There was also the time I went to the pool to find three (!) less than mediocre male swimmers who were holding up all traffic in a highly populated pool because they thought they were entitled to being in the fast lane by virtue of being able to float (don’t get me wrong – it’s great that these guys are getting their movement in, but did they have to do it in the fast lane when they weren’t, I don’t know, fast?).
I mean, WTF? You, dear swimming, have been trying your hardest to ruin things. The racism and the sexism, it’s just not on. Get with the programme!
And yet, you somehow manage to redeem yourself every time I get in the water. You’re so meditative, splish splash, back and forth, breathe-two-three-breathe-two-three. You let my mind drift and get a fresh perspective on things. You’re exhausting in a good way. You make me feel free.
So these horrible things are not your fault, I suppose? They’re the fault of some people who are intent on ruining things for others, or who simply don’t care about the impact their behaviour has on their fellow humans. I forgive you, dear swimming, but I certainly will have a hard time forgiving those people.
So, Naomi Osaka. World #2, unbelievable tennis player, YOUNG PERSON (she’s 23 years old). She heads to the French Open, aka “Roland Garros” (we’re posh, peeps – we call the thing by the name bestowed upon the hallowed grounds, and there are tiny sandwiches somewhere, and patisserie, and LOTS OF BOOZE). She says: you know what? I would rather not do the press conferences this time, thanks. I am a tennis player at the elite level and barely an adult and my clay court game is a tricky work in progress. I need to focus, and also cope with all the feelings while focusing, which means I really don’t need to have to field a bunch of questions about my sexuality, or the depth of my human flaws, or other outright irrelevant crap after every match, thanks. For my mental health, you know, I just would rather not. It’s about the game, right?
Friends, she broke the internet. Of course she did.
WTF cares if tennis stars do the damn press circuit at the Grand Slam tournaments? Their sponsors, sure. (Although the sponsors make their money back hand over fist regardless, and I’d bet my new racket that Osaka’s sponsors are finding this massive controversy, splashed all over the place online, is breaking their way.) The Grand Slam organizers too, yes: they have a vested interest in stuff always going to the plan they have so carefully wrought. So the money folks, they really care.
Beyond the economics, there are, from my perspective, two main reasons the world seems in a huge way to care about Osaka’s decision to refuse to do press at the FO. There’s the fairly basic answer, and then there’s the answer behind that answer – the nuances.
The first part – the basics – smarter people than me have already weighed in on. Writing in the Guardian sports blog, Jonathan Liew has pointed out that when stars like Osaka say ‘no thanks’ to the press, it’s another reminder – a billboard-sized, viral Twitter-shaped reminder – that the mostly-white-often-older dudes who still rule the sports pages in many conventional media outlets matter less and less and less. If Naomi has something she needs to tell me, she’s gonna tell me directly, on social. And that scares the bejeezus out of those dudes.
Meanwhile, also in the Guardian (NB: wholly subscriber-funded, not owned by billionaires! As a researcher it’s the paper I trust most in the world), Marina Hyde points out that Osaka’s “mistake” was to experience her mental health and address its needs while still actively competing and winning Slams – as opposed to, you know, burying that shit, blowing up in a spectacular and headline-inducing way, crawling off for a while, then coming back with a memoire. The media (hi Rupert Murdoch! Thanks for setting such an incredibly ethical example!) LOVE a case of celebrity mental breakdown and a subsection of this media will defend to their graves their exclusive right to report on these breakdowns in the most shaming and salacious ways, damn the consequences. (I urge you to read the whole Hyde piece; Marina is a comic genius and as far as I am concerned she is the reincarnation of Jonathan Swift.)
OK, now for the nuance-y bit. I’m a beginner tennis player and I only half-glance at the Grand Slams over my partner’s shoulder most of the time, but the Osaka story caught my eye because I’ve just finished going through the proofs of a new book chapter I’ve written about girlhood, gender identity, and sport. Its focus is the amazing 2016 play The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, which follows a team of high school-aged soccer players, all young women, as they navigate a season. They are alone on stage until the very end of the play. Their pitch is their space to own and control and be messy and flawed and incredible and talented and mean little shits because they are TEENAGE GIRLS. They use that space to actualize who they are, to be better selves every practice, to dream up and then enact, in their shared embodiment, who they want to become. There are no media folks (nor anybody else) present.
