to swear
under my breath. I try not to let my frustrations show, but I know
that the judges at the head table and all the hundred or so students
who are watching know exactly what I’m thinking. My confidence
is shaken, and the intrusive thoughts begin to creep in again.
Who are you kidding? You’re never gonna get your black belt.
Everyone here knows you’re just a phony. You’re the same scrawny girl who first stumbled into the dojang those five long years ago.
What have you got to show for all your hard work? A couple belts that they gave you just because they felt sorry for you. That’s it. Nothing more. You-
“You’ve got this,” Master Hart whispers to me. I meet his piercing gaze and give a small nod, knowing that he truly believes what he is saying to me. In that moment, I’m able to push all doubts aside and convince myself of the verity of the statement. He’s right.
I’ve got this.
I swallow hard before knocking on the door to the main office. The email that I had received requesting that we have a “chat” about the progress that I was making had a vibe that was vaguely reminiscent of being called to the principal’s office.
My instructor invites me in, telling me to take a seat in one of the black, metal folding chairs that we use to furnish the spacious dojang. Though his demeanor was in no way threatening, I couldn’t help but be a little intimidated by the man sitting across from me.
Master David Kwan, who was probably twice my age and a 6th dan black belt, was one of the most well-respected people in the taekwondo community. He was a nationally-recognized coach, and everyone at the club knew that he never sugar-coated things. He wouldn’t hesitate to tell you if you were doing something incorrectly, and the best that you could hope to get from him in class was a “not bad”, which, coming from him, was considered high praise.
I had already planned out what I was going to say. I knew that the decision to let me test for my black belt or not could very well depend on how well I pleaded my case. I was aiming for humble yet confident, two feelings that seemingly contradicted each other but were apparently what the instructors were looking for in us black-belt candidates. With this in mind, I opened up to my instructor about how I’d dealt with testing anxiety pretty much my whole life and how, despite having trained in taekwondo for roughly five years, I still didn’t consider myself to be an athlete. I also explained how it was much easier for me to focus on what I was doing wrong than what I was doing right, all of which resulted in a lack of confidence.
I expect him to say something to the effect of “Well, you’re clearly not ready to test, then.” Instead, Master Kwan surprises me by nodding in understanding, responding to the confession by stating “Ah. That makes sense. Many high-performing athletes are much harder on themselves than they should be.” He seems to be talking more to himself than he is to me.
I stare at him for a second, nearly stunned speechless by the statement. The fact that a national-level coach, who was known for his high standards and somewhat blunt feedback, could refer to someone like me as high-performing was almost unfathomable.
After talking to him for only a couple more minutes, I realize that I view myself very differently than he does. To him, I am a dedicated student who has improved by leaps and bounds over the years and shows a good deal of potential. I, on the other hand, see the same scrawny girl from my childhood. The same girl who’d always gotten picked last for any type of team game, had nothing but participation ribbons to show for all the sports she’d been forced to do as a kid, and had never been comfortable in her own body. The same, incompetent white belt who couldn’t even complete the simplest of drills or perform a single kicking technique correctly.
As I sit in the cramped office, adhering to Master Kwan’s request to inform him of all the things that I thought made me a good martial artist, it dawns on me that I’ve been wanting to change for the wrong reasons. It shouldn’t matter what other people think of me. It shouldn’t matter whether they thought I was weak or strong, skinny or overweight.
only thing that mattered was what I thought of myself.
My third and fourth attempts had failed just like my first two had. I now only had one more chance to break the board with a 360 reverse turning kick, which had been the bane of my existence for the entire three months that I’d spent training for the test. The other candidates have already broken their boards, which means that all eyes are fixed firmly on me. The tension in the air is almost palpable. I know that everyone in the room is rooting for me, but that almost makes the pressure worse somehow.
One of my fellow black-belt candidates sees how nervous I am and offers a few words of encouragement. Shortly afterwards, the rest of the dojang follows suit, all of them clapping loudly and chanting my name.
After taking a second to compose myself, I return to a starting position, shifting my weight forward and moving my right foot out in front of me. I close my eyes, envisioning the board snapping in half as easily as a twig, and kick out with my bare foot. I feel my heel make solid contact.
The old me is dead.