BJJ ads: Sexy vs Sexual

Warning: this post includes feminism.

This week I saw an ad for a gi. It featured a woman wearing gi pants, a sports bra, and opening the top. Unlike the Kyra Gracie shots, most of the women grapplers I know, have responded well. I love it, Georgette said she’s going to buy one, GiFreak wrote a piece about it, and there is overall positive feedback from the women’s grappling community. I think it’s because the ad was sexy but not sexual. It was for the Desert Sun gi by CTRL Industries. Here is the photo and the accompanying text:

Their new Desert Sun gi

Their new Desert Sun gi

The ‘Desert Sun’ is Heavily Themed around the desert, and the southwest. For the photoshoot, we hit the desert in the heat of the late afternoon. We wanted to use a Navajo to model the gi because we used Navajo Style print on the interior. We did our best to capture what the gi is about. We hope you enjoy the photos. We will release the photos gradually this week, with a possible gi release this weekend.

Sexy Ads

This is a sexy BJJ ad. Sexy people showing their bodies is sexy! I think there is NOTHING wrong with sexy ads. To me, the model looks like she’s showing her body to show off the gi, rather than to show off her body – there’s nothing gratuitous about this ad. She’s got a neutral expression on her face, her clothes are not revealing cleavage. I wouldn’t tag this as NSFW, nor would I feel uncomfortable were my mom or nieces to see it on my Facebook feed.

Sexual Ads

While I have no problem with sexy BJJ ads, I have a big problem with sexual BJJ ads. I think it’s wrong to use women as objects in the ads. I think it’s wrong to sexualize our sport.

I believe BJJ should be defended as an asexual space. It’s just too far outside the norm of human physical interaction to start sprinkling sex in, not to mention a lot of people train to confront/defend against sexual trauma. […] – Megan from Tangled Triangle

One funny way to try to figure out if it’s sexual or not is to gender swap. The Desert Sun model is not in a hyper feminine pose: she’s not sticking out her chest or butt, cocking her head, looking demure, etc. If it would look ridiculous or funny, it’s very possible that it’s in the gray area  such as those Daniel Strauss/Kyra Gracie picturest or any of the Hawkeye Initiative photos, in which Hawkeye is put into many classic “female empowered” poses.

The Hawkeye Initiative, guaranteed to make you laugh, frustrated, and waste loads of time online

The Hawkeye Initiative, guaranteed to make youwaste loads of time online

Overt Differences

Let’s compare some obvious differences. CTRL vs Breakpoint. Both pictures below are designed to sell gis.

The CTRL model looks like she could do BJJ. She is wearing BJJ appropriate attire, including a high-cut sports bra. She is not a superfluous object added to be pretty, but rather a dynamic figure in the ad. They’re selling the gi to athletes by putting it on an athlete.

The Breakpoint model is obviously not wearing gear appropriate for a BJJ gym. Judging by her body piercings, she doesn’t do BJJ. Sternum piercings are surface piercings and would not stand up to doing jiu jitsu, since care includes: Try to avoid any activity that might injure your pierced spot. Breakpoint is selling sex; the woman is little more than a sexy gi rack, pun intended.

Can anyone identify the magazine?

Can anyone identify the magazine?

Subtle Differences

Let’s compare two pictures with more subtle differences: CTRL vs Kyra. Note that CTRL is definitely trying to sell a gi, vs Kyra most likely doing self-promo pics. Now, while I don’t think that Kyra’s picture is NEARLY at the level as the Breakpoint one, I think it exists in the sexy vs sexual VENN diagram overlap.

To me, the left reads sexy, while the right reads sexual. Perhaps it’s the cleavage or the difference in expressions. The Desert Sun model looks like she’s showing off a design, while Kyra looks like she’s mid stripping. While I’d feel comfortable showing the left picture on my Facebook wall, I’d feel uncomfortable with the picture on the right.

Do these look different to you?

Do these look different to you?

