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Gender, looks and constructed identities

So, I’m not a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, an internal medicine specialist or an expert on gender, all of whom are being asked to evaluate Caster Semenya”s gender, so I am not going to venture an opinion, beyond the fact that clearly she believes she is a woman. What interests me is how the issue is being reported and the way it is discussed and what it says about our construction of female gender identity.

I am somewhat gobsmacked that The Punch seems to think it is reasonable to run a “What do you reckon?” headline, and doesn’t see the irony in quoting the IAAF saying:

We are more concerned for the person and not to make this as something that is humiliating.

And yet they are willing to run a bit of a straw poll on it while noting:

Nice sensitivity here. Hypocrisy aside, as a comment points out, given the complexity of the testing involved, how ridiculous to ask people to judge on the basis of some photos.

Meanwhile, over at the Sydney Morning Herald, an article argues that the ‘questions’ are inevitable given her brawny physique, powerful style and noticeable facial hair.

So is Semenya the first woman to have facial hair? Is she the first elite female athlete to have a brawny physique and powerful style? Our socially constructed notions of femininity mean that pretty much anyone feels it is OK to make a judgement about Semenya because she has a deep voice or has facial hair. And yet, facial hair is really not that unusual in women – if women didn’t pluck, shave, wax and dye in order to conform with what society requires one to look like in order to be considered attractive you would see plenty of women with facial hair.

No elite athletes have normal bodies either. You’ll see very few women in distance running with breasts – the amount of body fat they have is so low that breasts barely appear. Elite sport requires individuals to twist and distort their bodies to such extreme ends that they do not resemble the rest of us. And for female athletes this often means being disproportionately muscular. Some female athletes have adopted hyper-feminine hair styles, make up and other accoutrements to compensate for this muscularising masculinising. Florence Griffith Joyner is probably the most extreme example of this over-determined, hyper feminised style. Power and muscles are a critical component of elite sport.

Sport, and athletics in particular, has not been without its gender controversies. The manner in which young women athletes were provided testosterone at critical developmental stages in Eastern Europe during the 1980s helped blur some gender lines, and cause genuine trauma and angst and gender identity issues for the people involved.  But in the case of Semenya, one imagines that whatever the experts say she will always be viewed as not-a-woman because she does not conform to what we expect from women, to what we demand women to be. And whatever the experts decide, we should not be making judgements about gender identities on looks.

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