athletes · body image · fitness · gender policing · inclusiveness · Martha's Musings · Olympics · racism · sexism · stereotypes

Women, sport and sex tests: Why Caster Semenya matters a great deal

Many years ago I had the good fortune to work with a board full of fabulous women representing a wide diversity of interests, experiences and backgrounds. One of the women had competed in the Montreal Olympics. She described for us one day what it was like to be subjected to a sex test. Her emotions were palpable, especially the anger.

In fact, we should all be angry, for the women athletes in the past whose physical embodiment was questioned and for the women athletes of today and in the future. The policing of women’s bodies, from what they wear to how they are portrayed, is widespread in all aspects of society, not just sport. However, women who excel in sport and wish to compete at the highest levels are subject to scrutiny that goes above and beyond the sort leveled at all athletes when it concerns drug enhancements. This kind of scrutiny has now been enshrined with this week’s decision from the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland in which they ruled against middle distance runner Caster Semenya’s appeal of the IAAF’s move to enforce new regulations regarding athletes differences of sexual development (DDS). In particular, the IAAF says female athletes who have higher than usual levels of testosterone must take drugs to reduce those levels to even the playing field.

Semenya’s career in track has been dogged by constant allegations that her achievements in the sport are unfairly won. Curiously, US swimmer Michael Phelps, whose body produces less lactic acid, is deemed to be exceptionally fortunate to be born with this genetic advantage.

And yet, no one is suggesting Phelps should take drugs to enable his body to produce more lactic acid so his competitors have a more equal opportunity.

We cannot forget that along with the sexism this decision against Semenya perpetuates, it is also supporting a racist assumption on how black bodies perform compared to white ones. Acclaimed tennis champion Serena Williams has been constantly challenged on her accomplishments and her body size, shape and presentation. This CNN article gives a great overview about the biases against Williams, including the assumption that her excellence erases her female identity.

The belief that Williams and Semenya are so good at what they do, they cannot possibly be women is one that has long been used to attack women who excel in sport. But it seems particularly pervasive in its use against black women. Semenya’s body naturally produces more testosterone than is usually found in women. Yet the research is unclear how natural testosterone affects performance compared to artificial hormones used to enhance performance:

“What’s clear is that there is solid evidence that men who take excessive doses of testosterone … do get a competitive advantage clearly in sports related to strength,” said Bradley Anawalt, a hormone specialist and University of Washington Medical Center’s chief of medicine.The problem, said Anawalt, is that attempts to try to quantify that competitive advantage in naturally occurring levels of the hormone are “fraught with difficulty in interpretation.”

The CAS decision was meant to clarify and instead muddied the waters even further. They upheld the IAAF decision but said they should take more time to implement. They agreed with the concept of the rule DDS athletes should reduce their testosterone, but were concerned about the effects on athlete’s bodies. They said it was fine for the IAAF to apply this rule to athletes racing under 1000 metres but athletes running longer distances were fine.

The Semenya case has implications that are far-reaching. We know women have been over-medicated, often to their detriment. We know that chemical castration has been used to manage pedophiles. But Semenya is neither depressed nor a criminal. She is an athlete performing her best with the tools she was born with.

That the IAAF and its head Sebastian Coe have created an environment in which Semenya can be neither her best or herself is untenable. I am glad Canada’s Minister for Sport has called out this decision. We need to have conversations about sexism, racism, and transphobia in sport; more importantly we need action. Follow #HandsOffCaster or #LetHerRun, among others, on Twitter; sign this petition; become informed; and make your views known and heard.

accessibility · advertising · gender policing

Dream Bigger, not “Crazier” Please Nike

We haven’t shared the new Nike women’s sports ad on the blog–much as we love almost all of it–because we’ve been nervous about the “crazy talk.” The “Dream Crazier” ad for the “Just Do It” campaign features women throughout history breaking down barriers in sports. The commercial, narrated by Serena Williams and featuring an all-female cast, shows women in sports ranging from running to tennis to boxing being celebrated for their passion. And that’s terrific, right? Mostly yes but it’s complicated.

The ad lists the ways in which women have been called crazy for wanting to participate in sports. It’s a long list. But instead of criticizing the use of crazy-talk as ableist the ad tries to take back the language of “crazy.” It urges women to be crazier.

Sometimes reclaiming language is a good thing but I am not sure it works here. Why? See my older post Let’s Stop the Crazy Talk .