Because I believe BJJ ads should not be sexual, I think there is value in discussing the difference between sexy and sexual. The (too) easy conversation is the Breakpoint one, because it’s obvious and over the top. But the more subtle ones are the ones that create more polarizing conversations, with people being dismissed as “feminists” (hence the warning) or being mansplained why I’m making mountains out of molehills. That’s why these conversations are important – precisely because, while they may not be mountains, they most certainly are not molehills.

Again, I don’t think that showing bodies or midriffs is, by definition, sexual. Fit bodies are sexy and nice to look at, but if you’re going to have fit, sexy bodies showing skin in your ads, it’s important to consider how you’re showing them. It’s clear that CTRL Industries put thought into it.

JiuJiu’s Question: What do you see as the difference between sexy and sexual? Do you consider Kyra’s picture to be neutrally sexy or to be somewhat (or more) sexual? Do you think the Desert Sun ad is sexy or sexual? What’s the difference between the Kyra picture and the CTRL picture? Please share your thoughts. Reminder: differing opinions are absolutely welcome if you play nicely!

  1. I don’t see anything sexy about the CTRL ad actually. Perhaps I don’t understand the semantics. To me the CTRL image is just a lady looking like a lady. Are you using sexy in a way of saying that some people may be sexually attracted to her?

    Now – the Defense Soap ad image I find to be tastefully sexy (though the words a little off-putting).

    Also, that Breakpoint ad was at least featured in Gracie Mag (as stated on the r/bjj thread on it).
    http://www.reddit.com/r/bjj/comments/1i6qao/this_is_exactly_what_im_talking_about_when_it/

    • I think that it is semantics. I think some will find it neutral, some will find it sexy. Perhaps it’s just my way of labeling fit bodies being shown with skin doing normal things. I think that idea of “what is sexy” is a lot like “what is art”.

      Whatever you want to call this ad–sexy or totally neutral, I in no way think it falls under “sexual” though.

      Thank you for the heads up. Seriously gross. Looks like I’ve got a letter to write. Can’t believe I missed it on reddit!

  2. Well, I STILL don’t like so much skin. Overtly sexualized, or not, do you really think any martial artist is going to wear her pants that low? HELL NO! Showing that tummy, below the navel, is counter to what any female is going to need in the art or sport.

    • Interesting point about pant placement. I’m curious now where most wear their pants. Thanks for the idea!!

      I hear what you’re saying about skin, but some comments in a thread on Facebook got me thinking–if it’s not sexual or uncomfortable for a man to have no rash guard on under his gi, why is it for women? And I see a lot of great photos like this one that make me realize that just because it’s skin doesn’t make it inherently uncomfortable.

      Maybe that text is exactly why you mention what you do. Honestly, I advocate rash guards for EVERYONE!! And that’s the truth. No skin showing bypasses a lot of the big overt potential for objectification. But especially in very hot climates I can understand the decision to only wear a sports bra under the gi.

      • Unfortunately, IBJJF rules prohibit men from wearing rash guards under their gis. Trust me, I would prefer to wear one, but they make me take it off during the gi inspection. Same goes for Judo too.

    • I don’t know if you have ever worn a bjj gi or any other gi but it’s normally tied around the waist with the belt

  3. Interesting stuff and a conversation that we benefit from having. As the father of two daughters (one a Judoka) I’ve become much more atuned to the nuances of this stuff. Much sexualized imagery in advertising is accepted as the norm and raising it in discussion/criticism/comment brings about a “don’t know what you problem is” response. Or your sexuality/masculinity gets questioned. I struggle to respond to this a lot of the time and especially on the net. BJJ forums are usually a bit less sexist than MMA ones but it’s still there.
    On a slight tangent, I’ve always wondered what female MMA fighters make of ‘ring girls’ – they, and the typical reaction to them at shows, are a big reason why I wouldn’t take my girls to a show.

    • Yeah, the ads, ring girls, marketing for MMA is so off putting. I’m glad I’m in bjj, not MMA. You are correct–bjj is much more neutral.

      I also think you’re right about the discussion. I think you’ll appreciate the article I have been writing–it’s almost finished. It’s about why the feminist conversation is worth having in bjj–why it shouldn’t be dismissed.

