On the Airbrushing of Caster Semenya’s Gender

Have you been following the story of Caster Semenya? The South African teenage runner, who won the gold in the women’s 800-meter competition at the World Championships in Berlin, was recently asked to take a gender examination by the event’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations. According to the IAAS, the concern is not that that Semenya lied or cheated, but that she may have some sort of undiagnosed chromosomal condition that may have endowed her with an unfair athletic advantage. Depending on the outcome of the test, Semenya could be stripped of her medal and her title.

Yesterday was a tipping point for the way that Semenya’s gender has been discussed in the media. Until this moment, both Semenya’s self-confidence and her country’s support for her just the way she is have been refreshingly unapologetic. When she arrived in Johannesburg after the gender allegations hit the press, she was greeted by cheering fans, with men shouting “marry me!” and “Caster is hot.” The Young Communist League of South Africa issued a statement condemning the IAAS for requesting a gender test based on notions that “[feed] into the commercial stereotypes of how a woman should look, their facial and physical appearance, as perpetuated by backward Eurocentric definition of beauty.” And the general sentiment issued by Semenya’s inner circle, defending her gender identity in the press, has been unanimously supportive of her unconventional choices. So what, ask her friends and family, if she doesn’t wear dresses or want to date boys?

Well, it was nice while it lasted. Today, Semenya fell victim to the same phenomenon as Susan Boyle some months before her: the softening magazine makeover. Anna North at Jezebel posted a sensitive, incisive analysis of Semenya’s girly magazine shoot for the cover of South Africa’s YOU under the title “How Not to Solve a Gender Dispute.” My favorite bit:

From Susan Boyle to Semenya, magazine “makeovers” send the message that there’s one way for women to look good, and the closer you get to it the happier you’ll be. I’d rather live in a world where Caster Semenya can wear pants if she feels like it, rather than one where she needs a team of stylists to be considered “feminine.”

Like North, I too hope that the day of dress-up and makeup was actually fun for the teenage track star, and can’t help but wonder uneasily to what extent Semenya is now being goaded by the adults who’ve suddenly swarmed around her to push their own agendas.

22 Responses to “On the Airbrushing of Caster Semenya’s Gender”

  1. Mer Says:

    Oof. I feel so intensely protective of her.

    Beautifully said, Nadya. Very glad you linked to Jezebel’s coverage as well. xox

  2. Kale Kip Says:

    I wonder how I would feel posing for a photoshoot in a dress and with makeup and all. I mean, not like a pastiche or anything. Not even like a travesty, but seriously trying put me in a completely different gender identity. I really cannot imagine what that would be like.

  3. Adam Etzion Says:

    This really saddens me when I look at this in a broader perspective.

    We live in an incredibly chauvinistic world.
    If a girl is an outstanding athlete and somewhat square-jawed, her gender is questioned (because hey, apparently, girls can’t really break physical records, can they?), and when it is finally verified that she really is female (the audacity! think what she must feel like, to hear accusations like that, to have your gender publicly discussed world-wide, especially as a teenager!) the only way to cope with that is to “subdue” her image. Make her wear a dress, let down her hair, conform to some sort of required imagery.

    And then you hear people say that women are free today. FreeER, maybe, but we still have a long way to go.

    I feel both sorry for Semenya, personally, and really appreciative.
    In her place, I would be very, very embarrassed and I think it takes extraordinary courage to face the cameras with a smile, like she does.

  4. octopod Says:

    What, and Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong don’t have unfair physical advantages? Or is the endocrine system a SPECIAL system?

    Oh wait. I forgot. They’re boys. It’s OK for them to be awesome.