It’s time to end the “crazy” talk. Why? It’s ableist. See the following, social justice and ableism.

“Disability metaphors abound in our culture, and they exist almost entirely as pejoratives. You see something wrong? Compare it to a disabled body or mind: Paralyzed. Lame. Crippled. Schizophrenic. Diseased. Sick. Want to launch an insult? The words are seemingly endless: Deaf. Dumb. Blind. Idiot. Moron. Imbecile. Crazy. Insane. Retard. Lunatic. Psycho. Spaz.

I see these terms everywhere: in comment threads on major news stories, on social justice sites, in everyday speech. These words seem so “natural” to people that they go uncorrected a great deal of the time. I tend to remark on this kind of speech wherever I see it. In some very rare places, my critique is welcome. In most places, it is not.”

What do you think of the ad? Of using “crazy” as metaphor?

Fear · femalestrength · gender policing · Guest Post · weight lifting

Watch your step (Guest post)

John getting a piggyback from Vicky

You know how (if you’ve ever worked retail) there’s a clichéd ha-ha customer joke for when something scans and isn’t in the system? “Oh there’s no price on it? It must be free!” From the customer’s angle, it’s mildly funny because they use it once every couple of months. Clerks in stores hear it multiple times an hour sometimes. (It’s not so funny after the first 383 times.)

There is a conversationally-equivalent bad joke for male partners of strong women.

I cannot tell you how many times a man (it is always a man, never a woman) has broached a conversation with, “So you’re a powerlifter?” with a look from John me, followed by “You can lift HOW much? Wow. That is something…,” with a tone that sounds like a mixture of admiration and awe. 

At this point it goes one of three ways. Either things segue to the details of lifting, we shuffle on to another topic, or……

…they turn to my husband and say, “You must have to watch your step at home.” or “Wow, I’d be careful if I were you.”

There’s always a moment of silence in which you can hear both of us frantically hunting for something pithy to say in response. Often these conversations come up at professional gatherings and what we WANT to say isn’t polite or appropriate.

It’s insult masquerading as compliment to subtly prevent rejoinder, a backhanded slap across both of our faces but done politely enough that a “fuck off” cannot be handed in return. 

It’s also just not funny. 

The initial praise of a woman for an ability for which she has worked hard is the veneer, but underneath it’s actually an inelegant way of saying, “Dude, your wife is stronger than you, which I believe means that you are relatively weak of body and spirit, also I am intimidated as hell both that she probably can pick me up and throw me (side note: buddy, I’m thinking about doing just that)  AND I do not understand the strength of character that you must have to NOT be intimidated by this so I will pretend that you are both weak and hen-pecked because I feel more manly that way. Also, lady, you are too strong for a woman and the way in which that is determined is my comfort level, so there’s clearly something wrong with *you*.

Vicky picking up a deadlift at the 2018 World Championships

Firstly, yes, I am pretty fucking strong. That does not require that I be compared to anyone, male or female. It’s a simple fact. The almost-daily battle of Vicky vs The Weights currently sits at 1045 to 184 in my favour (most days I don’t get my ass handed to me, but they occasionally happen), based on training days over the last six years. The fact that I can lift more than John or any man is irrelevant to both of us. I never set out to be stronger than him and my strength doesn’t have anything to do with his self-esteem. Each of our respective skills and hobbies is not something that pits us one against the other, it’s an attribute or asset that we bring to our team. Also I have worked harder for this than most people know or could understand. I will never apologize for it or downplay it. I am well past the point in life of dumbing myself down for social acceptability.

I am and have always been a strong and intelligent woman. There are a lot of us around and I count myself incredibly fortunate to have become a part of the community of powerful women locally, nationally and world-wide. When you become strong, you tend to congregate with folks who are equally strong because they understand both who you are and what it takes to get there and they support that. I am not a gentle personality and I don’t want to be. My grade three report card says, “displays leadership qualities” on it and god bless you Miss Roche for writing it that way because most of the time people called smart and decisive girls “bossy”, “pushy”, or “know-it-alls”. Men (and women) are sometimes intimidated by me.

Most of the women I coach have similar personalities, strength of character, and intelligence. 

None of us apologizes for it anymore. 

We just throw another plate on the bar and lift that shit, with the knowledge that someone else’s weakness of character is not our problem.

We are under no obligation to be less physically powerful, less intelligent, less forthright, or less confident than any man. And we are not responsible for someone else’s self esteem.

