Caster Semenya’s Answer.


I suppose this was inevitable.

Caster Semenya, South African runner we’ve talked about here and here, got her nails painted and donned a sequined tunic in SA glossy You magazine. According to Tracy at Salon:

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.

14 thoughts on “Caster Semenya’s Answer.

  1. FilthyGrandeur September 9, 2009 at 12:48 pm Reply

    this whole thing is very sad. i feel awful that Semenya is being pressured in this way to perform a gender which she has already identified with all her life, and making her where makeup and jewelry is like saying there’s a wrong way to be feminine.

  2. Temi September 9, 2009 at 1:14 pm Reply

    “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.”

    I think the point was that she might have a biological advantage over her peers and the testing was to make sure that wasn’t the case. Athletics are probably the best meritocracy we have.

    • shani-o September 9, 2009 at 1:38 pm Reply

      Athletics are probably the best meritocracy we have.

      I couldn’t disagree more with that.

      Don’t Lance Armstrong’s oversized lungs and extra-long femurs, and Michael Phelps’ long torso put the two of them at a “biological advantage”? My point is that biology isn’t neat and orderly, the way we like to think it is.

      From the beginning, I’ve wanted to know why she’s been accused of being male, rather than doping. And frankly, the only answer I’ve seen is about her appearance — the questions about her performance don’t make sense because a recent dramatic increase in performance doesn’t square with ‘she was a man all along.’

      But this post is about the fact that her pr people dressed her up and painted her face because that’s supposed to equal “woman.” This isn’t about the merits of the sex testing; this is about the ridiculous assumption that to be authentically female, she’s supposed to meet some metric of appearance and behavior…when biologically, neither of those things are accurate measurements.

      • Temi September 9, 2009 at 2:06 pm Reply

        For the most part if you’re fast, you’re fast it really doesn’t matter how you look. Yeah she doesn’t look like most folks but very few world athletes in her class do. I think most women who run the 800 have similar bodies. I find it hard to believe that the sole reason she was tested was because of her looks.

        I think the makeover was stupid too but i’m not against gender testing i just think it should have been done privately and quickly.

      • Scipio Africanus September 9, 2009 at 2:58 pm Reply

        There’s fair and there’s unfair advantages, though. Two “men” competing against each other in a foot, swimming, or biking race, assuming they both qualified in the first place, is generally considered fair, regardless as to who’s femurs are longer, or who’s got bigger lungs. As a society, we haven’t gotten to the point where we consider a man racing a woman to be fair. Until the point comes where men and women (as broad groups, not just individuals) athletes at any given level are essentially capable of the same physical tasks, that shouldn’t change.

        • shani-o September 9, 2009 at 3:15 pm Reply

          Okay. That’s true, sort of. But like I said, this post isn’t about the merits of sex testing… it’s about the gender-performance makeover Caster received.

          This question is for both you and Temi. Why do you think she being accused of being a man as opposed to being accused of using PEDs? The question I asked in my very first post was “why have these allegations been following her?” Her performance isn’t that extraordinary.

          • Scipio Africanus September 9, 2009 at 3:36 pm Reply

            I think they should just be testing her for doping strictly. Based on what I’ve read on the internet, her times have improved dramatically, recently. That’s enough, to me. My guess is that the people with real say-so adn power in teh track world pushing for her to be tested either haven’t thought it through, or are simply trying to embarrass her.

            • lsn September 10, 2009 at 6:22 pm Reply

              I agree they should be testing for doping (especially given who her coach apparently is) but her time improvements could also be just that she’s actually received specialist training for the first time. The impression I had (which may be wrong) was that she’d only been picked up and had top level training fairly recently.

    • ladyfresh September 9, 2009 at 2:05 pm Reply

      The thing is Michael Phelps has a biological advantage over his peers as well. This athletic meritocracy maybe illusory.

  3. Grump September 9, 2009 at 1:46 pm Reply

    Its a PR battle and South Africa is trying to win. Good job with this instance.

  4. ladyfresh September 9, 2009 at 2:07 pm Reply

    i like that top!

    I hate that she felt the need to do this. I’m still not sure what it proves. There are plenty of men that are more feminine than I and look better in a dress.


  5. Bourgie, JD September 9, 2009 at 10:56 pm Reply

    I was just thinking this same thing (and blogged about it too before noticing you beat me to it!) Obvy I’m not as articulate about the issue as you were here, probably because I’m so infuriated and confused by the way the testing and this “makeover” was handled that I can’t get the thoughts out fast enough.

    I agree that sex and gender are not the neat categories that society wants them to be. Slapping a dress and some makeup on Semenya seems totally pointless other than to appease people who want her to fit into some acceptable box of femininity and womanhood that is neither well-defined or universally accepted.

    Semenya is still quite young so I’d hate to have her manipulated into some transformation that has boo to do with her performance as an athlete or her happiness. Still, maybe I’m projecting and Semenya is really is into this. Perhaps deep inside she was desperately pining away for a talk show-quality makeover instead of burning the rubber off of her Nikes. *deadpans to the camera*

  6. Semenya is Intersex. « PostBourgie September 11, 2009 at 8:55 am Reply

    […] Categories: Africa, Gender, Sexism and Sports Tags: Caster Semenya A few days ago, I lamented that South African runner Caster Semenya was forced to perform gender to allay the public’s […]

  7. James K McIntyre September 13, 2009 at 12:01 pm Reply

    Caster Semenya has a unique condition of possessing remnants of both male and female genitalia. Intersexuality, as it is known scientifically, is indeed a rarity in ‘higher’ animals. With this condition, if an individual can not function as both a male and a female reproductively, it is more correctly termed pseudohermaphrodite. The rarest of this pseudohermaphrodite condition is a male pseudohermaphrodite in which an individual appears, phenotypically, female but whose internal genitalia are those representing “maleness.” Caster Semenya appears to be this type. A colleague and I have been studying a unique form of intersexuality on remote islands of the archipelago of Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific since 1993.( See
    On certain isolated islands intersexual pigs are found possessing this condition. On Vanuatu, pigs are woven into the very fabric of traditional life. Male pseudohermaphroditic pigs can be found here in relative abundance and nowhere else in the world. Occasionally intersexes are identified in pig and cow slaughter houses throughout the world. Because these unique pigs are revered by the villagers in Vanuatu that still practice “Kastom”, this condition is purposely bred for, thus perpetuating the condition. A man’s value in a Vanuatu village is proportional to how many pigs he owns. These intersexual pigs are worth one hundred “normal” pigs and are, indeed, a valuable commodity.
    Because of our research, another mammal species with this condition has been identified which will enable us to learn more about this condition in humans.
    For more information contact;
    James K. McIntyre
    Southwest Pacific Research Foundation
    1009 White Street
    Fernandina Beach, Fl. 32034 USA

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