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Too fast to be a girl

August 20, 2009

South African sprinter Caster Semenya is making headlines because people aren’t sure if she is a she.  Many think she’s too fast, and must be a he.  She’s “well muscled” with “a dusting of facial hair,” and just 18.   Several weeks ago, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) ordered the teen to take a gender test. They’re still awaiting the results.

Female athletes have changed

Female athletes have changed

This isn’t the first, or the last, time that a professional athlete — many of whose bodies have undergone almost super-human transformations and quite admittedly don’t look like the rest of us — have been scrutinized about their gender. Although in professional sports, where there are clear gender differences and keeping that distinction matters, I suppose it does matter if she’s technically male or female.  Or does it?

Gender becomes a funny thing, especially for female athletes, once your muscles have become so well-developed and your body fat so low that your breast almost disappear.  People have ridiculed the Williams sisters for looking “manly” yet they’ll kick your butt.  Some female athletes have found almost garish ways to over compensate for the gender ambiguity that comes with body building.  Remember Flo Jo’s super-long nails?

What do you think?  Do women have to sacrifice their femininity to excel at sports?  Do gender lines get blurred when we start to improve on the body’s physical condition, and what do we make of this?  Is it wrong that this 18-year old excellent female runner is being accused of gender shifting?  Or is it part and parcel of the game?

J.Mack is a global feminist residing in NYC.

  1. August 20, 2009 10:53 am

    I don’t mean to nitpick, but this the language in the reporting of this story bugs me. She wasn’t ordered to take a “gender” test. She was ordered to take a “sex” text. It’s entirely a medical process and designed to determine her physical sex. “Gender” is a social and psychological term. If they were trying to determine if she *identifies* as male or female, that would be a “gender test”, but they don’t really care (and clearly she identifies as female or she wouldn’t enter the female competitions). What they want to know is if she has a penis or a vagina, and that’s a “sex test”. Totally different things. Given that this kind of thing is kind of important to distinguish these days, the language ambiguity and the appearance of the press to not understand the difference is rather frustrating.

    • caitlin permalink
      August 21, 2009 10:54 pm

      Actually, Semenya was ordered to take a gender test, including visits to a psychologist and a gender expert, amongst assorted other professionals. What is at issue here is that this athlete is not just being asked to take a trip to the gyno, but that she is being ordered to prove herself feminine enough to compete with other women. Biology alone will not determine this woman’s eligibility, and that is pretty outrageous.

  2. srk permalink
    August 20, 2009 11:49 am

    I think there’s two different issues here. One is whether women sacrifice their “femininity” by building muscle tone and lowering their body fat, the other is whether there should be a sharp physiological divide between men’s and women’s sports. In response to the latter, it seems like there must be some kind of divide, unless we want to have unisex sports, which would greatly disadvantage women’s chances of competing (unfortunate, but true). As a biologist, it seems the most clear-cut and least-controversial definition would be a genetic one. If an individual has two X chromosomes, she is a female; if an individual has both an X and a Y chromosome, he is a male. If an individual has more or fewer than two sex chromosomes, he/she probably will not be competing at a professional level due to developmental abnormalities.
    This idea is not new, of course, but it has come under fire by many as being “arbitrary” and “unfair” but I can’t see how any alternate test could be seriously seen as more fair. Should we just determine whether a woman is “too manly” looking? Or test levels of hormones (which vary greatly within a population of the same sex)? The genetic tests have the great advantage of being both clear-cut and rooted in science – not prejudice.
    In response to Rosepixie. While I think this is a valid complaint from someone rooted in gender issues, it must be understood that this sex/gender definition is a relatively new one, and employed almost exclusively by gender studies scholars and their readers. It is as if a philosophy student were to complain about a newspaper article misusing the terms “metaphysical” and “transcendent”. Only one who is too deeply rooted in the argot of his or her field takes exception to its popular usage.

    • Nadia permalink
      August 20, 2009 4:03 pm

      As they should complain. Transcendent and methaphysical have DIFFERENT meanings, and I am no philosophy scholar. Seems that the “hard” sciences always think that their methods are prejudice-free. While to a very large degree that is true, scientific methods are carried out by humans who are terribly flawed and prone to error as well as subjectivity (comes with the territory of being conditioned to view something one way and not another). Everyone has an agenda, even scientists, no matter how much they disagree. Don’t get me wrong, I love science and understand how imperative it is to the world, but let’s not fool ourselves that anything can be objective when we have something to do with it.