Further to this, men are under no obligation to spend their free time lifting. There is no law that obliges my husband to enjoy strength sports (thank heavens – one lifter in the house is hard enough during comp season and expensive enough to feed!).

We are allowed to make different choices based on preference and talent regardless of sex or gender. John enjoys bushcraft, hiking, triathlon, trail and ultramarathon running, and kayaking. He is able to tackle tremendous distances which are impressive as hell. He is also my best friend, someone I love for exactly who he is and whom I respect immensely.

So does John have to “be careful at home”? No. Because he is my equal in worth and value and he knows and is confident in this. And I am his.

Vicky Taylor-Hood is a powerlifter, lifting and fitness coach, mother, wife, dog-wrangler, kayaker, hiker, and likes to pick things up just to see if she can.

cycling · equality · gender policing

Heavy weight racing and gender


This bike jersey keeps popping up in my social media newsfeeds. I don’t mind the “heavy weight” label. It’s me. But it’s striking that the jersey only comes in men’s sizes.

There’s this phenomena I’ve noticed about gender and size and athleticism. I know men don’t always have it easy when it comes to size and body image. I’ve blogged lots about that. See here and here.

But sometimes big men get to own their size in a way that big women just don’t.

See Fat Lass at the Front? for one company’s efforts to extend that way of thinking to women cyclists.

body image · bras · clothing · Fear · femalestrength · feminism · gender policing · men · objectification · running

Again?! Women at Rowan University are Serena’d

This article in Odyssey about how women runners at Rowan University were forbidden from running in only their sports bras seems like it should be a spoof in The Onion. It’s real. The university’s response was half-hearted, though ultimately the no-sports-bras-in-practice policy will be rescinded.

How much longer will we be having these conversations? After the brouhaha this summer over the ridiculous outfit policing by the tennis powers (which we wrote about on this blog), causing grief to Serena Williams (Let Women Wear What They Want and Serena Williams and the multiple ways of policing black women’s bodies) and Alize Cornet (Is Tennis Trying To Win a Chauvinism/Misogyny Award?), how is it possible the university administrators at Rowan forgot? Or did the news never even reach their ears?

Every time this happens, I am grieved by the lack of respect for women and their bodies. Men are responsible for their own lack of decorum and inability to contain their impulses, not us!

A sports bra is not provocative. It is comfortable. It is practical. It makes us feel strong and capable and empowered.

Oh … maybe that is provocative … because it provokes fear?!

Do you workout in sports bra only?

clothing · fitness · gender policing

Girls, skirts, shorts, modesty, and movement

Bright pink girls’ running skirt with blue waistband

Have you ever found an issue that brings out all the views?

Mine this week is girls’ school uniforms and exercise. New research shows that girls’ clothing is part of the story about the play gap, why even young girls move less than boys. Their clothes are more restrictive and there are modesty concerns about young girls getting their rough and tumble on in skirts and dresses.

Here’s this explanation of girls’ lack of movement from Australia news:

“When they get to high school it’s becomes harder to get girls active during recess and lunch than it is for the boys. It’s not surprising then that girls participation rates in physical activity drop off significantly in their early teenage years.

People talk a lot about how girls behave in schools as though it’s providing vital evidence for a genetic-like inability to be naturally active and into sport. “Girls simply aren’t interested in sport” we’re told, “boys just naturally want to run around whereas girls don’t”.

But it’s the girls’ uniforms that are acting like physical shackles. The majority of school uniforms still see girls wear dresses that fly up, blouses that allow little arm movement, stockings that sweat and ladder and long skirts that don’t permit the freedom of mobility needed to run and kick without tripping over in painful schoolyard shame.”

So some of the debate is about relaxing dress codes that require girls to wear skirts and dresses. Fine.

But some schools have gone further. A school in Melbourne has made shorts and pants mandatory for everyone.

It’s still telling girls what to wear, say our Facebook readers. That’s the overwhelming response there. There’s also the worry, given the cultural context, that there is some Islamaphobia going on. But the school says they’ve done it to encourage girls to move more.

Of course, in schools with school uniforms they’re already in the business of telling girls and boys what to wear. Boys can’t choose dresses either. I’m not a big fan (okay, I hate) gender binary school uniforms. What about kids with non-binary gender identities?

So there’s that issue too, I think.

Then there are the other routes that people have taken to either let girls move more in skirts or protect their modesty. What’s their motivation? It’s hard to tell.

