When I first started BJJ, I was fairly thin, mostly because I was always on a diet, always trying to lose weight, and always adding workouts to my week or minutes to my workouts. When my first coach suggested that I try to cut some weight for a competition, I was all for it. I threw myself into the diet plan he laid out for me. I Worked out six days a week, sometimes multiple times a day.
What started as a pursuit of excellence became a relapse into the eating disorder I thought I’d recovered from. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t realize that this was the case for almost five years.I got thinner and thinner.
My whole BJJ game was based on my body size. I was small, but I was quick. I had excellent cardio, so it was relatively easy for me to wait it out in any disadvantageous position and then explode or escape danger. The majority of my game was played from the bottom. I was that girl who got you in an inescapable lockdown from half guard. Then I would sweep you. I was that girl who wiggled her way out of submissions and from under top control just in time to reverse positions. For a blue belt, I was decent and my escapes were more than decent. I knew how to use my size, my speed, and my cardio to build a game that worked for me. However, despite my victories on the mats, I was struggling on the inside.
When I finally admitted that I’d seriously relapsed with my eating disorder, I had to confront the fact that BJJ, Muay Thai, and boxing had played a huge role. I had to take a break from training to get back to a healthy place. At the time, I never would have thought that break would turn into years off the mats. This was a different kind of competition.
As I stopped using eating disorder behaviors, I started to gain weight. There’s a common misconception about eating disorders: People who have them are underweight and when they recover they’ll only gain enough weight to bring them back to a “normal weight.” This was not the case for me.
To my devastation, I gained over 100 pounds in recovery. While that may sound incredibly unhealthy, I learned through extensive research and working professionals who specialize in eating disorders that every person’s body has an individual, natural size that is right for them. This natural body size is based on genetics the same way height is based on genetics. Many people fight their natural body size through diet and exercise, but this can be very unhealthy — like it was for me.
My natural body size is considered to be “unhealthy” by the medical establishment, but I exercise regularly, I generally eat well, and my body stays this size, which means it’s the right size for me.
When I decided I wanted to train again, I was very fearful that my new body size wouldn’t work for BJJ. I didn’t know if I’d be able to move or perform techniques the way I used to or if this larger body could even do BJJ.
In the first few weeks of training in my larger body, a lot of my fears were confirmed. I wasn’t as fast and my cardio wasn’t as good. My stomach, thighs, or breasts got in the way of performing techniques. I wasn’t able to wiggle my way out from under top control anymore. The game I’d worked years to build was basically useless in this larger body.
Thankfully, I was determined to train again, so I didn’t let these setbacks stop me. I also had amazing coaches who refused to let me get discouraged. Every time a technique didn’t work for my body, they took the time to work with me and my training partner to adjust the technique bit by bit. I can’t tell you how many times my coaches figured out modifications on the spot.
One coach spent hours, and I’m not exaggerating, brainstorming with me to design a new game that worked for my new body. He reminded me over and over that needing to develop a new game didn’t mean that my body wasn’t right for BJJ. It meant that BJJ works for all bodies and I needed to discover the way that the art could work for me. So we worked on building a game that focused on my strength instead of my speed. We improved the precision of my technique so I wasn’t relying on wiggling out of escapes. We focused on using the momentum my larger body created to gain the advantage. And for the first time in my BJJ life, I worked on a top game instead of relying on my bottom game.
My kind, compassionate, dedicated coaches and training partners never made me feel like my larger body was a detriment. They never made me feel like BJJ wasn’t for me. In fact, they all went out of their way to convince me that BJJ is for me, no matter what size my body is.
Unfortunately, all my progress in developing my new game got interrupted by the pandemic. I’m still not back to training, and I won’t be for a long time. But when I do go back, I’ll go back with the knowledge that BJJ is for everybody, including mine.
Robin Zabiegalksi i is a writer and editor from Vermont. Her work has been published in several digital media publications and literary magazines. She’s been training BJJ for several years and she is a 2 stripe blue belt, currently training at Combat Fitness MMA in Winooski Vermont. When she’s not writing or training, she can be found playing with her toddler, hiking or snowboarding depending on the season, or bingeing her latest TV obsession.