    • August 20, 2009 6:31 pm

      “it seems like there must be some kind of divide, unless we want to have unisex sports, which would greatly disadvantage women’s chances of competing (unfortunate, but true)”

      Actually, there is an alternative solution: divisions could be determined by weight class, muscle mass, or some other statistic or combination of statistics (depending on what is most relevant to the sport).

      • srk permalink
        August 21, 2009 10:31 am

        This kind of gender-(sex?)-neutral dogmatism is what turns many laypeople, like myself, off from these discussions. There ARE differences between men and women (or individuals with XX chromosomes and XY chromosomes, however one can more succinctly put it), not least of which is simple athletic ability. Yes, Nadia, the gap is smaller when it comes to endurance sports, but it is still a sizeable gap, and will remain such. (
        There would be no fair way to divvy up the competitors according to weight or muscle mass or percentage of slow-twitch muscle, because for any of those you will find a woman who seems to be at an “advantage” (greater muscle mass than the fastest-running male) but who would still lose.
        My point is this: much (but certainly not all) of modern gender and women’s studies is predicated on the assumption that differences between individuals are due to cultural factors. This is not a bad thought experiment, and it has certainly opened a lot of people’s eyes to just how plastic human beings are capable of being, but in its most dogmatic form it is just silly. Are we not yet to the place where someone can safely say that XY individuals are just generally better adapted for athletics that XX individuals (and for very good reason – if women had pelvises like men, for instance, they would all die in childbirth)? If that kind of concession cannot be made, then the discussion simply cannot move forward. No serious scientist any longer thinks there is a nature/nurture division; it is clear that any human behavior is a complex combination of both, and that nobody born with XX chromosomes is locked into any fate, nor is one born with XY. But if enough vocal critics continue to insist that it’s all nurture, the debate will stagnate.

    • August 21, 2009 9:18 pm

      OK srk, assuming you’re correct that muscle mass or percentage of fast-twitch muscle won’t work (though I notice you offer no real proof of this), we can figure out the reasons for that disadvantage and base divisions on that–unless you’re arguing that there’s some magical totally impossible to identify reason for why women are at a disadvantage (which frankly sounds a lot more like dogmatism than anything anyone else is saying does, so you may want to be careful how you wield that label).

  3. Nadia permalink
    August 20, 2009 3:58 pm

    There is a HUGE difference between sex and gender. Saying that the words are interchangable is wrong. People should use the right terminology, and in this case making excuses for people who are not “in the field” is sad. Making excuses for them is like making excuses for calling anything else something that it is not. The media and general society get this wrong all the time. The error is due to how little the avarge person knows about sex as bi0logocal and gender as a social constrution, which is also why our society today looks as it does, still terribly sexist.
    As for differences in athletics between men and women, that varies. On the whole men tend to be stronger physically, but women tend to have much better endurance (something that is not commonly discussed). As professional athletes become almost superhuman, differences will of course be blurred.

  4. Yale permalink
    August 20, 2009 4:06 pm

    Whether you call it a gender test or sex test; the practice of testing athletes to define between man and woman will continue to have a place in sports. An athlete’s competitive drive to win can often cause them to take erroneous measures to ensure victory. For instance, we’ve see athletes disregard the health of their bodies to take performance enhancing drugs. How far will an athlete go to win? Possibly a sex reassignment operation? Some kind of criteria must be established to draw the boundary between men and women in sports not only because of our physiological differences but to deter athletes willing to do anything to win.

    I would agree with srk regarding the use of XX vs. XY as clear-cut measure between who competes as a woman and as a man. Understandably the issue of assigning gender/sex has many shades of gray, but the events in sports only sees in black and white. Therefore a black and white criteria of XX vs. XY would be warranted.

    • Emily permalink*
      August 21, 2009 1:03 pm

      You can’t determine Canter Semenya’s sex by just doing XX vs. XY. See this article for details:


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