      Are you on Jiu Jitsu forums or Martial Talk? JJF is really good about not cultivating bro-culture, and it’s still very active. MT is good, but most of the conversation has died down on the bjj forums.

      • Can’t agree more with you about BJJ. I found out about BJJ via Army Combatives, but they are slowing gearing us toward UFC mode as MMA fighter instead of learning the Art. Ever since I joined the first class of BJJ, I have not look back. Also less injuries and making tons of likeminded cool friends.

        Fortunecookie 26

  4. Great point about the different facial expressions between Kyra and the CTRL model. The submissiveness in Kyra’s photo in no way reflects anything related to BJJ.

  5. I don’t have a problem with either picture. One is showing off the clothing, the other is showing off the athlete. Sexiness sells and as long as it is not trashy, I don’t think it misrepresents the art. Athletes are beautiful people & there is nothing wrong with showing it.

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  7. I was being obtuse. To be specific, the the lower down and greater amount of body shown below the navel and above the pubic area is a)un-necessary (as there are no muscles there relevant to martial arts training), and b)the looser and lower the pants are on a person the greater the chance one will be losing those pants during training.

  8. A. I like the “subscription” option for the blog
    B. Does the lady in the CTRL gi have a jiu jitsu background? Is that a requirement? I think that her earrings would be a greater impediment than her low-rider trousers. I wrote a bunch about these ads, but self review led me to believe that I just like to write a bunch of indefensible crap.
    C. Can anyone link Dr. FInk’s research (the “actual research” referred to in the ESPNW story) in a usable format?

  9. You have a point here. I’m going to take a risk here and post my honest reactions as a fairly normal, hetero male who trains jiujitsu.
    CTRL Model
    My eyes went: face, stomach, logo, gi. So, obviously her attractiveness caught my eye but I truly had no sexualized response and didn’t objectify her at all. For me, I attribute this equally to her facial expression and body positioning. The lack of cleavage due to the cut of sports bra actually had little effect either way. I agree with you, this ad is great. The model looks like she might train jiujitsu.

    Kyra
    Very similar to CTRL pose, but I had a very different response. I definitely sexualized the picture immediately due mostly to her facial expression and stripping the gi rather than showing it off. My mind didn’t stay in creeper mode, however, because I know Kyra’s accomplishments on the mat and that far outweighs her beauty.

    RACK model
    Was she wearing a gi? Look, this type of advertising is blatantly sexual and actually turns me off. Granted, she has nice attributes and my eyes stuck on “them” a little longer than they should. I’d never buy a gi from there though, because this type of advertising insults what little intelligence I possess. It gets me to look, but I’m a pretty self-aware dude and realize the sexual gimmick.

    In short, I’d be way more likely to buy from CTRL based on the advertising, or from anything Kyra wears just because she is Kyra. The RACK model didn’t do much for me either way.

  10. I’ve practiced at many BJJ gyms and there’s no point to showing the girl in her sports bra with her pants riding so low, majority of women don’t practice with just a sports bra on (from what I’ve seen) they have a rashguard under the gi. Portraying women sexually is just a part of humanity, there’s always those guys out there that want to see it and those girls that want to do it. BJJ artists and companies should show enough respect to the sport and and to women and not portray them like this. Even if indirectly, it encourages sexual behavior in the gym to newcomers especially men towards women and ends in unacceptable situations. Kyra Gracie is probably a great jiujitsu artist, but she obviously doesn’t value the image of modesty in women (if she does she’s making the wrong choices) Empowered women doesn’t mean women who take off more clothing, empowering someone is not physical at all, it comes from within.

  11. Personally I do not have a problem with kyra’s or the desert sun ads but the breakpoint ad is over the top. You can say that’s because I am a guy but i feel those to ads are sexy but the are showing off the gi’s as well. Kyra is also showing off her body as well which I do not have a problem with. If were my niece or daughter I would feel the same way….

