The Return of the Body Police…On bodies, sports performance, and fun

Caster Semenya ahead of the pack in the women's 800m, Rio 2016. Photo credit: Michael Sohn, AP
Caster Semenya ahead of the pack in the women’s 800m, Rio 2016. Photo credit: Michael Sohn, AP

“You know, it’s not about being muscular. It’s about sports. When you walk out of your apartment, you think about performing. You don’t think about how your opponents look. You just want to do better. I think the advice to everybody is to go out and have fun.” So said South African track star Caster Semenya upon winning the women’s 800m at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Semenya came under scrutiny in 2012, her “status” as a woman called into question as controversy swirled around her hormones and whether they were “the right level” to make her a woman. She was then subjected to a battery of tests to prove her “legitimacy.”

This year in Rio,

 Seymena won in 1:55.28s – the fastest in the world this year and a personal best – with Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Margaret Nyairera Wambui of Kenya completing the podium.

Much like Semenya four years ago, when she shot to prominence after winning the 800m world championship, the silver and bronze medallists have been the subject of innuendo and suspicion about whether they are “intersex”.

We could write volumes about the indignities that these athletes are subjected to because of their stellar athletic performance. Many of their opponents are crying foul. Meanwhile, the IAAF has required some athletes with the “wrong” levels to take hormone-suppressing drugs.

When reporters started to question the silver and bronze medalists about whether they were taking such drugs, and the athletes attempted to stick to their race performance, Semenya interjected:

“My friend, tonight is all about performance,” she said. “We’re not here to talk about IAAF, we’re not here to talk about some speculations. Tonight is all about performance. This press conference is about the 800m that we saw here today. So, thank you.”

As a friend of mine pointed out on social media yesterday in the comment thread when I posted this very article, Usain Bolt is a foot taller than the rest of the field in his sport (short distance track running) but no one complains about an unfair advantage. No. He’s just “naturally gifted.”

We’ve blogged before about how the test for testosterone levels in women athletes relies on a very strict interpretation of the gender binary. But as long as we are going to rely on that binary, we need to recognize that simply having more testosterone is not on its own an advantage (not nearly as much as Bolt’s height is, for example, and yet we don’t question his right to his spot on the podium).

If you haven’t made the connection yet, this line of questioning (about someone’s womanhood) is yet further evidence of the constant scrutiny women’s bodies get subjected to. It’s nonstop. If it doesn’t come from one direction, it’ll come from another.

Women’s bodies are scrutinized for being too fat, too thin, too manly (that is, muscular), too fast, too strong. We are supposed to want to lose weight (even if we are supposed to pretend that’s not the goal) or change our body composition. But not too much.

And though it’s a topic of another post that I will not be able to get into here, things are even worse for trans women athletes, whose right to compete is frequently called into question.

Pumping Iron 2: The Women explored the issue of women’s physique in bodybuilding in 1985. There’s a fascinating conversation in the film about how standards of femininity should be enforced in competitions. Because of that,  the more muscular Bev Francis (a power lifter turned body builder) placed eighth, the more “feminine” Rachel McLish did better. Carla Dunlap, at neither extreme, placed first.

Lately on the blog we’ve seen quite a bit on food/diet and body image. Catherine’s post about food as beyond good and evil got the attention of WordPress, making it to the Editors’ Choice list.

No matter how much we wish we could bring the focus back to sport performance and body acceptance, the conversation always gravitates towards how our bodies look or should look (and whether we should care or use that as a motive). What about acceptance? What about body neutrality?

One of my favorite posts in the blog archives is Sam’s “Athletic versus Aesthetics Values in the Pursuit of Fitness.” There she says:

What’s different about athletes? Athletes care about competing and about winning, not about what you look like. It’s a very different world than mainstream culture in which looks play such an enormous role. Generally speaking, among people who view themselves as athletes, people respect you for what you can do.

This captures nicely the opening quote from Caster Semenya. It’s all about your performance on the track, in the pool, on the course, on the mat/balance beam/uneven bars…

And as our “Shape of an Athlete” post makes clear with its focus on Howard Schatz’s amazing photos of athletes from a wide range of sports, there is no one way for an athletic body to look anyway, so the whole idea of “the athletic body” is elusive at best.

Shape of an athlete

Here at the blog we like to challenge the idea of activity for the sake of weight loss and looking a certain way. We promote body positivity and diversity. We’re all for engaging in sport for fun, for the challenge, for the sense of energy and accomplishment, for health, for flexibility, to increase your quality of life, to spend time with friends and family, whatever your reasons.

That means we put body sculpting and weight loss pretty far down the list of good motivators. Why? Because (1) it’s about time people started taking body diversity seriously and recognizing how damaging the narrow ideal of the “normative body” can be socially, politically, and even physically, (2) isn’t everyone sick and tired of how the social imperative to achieve that body is used against people who don’t? and (3) it’s not an achievable goal for the majority of people anyway, and it would be a bad thing if everyone who didn’t reach their “goal weight” ditched their activities because they “didn’t work.”

I like that Semenya included “fun” in the list. For many of us, it’s not only or always about performance. The athlete who comes in last still did something amazing that she can feel good about. Our activities aren’t unsuccessful if they don’t result in weight loss and a “fit” physique. It’s not even the case that everyone who has that physique is healthy — see “She May Look Healthy But…Why Fitness Models Aren’t Models of Health.”

Body policing lurks in the background for most women, oftentimes it’s even self-imposed by internalized messages that are hard to shake. Even when we are attempting consciously to reverse years of conditioning, it’s difficult to do. Friends, relatives, strangers, doctors all feel entitled to comment on our bodies.  That’s why “‘You’ve lost weight, you look great!” isn’t a compliment.”

So it’s up to us to challenge the dominant messages.  That’s one reason why I will not engage in conversations about weight loss (in myself or others) and why I find it a combination of sad and disturbing when someone makes a public show of  their “weight loss journey,” as if the rest of the world should care.

That we are all expected to care (and lots actually do) is evidence in itself of the way the value of weight loss and body aesthetics permeates social attitudes in the West.  And when we make a public show of it, seeking congratulations and pats on the back, that reinforces the idea that body policing is okay.

Well, it’s not.

Have you been body-policed lately or witnessed it (or done it to someone?)? How do you respond when it happens?

3 thoughts on “The Return of the Body Police…On bodies, sports performance, and fun

  1. Your post really hits some strong resonance notes. The olympics for me is a very body positive time because I get to witness and revel in diversity of sport and diversity of bodies doing strange and wonderful things. But this year the sexism and transphobia has been disheartening. Reminding myself about the fun always helps. It doesn’t make the world more just, but seeing those faces and bodies concentrating and working offers some respite from policing.

  2. I thought it was great that US gold medallist, Simone Biles strong short muscular body at 4’11” defied the typical slim ballerina gymnastics-like body of women.

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