This is revolutionary. Why? Because, as my chapter argues, the history of women in competitive sport is a history of the male gaze freaking out like crazy. Add in girls doing their own thing, for their own benefit, and things get really sweaty in a hurry.
(I want to be clear here that “the male gaze” is a patriarchal construct, not a feature of biology attached only to actual men: it refers to how all of us humans who live under patriarchy – a social structure in which men are valued, culturally, above others – learn to look at bodies, including our own. Think about it: when you look in the mirror, as a strong and fit woman, what do you see? I see my perimenopausal hips and thighs and think, rats. What did I eat yesterday? BAM! That’s me looking through my female eyes with a male gaze.)
Sporty women are a huge problem for the male gaze. Why? They are STRONG. They are bulky – muscle-toned. They are working their bodies for a purpose other than attracting male attention – this is weird and taboo to patriarchy. (Check out stuff we’ve written here and elsewhere on the blog about Serena Williams, and also Sam’s great posts about women on bikes, to learn more.) Sporty women are also, of course, incredibly beautiful, graceful, powerful – damn fun to watch. So the upshot is: we want to watch them, with our patriarchally-trained gazes, but in the process we (even sometimes feminist humans like me!) experience serious cognitive dissonance. How can they be so incredible to watch while not conforming to patriarchal expectations about what incredible-to-watch women are supposed to look like?Are you even allowed out in public with thighs that strong?
From here – DIRECTLY – comes the now-infamous corollary dispensed by La Mostly Male Presse (again, see Serena, women on bikes, Megan Rapinhoe, you name the bad-ass girl athlete): if you’re going to compete at this high level, laydeez, we are going to reserve the right to judge you constantly, shame you continuously, and call all of your tactical choices into question. Otherwise, you make us look a bit too hard at the structures of our social systems and our heads start to hurt and we have to consider perhaps, um, making some serious structural changes. So we’re going to push you back down, down, down. Don’t be so uppity, miss tennis star. Who exactly do you think you are?
And here – HERE – is where the rubber hits the clay, so to speak, for Naomi Osaka.
She’s young, and like all young people thrust into the limelight, she’s having to figure out some basic ontology (aka, who am I? What will I become?) while also competing at the most elite level, in the public eye. She is vulnerable and fragile like all young women who grew up under patriarchy, but to the Nth degree because tennis star (AND woman of colour, hello structural racism!!).
Add to that Roland Garros, which is a clay court surface and thus clashes with some of the strongest aspects of Osaka’s game, and both Naomi and La Presse know what’s most likely to come of any tete-a-tete post-game. Who the hell wouldn’t blame her for saying, you know, I think I’d rather play tennis than live out my existential fears on camera, so that maybe I can improve my clay court game. Ok with you?
Was her “hard no” to all press a bit OTT, maybe even a bit childish? Dunno – depends on your lived experience. When I was 23 I was only just recently not a child, so maybe a bit? #mostlynormal
Is Osaka a flawed human who let some probably nice people down in the process of making this call (for ex: occasional amazing female sports journalists who might have asked awesome questions)? Sure. She’s flawed as hell – have you seen her clay court game? Again, really not the point though, unless you feel safe tossing those stones.
What Osaka is asking, really asking, is that we hear her when she says: I’m supposed to play top-game tennis here and also face the press, all while keeping my shit together, and this combination of things is not, for me, actually possible. It’s not possible for some of my peers, too, and I wonder if perhaps we could take a look at the system and shift things so that maybe one day it could be possible, things could be kinder, and more fair for us all?
Funny how, when we ask questions just like that, the press corps and the Slam chiefs find it really, really hard to offer a good answer.
If you have been taking a much-needed mid/late summer break from social media: 1) Congratulations! What a great idea. You’ve not been missing much; 2) But, I have to tell you about this one thing you may have missed: the #medkini kerfuffle.
