Not “Woman-Enough” to Compete: The Curious (Disgusting) Case of Caster Semenya

UPDATE: CBC Ottawa interviewed me about this blog post. Click here to listen to the interview. The corresponding CBC article can be found here.

Caster Semenya lost her appeal of her discrimination case. For more info, you can check out the link below:

“BBC- As the South African athlete loses her discrimination case against the IAAF, we look at what it means in the debate about women and athletics.

Source: What Caster Semenya IAAF discrimination case means for women and sport — BBC News”

My thoughts:

Well, I honestly first thought about myself. I, for all intents and purposes, am biologically female. I was born with what has been classified as female reproductive organs. To this day I still have (sometimes, much to my chagrin, lol) those very same female reproductive organs. I am cis-gender. My sex matches my gender. I identify as female. She/her are my pronouns. I believe I present as female. And (save for maybe three ignorant people over the course of my life and a handful of times when I have been misgendered when talking to tech support over the phone because for some apparently my voice sounds masculine), the great majority of people whom I encounter on a day-to-day basis treat me as female. They refer to me as “Ms.” or “ma’am,” they open doors for me, they lead me to the woman’s section in the department store, they let me use the woman’s washroom unbothered, they relate to me as a woman, they try to get into my pants — that sort of thing. The female experience.

But I also have PCOS. One of the implications of having PCOS is having excess androgens — male sexual hormones, testosterone being one of them. It’s the reason why my beard used to rival my brother’s. It’s the reason why — since puberty — I’ve always been a little bigger than other girls my age. It’s the reason why I carry weight around my midsection much like middle-aged men do. It’s the reason why I gain muscle easily; it accounts for my muscular build. It’s why I’m heavier than most women. It’s also why I’m stronger than the average woman. It is perhaps the reason why my voice is (slightly) deeper than other women.

As you are probably all aware if you have been following me for any length of time, I’ve always struggled with this. For a long time, I tried and wanted to be small like other women. It was only a few years ago that I realized that perhaps my differences were my strength and that perhaps I should put my muscle to some good use. That perhaps under all of the insecurities was actually an athlete.

I’m happy to report that the build of my body has thus far served me quite well in my fitness career and in life in general.

It is no secret that others do the same sort of skills/talent inventory. Don’t we encourage as much as a society? We see flexible kids and we put them in gymnastics. We see the tall lanky kids and encourage them to be runners or basketball players. I was always encouraged to try shotput because — again — gym teachers saw a big, strong girl and decided that that would be a sport I could do well. It’s also how my sister discovered flag football. Their latent athletic ability was not their “fault.”

The fact of the matter is, most, if not all professional athletes have a genetic advantage. It’s genetics and hard work yes, but even Malcolm Gladwell would agree that if me and Steph Curry put 10 000 hours into playing basketball, Steph Curry would still be better than me. That’s why we’re not all Michael Jordan or Michael Phelps. No, it isn’t fair. But favour seldom is. Talent seldom is. No one ever said that life would be fair.

I can’t imagine that me — with my largeness and excess testosterone — would ever be excluded from any sport. I have never been excluded from any activity just because I have more testosterone. And yet it is interesting that Caster is.

Like me, it is not Caster’s fault that she has higher testosterone than her female competitors. Caster is not cheating by being who she is.

Of course, much of it is about appearances and what the patriarchy says a woman “ought” to look like. Because, I suppose, I “look like a woman” no one bats an eye, but because Caster looks more masculine people became suspicious. So a lot of this is about Caster not looking woman enough. Not being woman enough. Other comments have noted that if Caster wasn’t good, if she wasn’t winning, no one would care. No one would scrutinize her gender so closely. So now she is ordered to take “testosterone suppressants” — i.e. suppress who you are, because you are too good; i.e. women’s testosterone falls within a certain range and you need to become more woman in order to compete.

In the history of sports, women were not strong enough, or too emotional (Serena Williams), or too flashy (Flo Jo and Serena Williams), or too fat (Taylor Townsend and Serena Williams), or just too good (Surya Bonaly), but now women are not considered woman-enough. And all of my previous examples are ones of how Black female athletes have been penalized unduly and I wonder if race continues to play a fundamental role here. I think about Michelle Obama and the frequent comparisons of her to an ape, or the allegations that she’s secretly a man. But that’s just it isn’t it? When you’re a successful Black woman, the only way to attack you is if they compare you to an animal or to a man.

Essentially the IAAF has called her femininity into question, which is highly insulting. And Caster is forced to prove — again and again and again — her womanness, which is highly humiliating.

It also begs the question: who decides who is female? Who or what is a woman? How is that determined? Is it determined by genitalia? Is it decided by the ratio of estrogen to testosterone? Is it biologically defined or is it psychologically determined? Does lived experience play a role? And whatever conclusion we come to, how do, transgender women — transgender female athletes — fit into all of this? It can be argued that some transgender female athletes have a biological edge over cis-gender female athletes. Do we/should we create categories for women who society deems are not women-enough? Is that fair? Might we need to rethink our categorizations altogether?

What about intersex women (apparently Caster has intersex traits)? Many of them “look” and identify as female. Society often accepts them as such. Some don’t even know that they are intersex. Are they not women?

There are women — and I’m not talking about transgender women or intersex women — who do not have a uterus or ovaries. Are they not women? One might argue that not having a uterus is not a biological advantage in the context of athletics, but then again — not having a period can be a competitive advantage.

The fact of the matter is that it is becoming increasingly harder today to rigidly define femininity — to ascribe to people a certain list of characteristics that one must have in order to identify as female — as we as a society do away with the gender binary and come to embrace gender fluidity and the lived experience that sex is not synonymous with gender.

(And what about privacy and confidentiality?!!! Why do we know so much about Caster’s sex and gender?)

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Activism, Advocacy and Awareness, caster semenya, discriminaton, intersex, olympics, PCOS, testosterone Fat Feminism, Body Positivity and Size Acceptance

Originally published at on May 2, 2019.

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