  12. Hey, I think this is an important topic for discussion. I’m not sure I disagree with anything that you’re saying here, but I’d like to raise a question and make a comment. Would a sexualized BJJ ad depicting a man be any less offensive?

    Also, the comparison between the CTRL ad and the Kyra Gracie shot bothers me for some reason. I think it is Ok to be sexual instead of sexy as long as that is something that Kyra wanted. She doesn’t strike me as a person that would be a victim in this instance. Physically, I don’t think we can deny that she is powerful. I also think achieving her level of success in this martial art requires a staggering intellect. I’m not sure if that explains my unease about the comparison, but I hope this adds to the discussion.

    • Ryan – I don’t think that a sexualized BJJ ad depicting a man would happen, to be quite honest. If it did, it would more likely read as homoerotic or as a parody.

      I like discussing the gray areas. I like checking my own thinking. For me, it helps me clarify what I think, and I realized those two shots are very similar, so I wanted to talk about why I had one feeling about A and not about B.

      I have some upcoming articles planned out in my brain right now – not totally formed, but about this topic. Especially after watching Branded: 9 for IX, I hold equally conflicting opinions, which is okay. I recognize the need for athletes to be noticed and recognized, and unfortunately for females, that only generally happens through selling sexiness. And yet at the same time, I desire a lack of sexualization of my sport. In other words: this shit is complex.

  13. I don’t find either ad to be sexual and would not be ashamed to display either one on a FB wall or even to my mother (rest her soul). Kyra is a beautiful woman with a beautiful body and think nothing about the picture to be sexual. I do not find that the picture itself implies anything anything sexual… With that said, what are the pictures advertising? The CTRL pic is advertising a clothing line while the thing promoted in Krya’s pics are Kyra. The art and image should be focused on her and what a beautiful woman she is.

    Similarly, if I saw GSP in a similar pose (and he’s actually usually wearing even less than that) I wouldn’t think much of it either.

    • Hey John – again, different interpretations for different people.

      To address the GSP situation, I’ll quote MegJitsu:

      his pose is confident and one is invited to admire his athletic physique; respect for the work that went into creating and maintaining that body is implied. Similarly, GSP is pictured with his MMA gloves and shorts, a clear reference to his sporting career and again we are invited to admire his abilities. Importantly, his attractiveness is not elevated above all other attributes, his pose is not eroticised and while his flesh is on display he is not dehumanised.

      This is where we will disagree – I would say that Kyra’s pose is eroticised and her attractiveness elevated above all other attributes.

  14. Sexy is in the attitude and not in how much cloths you are wearing. Just appreciate the human body, it is beautiful and I don’t understand why people have a problem with that. All these accusations about sexualizing is what actually happens in your head, and you are all trying to blame everyone else. If you are not comfortable with yourself naked or with your partner appreciating beauty in people it doesn’t mean the rest of the world should be like you. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling sexually attracted for another person.

    • Paul – you are operating under several wrong impressions.

      1. I am comfortable naked.
      2. I appreciate beauty.
      3. I like feeling sexually attracted to other people.
      4. I celebrate sexuality.

      I do, however, believe there IS a problem with sexualization of jiu jitsu.

      I’m going to say this very bluntly by quoting a site called FinallyFeminism101: FAQ: What’s wrong with saying that things happen to men, too?

      Understand that if lots of women say something is important, it is. Your opinion, as a man, about the extent and nature of the problem is not valuable when the specific problem pertains to women’s experience.

      A lot of women here say something is important. It is. Your opinion about this problem is not valuable with how it pertains to OUR experience.

      • Maybe if you were worried about training jiu jitsu and enjoying it instead of focusing on what’s wrong with people that think different from you there wouldn’t be a problem.
        Miserable people can find a problem in anything. And its a sad thing about this world.
        Things don’t have to be the way you want them to be. The real problem here is not accepting each other as different.

        • People can train AND be concerned about issues in BJJ at the same time…kinda like walking and chewing gum.

          Is anyone that critiques miserable? Does that apply to men who say Brazilian refs are unfair or that IBJJF rules need changing?