It initially started with a study published in the Journal of Vascular Surgery that purported to analyze the behavior of physicians on social media. The study, conducted by a team of researchers based at the Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Mecicine, was an attempt to classify the posts of trainees in vascular surgery as either professional or unprofessional.
So, what sorts of posts did the researchers consider unprofessional? From the now-retracted article (not linking to it):
Clearly unprofessional content included: Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) violations, intoxicated appearance, unlawful behavior, possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia, and uncensored profanity or offensive comments about colleagues/work/patients.
Potentially unprofessional content included: holding/ consuming alcohol, inappropriate attire, censored profanity, controversial political or religious comments, and controversial social topics.
There are a ton of problems with the methodology of the article, but the #medkini twitter storm came about as a result of the interpretation of the “inappropriate attire” category. Apparently this included photos of vascular surgeons in bathing suits or festive costumes for festive occasions (like Halloween, for example). In particular, all pictures of female vascular surgeons in bikinis (not worn while performing surgery, but rather during leisure activity) were marked “potentially unprofessional”. And those doing the judging were a nearly all-male group.
Here are some of the photos the #medkini and #medbikin folks posted:
You can see the abstract here, and more importantly the big red “RETRACTED” stamp all over every page.
Okay, so the authors really messed this one up. As did the editors and peer reviewers. The editors apologized here, if you’re interested.
But here’s the problem: why did anyone even think for one minute this kind of judgment was okay? Scientific American has some things to say about it:
We don’t believe anyone had malicious intent. But that is exactly the point. One need not have malicious intent to cause harm. In the same way, the gender pay gap, though perhaps not intentional, affects women, and implicit bias of physicians impairs the care of Black patients. In this case, researchers harmed the medical community by suggesting that speaking up about social causes, consuming alcohol when not working, and wearing a bikini were unprofessional.
The point is not who these researchers are or even what they did in this particular study. The authors, the institutional review board (which is supposed to watch out for ethical problems), the reviewers of the article and the journal’s editors all thought this was worth publishing. This is because in the culture of medicine, harassment and subjugation of those who don’t look like the dominant group is not only tolerated, it’s the norm.
This is certainly common in medicine, but that’s not the only field in which women get judged as unprofessional for their clothing, activities, food and drink, etc. In the interests of solidarity, here are some of our pics:
Dear readers, did you hear about the #medkini business? Have you been hesitant to post vacation or swimming pics on social media because sexism? I’d love to hear from you, and will respond with scorn for those people who were mean to you and support for you in whatever attire you choose.
CW: some talk about body weight, fatness and feelings that anti-fat micoaggressions can provoke.
N E V E R.
Context: many/most/all of us have found ourselves in the gym, on a bike, running, or doing some kind of physical activity (or any activity, for that matter, but I digress), when we get told by some stranger, “great job! You keep it up! You go, girl! You got this!” or some such infuriating fit-splaining-ness.
Now that you’re done reading her post, here are some modified examples commiserating on “good job!” unsolicited comments (I mean, there’s always unsolicited):
I was heading down from a hike and some people were like, oh don’t turn around, you’re almost there. I’m like, wtf, I had already been to the top… and now I’m heading back down.
I have done a lot of run/walking… Sometimes when a run interval is over and I go to a walk people yell “don’t stop keep going”. Like, leave me alone…
I once had a woman stop me to ask me if my heart was okay to run. Sigh…
I used get this hiking… “You’ll make it!” “Keep it up”. I wanted to pick them up and throw them off the mountain. Was hiking summits 3x/week. I take my time because I care less about speed and more about enjoying the hike.
We were walking around a small lake in a park, and a slim woman and her daughter stepped aside to let us pass. She asked if we were ‘walking around the lake’ and we said ‘yes’. She looked us up and down and said- oh, Good For YOU! We kept walking, looked at each other and realized we’d just been – I dunno, fat congratulated on our walk.
Someone told me I was “really good” at yoga. And then added, Especially for someone my size… she could’ve left that part out and also, yoga isn’t a competitive sport so I’m not looking for feedback, thank you very much.