  5. Jessica Says:

    Thanks Nadya, that was wonderful (and thanks for the link to Jezebel as well!) I’d been curious about this situation. The phrasing in the media has been so odd, I couldn’t quite tell what the issue was, or why it had been raised. So she’s *not* transgender?? That’s what I assumed from the press coverage. How strange and awful that she is being subjected to such invasive scrutiny…and for what? For being amazing at what she does. *sigh*

  6. Hiroshi Hitsugaya Says:

    Not to put the ki-bosh on anybody’s perfectly justifiable feelings of You Go! and How Dare They!, but what if Caster Semenya really is a man? Is it wrong for a biological male to transgender and then dominate a female arena by virtue of altered physicality? On the other hand, why not simply merge the male and female arenas of sports competition and eliminate gender-based divisions entirely? What’s the point of having them in first place?

  7. Nadya Says:

    @ Hiroshi: what will happen if Caster Semenya is diagnosed with one of 20-30 possible intersex conditions (which would obviously be news to her), and if it’s decided that her particular condition endowed her with an unfair physical advantage over her fellow athletes? She will lose her title and be unable to compete in women’s championships on a professional level. That may be heartbreaking for her and her family, but those are the rules of that game. Caster is free to remain a gifted athlete with a female identity, but the world of pro sports in this day and age will be closed to her due to an unlucky twist of biological fate.

    But what fascinates me about this story the most, what I’ve focused on here, has to do more with how the media has been treating her gender. Why the makeover?

    @Mer: Thanks. I stopped reading Jezebel a long time ago because of a lot of nonesense they were writing, but I think the fact that they were one of the first to break this (before Feministing or any of the other similar blogs) redeems them.

    @Jessica The coverage has been vague and a lot of blogs have been misconstruing the original allegations, but from what I can tell, the IAAS isn’t saying that concerned that she’s transgendered and covering up so much as that she may have some sort of heretofore-undiagnosed condition.

  8. Jenni Says:

    What will they do to her next? Goad her into an eating disorder so she can be appropriately skinny? How disgusting. (The people, not the article.) Let people be themselves, male, female or otherwise. Yeesh.

  9. Robin Says:

    Even amongst South Africans, You magazine is basically tabloid trash. They’ve said and done worse, and never bothered with retractions.

  10. badluckshadow13 Says:

    Wow, it’s been a long time since I was genuinely offended by anything… but that right there did it. Pure Bull.
    This is one of those instances where I’m actually so enraged I’d rather punch someone than try to reason with them. The only issue is who will I beat senseless, I’m a very busy woman* you see and only have time to throttle one group. So who should it be? The media or the IAAS?

    *Note: physical and/or mental gender may be disproved by IAAS testing sometime in the immediate future.

  11. Shay Says:

    Thanks for sharing. I love this stuff which lies on the edge of societal boundaries.
    What if she is genetically XY? Does that mean she can’t compete professionally – neither here nor there ? Doesn’t sound very sportsmanlike.
    But then we have professional athletes go through elective surgeries (like pro baseball players go through lasik treatments to get better-than-20/20 vision).
    Isn’t that the same thing? Only Semenya was born this way, while this athletes have deliberately made biological modifications to enhance their performance.

  12. Hugh Says:

    I am very interested in this case, oddly enough after reading an excellent piece in Sports Illustrated(which I would NEVER pick up but just happened to be in my bathroom). David Epstein cited the case of Maria Jose Martinez-Patino, the 1986 Spanish nat’l champ in 60-meter hurdles, and her condition called complete androgen insensitivity. She was genetically male but her body never grew male genitalia/traits. She was unfairly stripped of her title when, in actuality, her lack of response to testosterone would have been a disadvantage.

    The IAAF had a big to-do. Their whole shit was so rocked by this that they got a big group of geneticists, a psychologist, and an endocrinologist to help answer if one can determine gender definitively. Big N-O on that. The point they made (and I found this so surprising in an issue of SI) is that gender is not something the human body is made to fit into neatly.

