Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What does a woman look like?

(Hat tip to Jezebel)

What does a woman look like? Fine-boned and petite? Curvy of hip (But not too curvy!)? Full-breasted? Delicate-featured with flowing hair? Creamy-skinned? These are certainly the standards of Western female beauty, but frankly, these descriptors, which are more about the Western male gaze, bear no relation to what women actually look like. And, most importantly, it is not appearance that makes a woman a woman.

It is appearance, though, that has everyone talking about Caster Semenya, an 18-year-old South African runner now competing in the World Championships. Semenya (pictured above and below) is under scrutiny because of her powerful running style and her appearance.

I do not know the results of the IAAF's tests, but I imagine I know how humiliating and intrusive it must be for a teenager far from her rural home, family and friends, to be attacked and questioned and then poked, prodded, tested and forced to prove that she is female enough to compete with other women--and all of this because she doesn't look "right" and because she is too good at her sport.

I know it must be heart-breaking to hear your coach say, as Semenya's did:
I know that people will point to Semenya's narrow hips and broad, muscular shoulders and androgynous voice and say that critics are right to question her femininity, but black women have had their womanhood challenged for much less. First Lady Michelle Obama...pop singer Ciara...the list is long. (Monica at Transgriot has a great series of posts about this issue.) Having a "womanly body" and wearing pretty clothes and makeup is emphatically not enough to help high-profile black women escape charges of not being women at all.

Does Semenya really look all that different from the athlete running beside her in the race photo above? They both look like the stereotypical image of a professional runner--lean and muscular with minimal curves. Yes, Semenya's shoulders are broader and her hair is pulled into corn rows, but so what?
Tonight, according to the Telegraph, Caster Semenya "produced the fifth fastest 800 meters time in history to become a world champion." If only the world were talking about the teenager's remarkable athletic achievement and not speculating about her sex.


Anonymous said...

Amen! I was shocked when I read this story. Just because a woman does not fit the stereotypical image it is OK to question her gender? How humiliating for this woman. Just goes to show that if a woman excels at something, especially something that is often thought of as "male" (e.g. sports, business), she is put in her place in any way necessary...even if it means questioning her biology. What message does this send to young women?

Alaska-womom said...

My hub calls my legs "tree trunks."
I LOVE that. My legs take me where I want to go and they support me when I stand up for myself. I think they look womanly in my way. As a womanist myself, I think that rocks.
Would anyone DARE to say a man looks too feminine for a sport-?Could a male gymnist be too feminine and have a percieved advantage? Hummmmmm.....
Great post, thanks.

Kristen said...

How awful for this young woman. Not to mention, it smacks of discrimination in the case that testing did reveal some chromosomal difference. What, would they throw her out if they found something atypical? Whose business is it anyway? Yikes.

I feel terrible for this girl. How humiliating.

ThirstyDancer said...

Hear! Hear! She is not only being singled out for her physique (which is phenomenal), she is being singled out because she does not groom/present herself in overtly "feminine" ways so as to compensate for her amazing body and physical power. I'll say what I wish her coach had said: "Caster is a beautiful young woman and a powerful athelete. If people look at her and see 'not a woman,' that speaks to their limited vision and experience. I hope that men and women of all ages see her for the extraordinary competitor she is. I especially hope that women are inspired by her to explore their own abilities and ambitions which are too often limited by ideas about what it means to be a woman." Caster, you inspire this woman!

Monica Roberts said...

Here we go again. Black female athlete dominates her competition, gets gender identity questioned because of it.

Caster, just kick their asses from now until you win 800m run gold at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Sassy J said...

Can we say Venus Hottentot??? How disgusting and sad. She is a beautiful woman and it's a shame and a travesty that they would do this to her. Her coaches should have been able to atleast stop the "screenings" from happening.

I hope she blows their socks off...literally!

Chris said...

I feel bad for her because she probably has been mocked all her life. At least she can be finally do something that she can be proud of. Besides, why are they questioning her gender now after she won. If there was a problem, they should have checked her out discreetly before the race instead of embarrassing her after she won.

Monica Roberts said...

If you can't beat her, tear her down.

That's what the overwhelmingly white women's pro tennis tour has tried to do to the Williams sisters for over a decade, and to paraphrase Sister Maya, 'and still they rise'.

Anonymous said...

Your system highlighted this past post. You might want to add a note that Semenya ultimately was found to be intersex, which is what I suspected all along. She did not look like any woman I've ever met.

The discussion of this topic on Jezebel was very disappointing. A rant is not an argument, and there was a failure to present the other sides of the argument, which were valid.


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