I’ve been told, “Keep coming back!” at the gym. Yeah, I’ve been coming here regularly for years…
It’s hard to know how to respond in such situations.
WHAT AM I SAYING?! Of course it’s not hard to know how to respond. Here are my top 4 suggestions:
Sorry/not sorry for the potty-mouthed list.
Seriously, it’s hard to know what to do in the moment because 1) you’re actually in the middle of climbing or cycling or paddling or running or lifting something very heavy, and you’re trying to concentrate; 2) these digs just show up out of nowhere, apropos of nothing, so take you by surprise; 3) they can provoke feelings of inadequacy, shame, fury, sadness, loss of energy– all sorts of things can come out.
Ignoring it is one tactic. Coming up with a snappy reply is another, but can be hard to produce in the heat of the moment. There’s my list, but it is rude and could provoke an unsafe reaction in the fit-splainer.
There is this:
So, readers, what do or would you do in a situation like this? If you feel like telling us about a similar encounter and/or what you did, I’d love to hear about it.
“Let’s say someone wants to squat 500 pounds. It’s a big goal, but not unachievable. Lots of people get to 500 pounds these days.” (1)
“If you keep your bodyfat percentage too low, you’re not going to build as much muscle. If someone is trying to stay around 8% bodyfat, your body is going to want to partition more of that energy towards fat storage.” (2)
I love lifting weights. I enjoy the exertion, the challenge, and the self-confidence that it brings. I’m not alone–women are a growing number of the competitive lifters around the world. Women participate in competitive physique, strong”man”, weightlifting and powerlifting. And this reflects a boom in interest amongst us non-competitive folks, too, likely at least in part fueled by the popularity and accessibility of crossfit in the last decade.
And yet, the mostly male-dominated media space has not caught up. When lifters are discussed, there is an overwhelming tendency to treat “lifters” as synonymous with “men.”
And to be perfectly frank, it’s starting to piss me off. Every time a guy says “someone” and what they really mean is “men,” I want to yell, “HEY, I’m SOMEONE, too!”
I want to see myself in the programs put out there. I want trainers to give me potential solutions to the challenges I face in reaching my goals. I want to know that my needs and concerns have answers. I want realistic metrics to which I can compare myself and help with goal setting. In short, I want representation.
Instead, there’s an endless parade of articles and other media around men’s insecurities and challenges–how to get 6-pack abs! Build your squat to 3x bodyweight! How to get to 12% body fat and stay there!
The physiology of someone born with female parts is different than the physiologies of people born with male parts. We have more essential levels of fat–requiring higher body fat levels in order to function healthfully. Our hormone profile changes how we respond to lifting, with only 5-10% of the testosterone of a typical adult man making building muscle a potentially slower process. Our smaller joints and bone structures change the size of our muscular potentials. Estrogen is protective in many ways, making women and other people who produce more of it, more resilient to higher-rep lifting, possibly meaning we require shorter rest periods. Some research on Olympic level athletes suggests that our abilities to recover even changes throughout our menstrual cycles. And none of this gets into the nuances of lifting around pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, hysterectomies, mastectomies and so many other experiences shared by so many people with a uterus.
But I’m not asking that every article, interview, podcast and blog post dig into all of these caveats every time they want to offer me 5 new ways to do push-ups. No, I just want the language used to be inclusive. I want pictures of strong people of all genders doing the work. I want it to be clear that I am a potential member of the target audience. So many trainers complain about how women are afraid of lifting weights, that we’re afraid of the barbell, that we’re afraid of the results we might get. But if 90% of the images we see are men on gear working on showing off that 6-pack, why should we expect a majority of women would be drawn to that? (To be clear, I have no problem with lean, muscular women with six-pack abs, I just recognize that they are a subset of the population.) We need to be represented in order to imagine it as a real possibility.
So in absence of another solution, I propose a simple test to determine if women are being acknowledged as people who do serious strength training. Blog post, podcast, article or interview, let’s call it the Hundtoft-Bechdel Test (3) which asks that fitness experts:
one. Directly mention women and/or include them in images. two. And ensure that any goals and/or metrics referenced include those appropriate for women and other people born with a uterus.