    The IAAF would have to classify everyone by hormone levels if they wanted to keep things “fair” and even then hormone levels vary widely between people and according to the time of day or anything really. So what the IAAF had concluded is that if someone believes they are a certain gender and they were raised a certain gender, then they are allowed to compete as that gender. It’s less of a headache for everyone if they accept the arbitrary classification of male and female.

  13. Peter S. Says:

    …And now her “test results” are leaked to the press.

    Setting aside the entire issue of gender identity and how offensive some of the press on this has been, HOW THE HELL IS HER MEDICAL RECORD NOT A PRIVATE MATTER?!? Absolutely unconscionable. The matter is her business, and that of anybody she chooses to tell. That the issue was handled the way it was to this point bothered me, but this new level of disclosure is infuriating. If a competitor deliberately cheats, and is found to have done so with proof beyond reasonable doubt, okay. Tell me they were doping, or using banned equipment, or what have you. But there is no way Semenya’s internal biology is any of my, or anyone else’s, business.

    You’ll pardon me. I’m going to go play side two of Zen Arcade until I settle down a little.

  14. Nadya Says:

    Poor Caster. I agree – the way this leaked to the press, it’s not right. I hope that she and her family can handle this. I don’t know if I could’ve handled such scrutiny at her age. My heart goes out to her.

  15. Faina Says:

    Honestly when I saw that photoshoot my impression wasnt that she did it because she was suckered into being changed into someone she’s not but moreso to help make a point , like: people say she doesnt look like a woman, so she must not be one. She trys to show that she DOES look like any average woman [ well athletic woman] , she just doesnt present her apperence in the context that these people associate with feminity. So for one photoshoot, she agrees to be placed in that context where she has makeup and such to prove the point.

    I mean this is based on the fact that she seems to identify as female and seems fine with that as opposed to male or intersex or what have you.

  16. Mer Says:

    Whatever you do, don’t read comment threads on the major news feeds. There are some deeply ignorant, hateful fucks out there. (I mean, we already knew that. But still.)

    That the medical test results were leaked before she even had a chance to hear about them is especially horrifying to me. By the time this storm passes over, an immense amount of damage will have been inflicted on a vulnerable, beautiful, accomplished young woman. For what? FOR FUCKING WHAT?

    No one deserves to be treated this way. Absolutely despicable.

  17. Nadya Says:

    Mer – you’re right. There are some ugly things being said about Caster right now, and it breaks my heart.

    I didn’t want to speculate on the internet about her condition before the tests came out, but I have to say that I’m not surprised by the news that Caster is intersexed. I’ll be following this story very closely to see how it progresses, hoping for the best. (And yes, I’m outraged that the results got leaked this way, and yes, one could argue that it’s all none of our business… but the cat’s out of the bag now.) What I’m really hoping is that Caster’s country and fans don’t abandon her in this vulnerable moment; that the people who held up signs saying “Marry Me” and “Caster is Hot” don’t suddenly turn their backs. I want the people around her to be as loving and supportive as possible.

    I think that she should keep the medal. If I were the runner-up in this competition, I wouldn’t accept Caster’s gold medal if she got knocked out of this. If they were really concerned, they should’ve done the testing before the sports event even began. Whether or not people with conditions like Caster’s should be allowed to complete in the women’s championship… that’s a very, very slippery slope. I was looking at photos of Caster alongside the other runners, and it looks like she could just break any of them in half. Her musculature and physique just appear so much more robust. Can those athletes compete with such a powerhouse, on a purely physical level? I don’t know the physics behind what makes someone a good runner. I’m sure there are tons of factors, that it’s not just about musculature and weight. So… I don’t know. But the pictures made me really wonder.

    Hugh made a good point earlier in this thread, though: “The IAAF would have to classify everyone by hormone levels if they wanted to keep things “fair” and even then hormone levels vary widely between people and according to the time of day or anything really.”I didn’t even consider that concept before he mentioned it here. So, again, I don’t really know enough about the medical complexities here decide what really gives someone the winning advantage.

