I suppose this was inevitable.
Instead of her yellow-and-green tracksuit, she dons a sleek black dress that covers up her washboard abs; gold jewelry, not sweat, drips from her neck; and her cornrows are combed out into a bouncy coiffure. The South African glossy declares in a headline: “Wow, Look at Caster Now!” Also: “Athletics star Caster Semenya as you’ve never seen her before – transformed by YOU from powergirl to glamour girl.”
Well, Caster certainly does look glamorous.
But my first reaction was: how incredibly sad. How sad that this powerhouse of an athlete, this strong human being, this person whose abilities are the admiration of runners the world over, had to sit in a makeup artist’s chair and let stylists drape her with sparkly clothing. All of this, in order to prove to us that she’s a woman.
It’s sad because this is 2009 and we know — because we’ve seen drag queens who look more glamorous and fabulous than Liz Taylor — that makeup and glitter do not a female make. We know — because we’ve seen athletes like Dara Torres and Florence Joyner* — that strength and raw power are just as womanly as soft curves and lipstick.
It’s sad because no matter what she wears, or how much she (or her pr people) tell us that she wishes she had more opportunities to dress up like a girl, there are people who won’t believe that she’s a woman. She’ll still end up the loser.
Now, I don’t know if Caster Semenya is “female” in the way that we traditionally think “female.” She may have hormonal or chromosomal variations that don’t fit into the box some would like to assign her. She may be biologically male. Or, she may simply be a woman whose body lacks curves and reflects the work she puts in it, and whose face doesn’t fit the golden ratio.
But for many women, maintaining the authenticity of womanhood can be like navigating a minefield. If a woman is going to be athletic, she’d better be pretty to make up for it. If she wants to be fit, she should focus on looking “toned,” not being strong. If she’s going to read books, she’d also better know how to apply eyeliner. And if she’s going into a male-dominated career, then she needs to know how to make men comfortable with her presence. For years, women have been taught to take pride in bringing home the bacon and frying it up in the pan, but what happens when the woman bringing it home doesn’t look like a fashion model? Or, in Caster’s case, when a high-performing woman doesn’t look like FloJo?
*Who, alternately, faced doping allegations in her time.