We’ve written about this before here on the blog, about schools that require girls to wear shorts under skirts and dresses. See How clothing rules and modesty obsession limit girls movements.

Other people have views too. See Please don’t slut shame my toddler.

What do you think? About what? Well school uniforms, for one. Telling girls and boys what to wear. Being active in skirts and dresses. There’s a lot going on here. How do you think it through?

Blue and White checked school uniform skirt

fitness · gender policing · stereotypes · weight lifting

Give Me Strength (Guest Post)

Some of my favourite images from sports photography can be found in Howard Schatz’s 2002 book, Athletes. In his provocative work, Schatz photographs Olympic athletes from various sports in black, form-fitting clothing. Arranging them side-by-side, Schatz reveals the various shapes of the athletic female body. There are many ways of reading these images—I am not here to claim they are unproblematic—but the aspect I choose to focus on is how all of these women, in their varying shapes and sizes, represent strength.

I think society has a terrible time accepting physically strong women—women whose musculature is visible and takes up space. (The recent events surrounding Venus Williams come to mind.) We have adjectives for these types of bodies: “broad,” “big-boned,” “stocky,” and “handsome,” for example. But none of these words is meant to be flattering. (Brianne of Tarth, anyone?) As a 6’0’’ woman myself, I struggled well into my thirties with the question of how to be present physically in a room. I knew I wasn’t petite, small, or particularly fragile. I took up space—a lot of it.

For me, everything came to a head when I turned 36 and gave birth to my third child via c-section no. 3. The doctors who prepped me for surgery marvelled at my enormous baby bump, as if it were something glorious and Amazonian. I’ll never forget their astonishment when my beloved Quinton arrived, weighing in at 11 pounds, 1 ounce. I had given birth to a toddler. As for me, postpartum I had never been so heavy nor so chronically in pain. So, I decided I should do what any 36-year-old classically-trained musician would logically do: I decided to take lessons. I hired myself a brief stint with a personal trainer.

I arrived at the gym assuming my trainer would put me on the treadmill—what I had previously been urged to do to “slim down”—and yell at me in an emotionally-uplifting and inspiring way. (Reality tv wouldn’t steer me wrong, right?) But after five minutes of warm up, my trainer turned off the dreaded machine and led me to the free weights. She walked me past the familiar, dainty weights I had compulsively selected in past group exercise classes, and instead handed me the heavy “barbells” from the middle of the rack. Incredulous, I lifted. After a few sessions, it felt great.

In the first weeks working with this trainer I gained fifteen pounds…of muscle. And I grew strong. She quickly learned that we shared an interest in facts and physics. Together, we talked about everything from nutrition, to metabolism, to body mechanics. Herself being 5’4’’ and a competitive body builder, she looked at me and saw a remarkable template. It turned out, the construction of my previously-loathed body meant that I could actually accomplish some pretty remarkable things. She helped me to understand that my metabolism prioritised muscle and would grow it and protect it prior to burning off fat. This celebration of my construction was surprisingly new. And the strength training was far more effective in slimming me down than anything else I had ever done.

My trainer changed my life. She taught me what strength looks like—male or female. So many bodies that I would have previously thought were “bulky” actually belonged to incredibly strong, powerful women. I was astonished—considering myself a fairly educated individual—at how little I understood about the female body. And as I eliminated my fear of weights and of growing bulky, I also began to enjoy being myself a lot more than I had before. Exercising gave me a hobby that helped me moderate anxiety, eliminate chronic pain, play with my children without fear of “putting my back out,” and embrace failure as something amazing. In fact, failure in the gym is key. It is the best way to make you stronger.

Three years later, I still lift, although this summer I began running again as a chance to tackle new challenges. I cannot imagine life without regular exercise, and I talk with my children about strength and being strong. I fear, as a society, that there are far too many instances to undermine women’s ideas of strength, which, as Schatz’s image reveals, can come in many forms. And make no mistake, one doesn’t need to lift the heavy stuff to be a power house; strength manifests itself in remarkably different ways. Improving how I celebrate strength has been essential to improving my outlook on life, making me all the more excited to drive toward that next failure.

Kimberly Francis is Acting Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at the University of Guelph, where she is also an Associate Professor of Music and a passionate feminist musicologist. She’s not ashamed to say that Taylor Swift, Guster, and many, many tracks from Big Shiny Tunes can all be found on her workout playlist.