So, back to the quotes at the top: “Let’s say someone wants to squat 500 pounds. It’s a big goal, but not unachievable. Lots of people get to 500 pounds these days.”
This may be true for men who lift seriously over time. It is not ever true for women. I just checked the current raw powerlifting records for women, and the drug-tested, open world record for squat for women is 502 pounds. So women are excluded by the speaker and he fails the Hundtoft-Bechdel Test.
“If you keep your bodyfat percentage too low, you’re not going to build as much muscle. If someone is trying to stay around 8% bodyfat, your body is going to want to partition more of that energy towards fat storage.”
The second speaker also fails the test, since an 8% bodyfat is nearly unattainable even by the most competitive female bodybuilders. It is certainly not a “walking around” level of leanness for most women, when it might be for an especially disciplined, genetically gifted, and/or possibly just highly neurotic man.
In comparison, a recent article on Nerd Fitness (on the Star Wars workout) passed the test easily. Images of women. No metrics of success that are gendered at all. Steve Kamb did a great job of using entirely neutral language so that any reader can see themselves in the article.
Another win goes out to a great podcast, Stronger by Science. In their recent discussion on gut health and training nutrition, they interviewed a female expert and used gender-neutral language throughout. When it was appropriate to specify male vs. female metrics, both were included.
A quick search of recent Bodybuilding.com training articles finds some sort-of wins and some straight up losses. For example, this article on shoulder exercises does a good job of using gender-neutral language, but fails due to exclusively using men in the images.
T-Nation fairs not even as well as that. There are many examples to pull from, but here’s a training article that even the title (“The V-Taper Workout and Diet Plan”) excludes women as a target. The “V-Taper” is a shape of shoulders and waist that is specifically identified as a desirable male attribute (think comic book Superman with his wide shoulders and impossibly narrow waist). Notably, the author never acknowledges that he’s writing for a male audience. Major fail.
Not surprisingly, women lifters and authors consistently do a better job including women. Some female trainers are directing their business at other women as their primary market, and so they explicitly include women in their media. However, there are also female trainers and bloggers who do a good job of inclusive, but not female-centric language. A standout example is Meghan Callaway.
Women lift weights. We like to track our progress and gauge our success against other lifters. We want to know reasonable goals for goal setting and to see ourselves represented in media aimed at folks who strength train. Representation matters, and it’s well-past time for fitness authors, podcast hosts, and trainers to make a more consistent effort to represent women equally in their spaces.
(1) Maybe not an exact quote, but definitely the gist from a recent interview with Dr. Mike Zourdos on the Iron Culture podcast, which incidentally, is an awesome podcast! But I know they can do better with representation.
(2) Not going to link to this one, as the podcast I was trying out became so fat-phobic in a rant that I don’t want to encourage others to listen to it.
(3) Named in homage of and to give credit to the Bechdel Test which gives a simple way of identifying if women are present in film.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found reading about strength training, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .
I’ve played in a fair number of competitive athletic events— tennis tournaments, squash tournaments and league play, bike races of various stripes, and even a couple of triathlons (there was also that one disastrous intramural D league volleyball match, but I’d rather not discuss it).
In the course of competing, I’ve won a few medals and ribbons, the odd trophy (tennis tourney when I was ten), and of course swag— bike gloves, cans of electrolyte drink mix, even a blinkie on one occasion. Usually these non-money prizes are donated by sponsors or local sporting goods stores, so they tend to be sport-specific and sport-themed.
It turns out, though, that I’m a bit behind the times, as some tournament promoters have expanded the range of their prize offerings for women competitors to include vibrators.
Yes, that’s right. Vibrators.
At the recent Asturias Squash Championship tournament in Oviedo, Spain, the top four women received trophies, as did the top four men. But for the women, there was a little something extra for them: a vibrator for the winner, and for the others, either a hair removal kit or electric foot file.
From the article in Newsweek: The athletes wrote to the Royal Spanish Squash Federation demanding answers over the treatment, which they felt promoted sexism. The organization then instructed the local federation to launch a formal investigation, along with the Asturian Women’s Institute.
