After training for a while, martial artists rarely look like potential victims when they walk down the street, though sometimes they err on the side of looking too aggressive. Learning that you can fight effectively can be a power trip and many people go through a stage where they want to flaunt their ability.
As with most things in life, what you really want is a middle ground. You want to look confident and aware, but you don't want to give others the impression that you're looking for a fight.
My first exposure to this idea didn't come in a martial arts class, though. It was in an essay by Michael Ventura called "White Boys Dancing," which originally appeared in the Austin Sun in about 1976 and was later included in Ventura's collection Shadow Dancing in the U.S.A.
Ventura, who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, had this to say about the proper way to carry yourself:
You have to show the street, at all times, just how tough you are. And it has to be precise: too much and somebody a lot tougher than you may feel they have to take you to keep their status; too little, and they take you for sport. You shade your moves for who you’re with and where you are, and if you walk around a corner and, like the Springsteen song says, things get real quiet real fast, you shade your moves for what you think your chances are. It’s a reflex.
That was what he learned to do as a young man growing up. It impressed me at the time, though I didn't have any idea how to do it. But he said something else in that article, something that has also stayed with me all these years: He said women of all backgrounds and classes know how to do this sort of thing, too.
In his opinion, middle and upper class white men -- men who don't grow up confronting threats on a regular basis -- aren't particularly good at figuring out how to carry themselves. But women know they're at risk from an early age, and they develop instincts on how to carry themselves. Here's what he said:
No matter what level of society a woman’s from, her primary awareness right from the first is of her body. She’s not necessarily conscious of this, but that doesn’t matter. From her earliest memories, what she puts on her body and how it moves is how she’s judged. ... As she learns the dangers of having a female body today and the effects she can produce, she learns to control the signal it sends and receives with a subtlety that is so much a part of her she rarely need think of it.
If Ventura's right, and I think he is, most women already understand the core principles of projecting confidence. All they need to avoid presenting themselves as victims is enough physical training to know that they can do something if they're attacked.
Ventura wrote the article in the context of dancing -- his explanation for upper class white guys were lousy dancers as compared to those who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. The dancing aspect is probably not as universal as he implies, but the basic idea remains: How you move is how you're judged. And you learn how to move by instinct, by responding to potential sources of trouble.
The more you pay attention, the more you'll understand those instincts.
You can read all of Ventura's essay on his website. Click on "Excerpts from Books" and then on "White Boys Dancing." It's a pdf file.