Saartjie, Semenya and Me

I am a woman.  This is true because it’s biologically true and can be proven medically and scientifically.  More importantly, it’s true because I identify as a woman.  I always have.  There was a time when I thought I was a somewhat mannish woman, but I still identified as a woman.  There are times when people manage to mistake me for a man, but it hardly matters.  I know I’m a woman, and I know that — to anyone who actually looks at me — I look like a woman.  But even if I didn’t look like a woman, I am in no danger of anyone challenging either my biology or my identification.  There’s pretty much no situation in which I would be pressured to submit to a gender verification test.

I am saying all of this, as must be clear, out of anger over what’s been done to Mokgadi Caster Semenya.  Semenya’s story infuriates me on so many levels.  The simplest of these is that Semenya is a child, and we’re supposed to protect our children.  Instead, she has been thrust onto the public stage and exposed in a way that can only be seen as unconscionable.

The International Association of Athletics Federation claims it is insisting that Semenya’s gender be verified because her race times improved dramatically in recent months.  Ok, she improved her scores to a degree that surprised you and made you suspicious. Fine. But why a gender test, exactly? Why not a doping test?  It’s impossible for a female athlete to improve her performance and so therefore Semenya must not be a woman?  Because come on: if you had a question about her gender, that question didn’t suddenly occur to you when she started to run well.  That question would have been on your mind the moment she began to compete in women’s races.  So if you didn’t have a problem with her entering the competition as a woman, your shock at her performance shouldn’t be about her gender.  But maybe you didn’t bother to notice her until she started running so well.  Ok, so you notice her and you think she doesn’t look the way you think a girl should look.  Fine.  You could think of no other way to handle the situation than to inform her just before she was about to run that she had to submit to this gender test?  And you needed to ‘accidentally’ make this a public event rather than handle the situation with discretion and sensitivity?  Your only course of action was to make an international spectacle of an 18-year-old girl?  Smooth, IAAF.  Well-played.

I am angry because Semenya’s treatment by the IAAF recalls a whole host of things that continue to be true in terms of dominant culture’s in/ability to see and accept women’s bodies in general, and black women’s bodies in particular.  Our ‘otherness’ has been at issue since the first non-African man saw an African woman.  And, of course, all of this forces Saartjie Baartman to the front of my brain.  Baartman was the African woman who was exhibited in Europe as the Hottentot Venus.¹

A white world’s perception of Baartman’s body was the issue, and it is a white world’s perception of Semenya’s body that is the issue today.  Yes, the IAAF is international, not solely European, but it is stereotypical white womanhood that sets the ‘norms’ of feminine beauty and body types that the rest of us are expected to aspire to.   Baartman’s female body was so ‘alien’ to the people who paid to gawk at and touch her that they comforted themselves by making her into an animal, into something less than human.  Baartman’s body was too female, too unlike the European women her audiences were accustomed to.  She couldn’t possibly be a woman, a normal woman.

Semenya is in the same story, fast-forwarded two hundred years and switched up to keep things fresh.  Semenya looks like a boy.  As if we’ve never seen women who looked like boys.  Dominant culture keeps telling us how alluring we would be if we had boy-bodies, if we could wake up tomorrow virtually hip- and breastless like Twiggy or Kate Moss … or, perhaps, like this:







No one questioned this runner’s gender, but couldn’t this be a boy as easily as a girl?²

So, if having a boy’s body is a good thing, Semenya has an ideal body, no?  No.  Semenya’s body is too boylike, too unlike the female bodies her audience can accept.  Baartman was too female; Semenya isn’t female enough.  But it hardly matters where these women fall on the spectrum, the response is the same: to humiliate and objectify.

So far, Semenya is handling this with a grace I can only dream of.  As the cameras zoomed in on her before that 800 meter race, she mimed brushing off her shoulders.  I can’t imagine it’s as simple as that, but I applaud her ability to appear so together in that moment and in all the ones I’ve seen her in since then.

I will never have to worry about gender testing.  People may respond to my body in ways I don’t like but no one questions my gender because I have a body that has all the commonly-accepted markers that say ‘female’ to any casual observer.  Semenya’s family and many of her countrymen accept her and stand behind her.  I hope that’s enough to push back some of the pain and anger the IAAF has caused her.


¹  If this is a story with which you are unfamiliar, it’s painful but worth looking up. I am sick to my stomach when I think of what happened to Baartman, both before and after her death. The idea that her genitals were preserved and kept on display in a Paris museum until 1974 is unfathomable to me. 1974, people. Who’s the animal in this picture? 1974. I was alive then, only 8 years away from my first trip to Paris.
² This is a photo of Zola Budd, another South African teenager who shocked everyone with her fast running times … but there was never any question of her gender.  Elfin, I think one of my friends said at the time.  Clearly enough like a girl for everyone to be comfortable seeing her as a girl.


2 thoughts on “Saartjie, Semenya and Me

  1. molly

    Yes, you are right. You remind of a novel, The Voyage of the Narwhal, by Andrea Barrett, that addressed the “people as scientific exhibits” issue, among other things. it was heartwarming to see the support surrounding this great athlete.


    1. Yes, I was glad to see that so many people stepped up to denounce the way Semenya was treated. I can’t imagine having to deal with a situation like that. I just hope it doesn’t make her reconsider her decision to compete on the international playing field.


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