    To me, the above above is the real ethical mystery here (everything else is a no-brainer: don’t leak medical records, you assholes, be sensitive and informative if you’re in the media covering this, etc… duh). My heart aches for Caster and I want her to continue doing what she loves, if this is where her heart is. But at the same time, I can’t help but imagine myself in the shoes of her fellow athletes. It seems like Caster’s unique physical condition places her in a weird gray area where she may be too fast and strong for the women’s competition, but not fast/strong enough to compete in the men’s competition on a professional level (if she even wanted to do that). Should there be a new type of championship for people with Caster’s condition? The problem is that this condition seems rare, and each case different. I don’t know where you’d come up with that team. And if she IS allowed to continue competing in the women’s championships, I wonder if her personal drive to do her best won’t be crippled by fears of being TOO good: “I’d better not run too fast, or they’ll say I’m too strong to be here again, that no one else stands a chance.”

    I’ll be honest and say that I don’t know the answer here. This is tough. Is there no place for someone like Caster in the world of professional sports? Should she accept that? I’m not saying she SHOULD, but on that topic I’m reminded of a quote from Selene Luna in Issue 02: “I’m living in a world that I don’t fit in. And I’m not upset about it, it’s OK, it’s nobody’s fault. This world cannot be built for every individual. That wouldn’t be efficient, it just doesn’t make sense. That’s fine, but that’s my vulnerability.”

    Thankfully, lot of people from all over the world are offering positive messages to Caster, which I think she needs to hear. The best one I’ve read comes from Dlisted. There are times when he knows just the right things to say. I’m paraphrasing a bit here, but: “tell all of them to suck on your ‘internal testes,’ Caster – you’re keeping that medal!”

  18. Agent Double Oh-No Says:

    Great article – but this thread is truly outstanding. So many angles are discussed and with genuine humaneness. As Agent Double Oh-No, I especially loved it when Nadya wrote, “I’ll be honest and say that I don’t know the answer here.” It’s so easy to dig our feet in on something and just try to defend a position. Much harder, more honest, and more compelling for someone to spell out the complexities and tragedies of life.
    Thanks for confounding me in the middle of my oatmeal – raisins or cranberries or both or neither? Sigh.

  19. badluckshadow13 Says:

    Poor Caster, even if she’s gonna lose the medal, she’s gained a new fan in me… poor compensation maybe but I hope she knows some of us still support her.
    Hell, JD Samson set a picture of Caster as her Twitter background!

  20. jre Says:

    “I’m living in a world that I don’t fit in. And I’m not upset about it, it’s OK, it’s nobody’s fault. This world cannot be built for every individual. That wouldn’t be efficient, it just doesn’t make sense. That’s fine, but that’s my vulnerability.”

    I love this quote. It’s just downright . . . logical. With an issue like this it’s easy for someone to come out and say “This is unfair! She has every right to compete! She can’t help the way she is!” It sounds wonderful in theory, but men and women are divided in competition for good reason. Should there be a separate group for people like her? Transgender is not as easy to define as male or female. There are groups within groups. Should we have a group for people who are 7% male and 93% female? And a group for people who are 7.5% male and 92.5% female? How do you even determine that? And how far will it go?

    I don’t have the answer. I wish the world was fair, I wish everyone fit into an easily definable group, but we don’t.

  21. Faina Says:

    Should there be a separate group for people like her?

    first someone has to convince me that the hormones of two undeveloped, shriveled testes is equal to performance enhancing drugs synthesized in a lab for no other use then to make people physically stronger. I can understand how that would have a superficial effect on secondary sexual characteristics and apperence but to say that is why she is faster then other athletes seems to be a stretch. All of those woman could probably beat the majority of the world’s men in track who’s testosterone levels would make Caster’s look like a joke.

  22. cappy Says:

    I in belief that this kind of thing wouldn’t be as much of a problem if we were a society had a (pretty much) defined “third sex,” like in Hinduism.