          Are the things they want to see changed rational since there’s a piece of metal and “glory” at stake?

          • Yes you can train and be concerned about issues. Real issues. If a ref makes a wrong call in your opinion its ok to say so. However if you are complaining about refs before you even fight than the problem might be you. Anyway what’s the issue/problem with showing your body or skin? It’s one thing you don’t want to show yours and a nobody should make yiu do it. Another different thing is you think nobody else should show theirs because you think so. Jiu jitsu is not american. It comes from a place where being sexy and showing it is totally acceptable and a good thing. Now if you understand that people think different and it doesn’t necessarily make one right and the other wrong you would understand that sexualizing women is in the persons head and not in how much clothes they are wearing. People who see women as a sex object will do so even if they are covered in clothes from head to toe. So I don’t understand the issue in bjj. What is this causing? How is it infliencing bjj in a bad way? The pics of kyra didn’t afect her personal life in a bad way for sure do how did it do it for bjj or anybody praticing bjj?

          • Paul, you’ve now treaded into the “Mansplaining” territory, and that’s flat out not welcome here. By “not welcome” I mean will be deleted.

            What you also mean to say is “[You’re] trying to keep an argument alive that really isn’t that big of a problem for me.” And let’s be very clear – that’s what you actually mean. A person of the majority telling a person of the minority that no, there actually is no problem, is what’s called ‘splainin or mansplainin or whitesplainin. And it’s bad behavior.

          • Paul…so who determines what issues are “real”? They only count if some prize/loss is on the line?

            The article clearly outlines the difference between showing skin and sexualization, so I think the question of showing skin being a problem has been answered (it isn’t inherently a problem).

            Jiu jitsu isn’t American, and it isn’t Brazilian in origin either. It’s Japanese (who tend to be more conservative than Americans when it comes to female dress), but in a day where social media has an impact to the point where photos of Kyra doing a shoot for a Brazilian magazine then show up on websites around the world, the “it’s her culture” excuse is weak at best. Images have global impact now and honestly, aren’t we playing on the stereotype of the always-hot Brasiliana when we say that? How many Brazilian female BJJ players pose sexually?

            It matters because we’re a community, and everything is public. I heard from a man after the Kyra-butt-photo went up who said his wife wouldn’t train because of the reactions she saw some men having to hot-bjj-girl pics. The men making the comments are responsible for the fire, but it’s a good idea to ask why the fuel was provided in the first place. Mothers and fathers are also online searching for their kids. Do an image search on BJJ women and you see Kyra stripped down in a “hot” pose, and that. People not wanting to train (or deciding to put their kids in karate over BJJ) directly impacts instructors’ wallets.

            That doesn’t even touch on the added potential impact on women’s training environments…hearing men gush over whatever hot photo they saw…and no, it’s not the subjects’ fault some guys act like idiots, but why take the risk? For personal benefit and expression? Good for them, but they don’t get any points for supporting women in BJJ at that moment.

            End of the day though, nobody’s above critique. If we can give women credit for inspiring people to train and showing men that women can be amazing athletes, we can critique them for putting people off training and reinforcing the idea that how she makes herself available is central to her identity. Personally, I think BJJ is unique from other sporting environments and just to physically similar to sex to play with sexualization.

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  16. I don’t consider it to be feminism when it is true. Your points are right on and I agree with your position.

    • I think that’s where different ideas of what is feminist comes into play.

      My secret: sometimes I label things “feminist” to scare away Bro-seph, the dude who upholds bro-culture above all else. He’ll see the word “feminist” and roll his eyes and move on. I really see “feminists” in BJJ as an answer to “bro-culture” in BJJ.

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  18. I wish you’d link the other article on the new advertisements to this article because I have a friend who is doing her research project on women representation in the media. I just found this one now and she was really interested in using martial arts advertisements in her project because it’s something that is rarely looked at.

    Would you be able to link us to some of your other articles or suggest another blogger to look at?

    • Lulu – how did your friend’s research project go? I’d love if you could link to it here!