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.


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