“We were very surprised, very shocked,” Sadó was quoted as saying by the BBC. “We think it’s very sexist. We wanted to explain it to everybody because we think […] there’s a lot of discrimination [against women in sport] and things have to change.”
It’s worth noting the various responses to their formal complaint.
From the regional federation: “It’s the height of sexism,” Maribel Toyos, a spokesman for the Asturias Squash Federation, was quoted as saying by Spanish daily El Pais. “We had no idea the women were going to receive these gifts.”
They appear to be shocked, shocked to discover this happened.
Then there’s the local club, whose officials actually went to all the trouble of selecting, obtaining and proffering the vibrator and depilatory aids. Here’s what they said:
“We understand the reaction and deeply regret this unacceptable incident,” said official statement signed by president Nacho Manzano and acting president Barbara Fernandez.
This is weird. It’s the kind of reaction you would have if say, a dog had gotten loose in the club and chewed their squash rackets. It’s as if it had nothing to do with them. And they joined everyone else in denouncing it as unacceptable.
Except they’re the ones that did the unacceptable thing, which required ill-intentioned forethought and planning.
Then comes the non-apology apology:
“The club reiterates its apologies to players, the Federation and people or entities offended by the discomfort caused by inappropriate gifts and that should never have been delivered.”
Let’s unpack this. They apologize to those offended by the discomfort caused by the inappropriate gifts; and then say they shouldn’t have been delivered.
First, they’re trying to put the blame on the gifts themselves, which strikes me as grossly unfair. I mean, some vibrator was just sitting around, minding its own business, when it gets bought by a sexist and malicious squash tournament promoter. That’s not its fault.
Second, vibrators aren’t inappropriate; people who buy vibrators as athletic tournament prizes for women athletes are inappropriate. Likewise the other products.
Finally, there’s the bit about “should never have been delivered”. Again, it’s a weird attempt to distance themselves, as if it’s the fault of UPS for delivering these items to the club for distribution.
The responses all around are a tour de force of the passive voice.
But this wasn’t passive at all. It was actively mean, an attempt to humiliate women who had the temerity to excel in squash. Why didn’t the person whose idea this was take responsibility and say they were sorry? This is what I’d like to read:
Wow. Yeah, this was a total dick move on my part. I thought it would be funny. We all did. But of course it’s not— it’s insulting and demeaning. Squash is largely male, and I guess we haven’t owned up to how toxic this environment is for women. And here we are.
Now it’s time to apologize and get some help on making structural changes to squash organizations at the local, regional, and national level.
I am sorry I thought this, said this and did this. Our club will be sponsoring a free girls’ squash clinic every year, with the goal of recruiting girls into competitive squash and supporting them. We hope this program will be a first step in addressing the harms suffered by women in squash.
Now *that* would be a prize worth claiming.
Readers: have you encountered any misogynistic shenanigans like this in your competitive experiences? Let us know, and we will rain scorn down on the perpetrators and support you.
There’s been a lot of discussion at Fit is A Feminist Issue on the recent CAS decision concerning Caster Semenya. Following our blog post yesterday, we’ve heard from a number of commenters who have helpfully shared links to stories. I thought it would be useful to look at what else has been written about Caster Semenya. If you have any other articles, commentaries etc you think will add to our understanding of the issues this decision presents regarding women in sport and the construction of “female” in modern society, please share in the comments to this post.
First, let’s look at what testosterone is and isn’t. Much has been made of the fact that Semenya has higher levels of the so called “male hormone” than usual for women. The IAAF sees this as a disadvantage to other women and this was the foundation of their argument for establishing a discriminatory policy. The New York Times has an interesting opinion piece from two researchers on what they call the myth of testosterone. I thought this quote was illuminating:
“The problem with trying to flatten athleticism into a single dimension is illustrated especially well by a 2004 study published in The Journal of Sports Sciences. The study analyzed testosterone and different types of strength among men who were elite amateur weight lifters and cyclists or physically fit non-athletes. Weight lifters had higher testosterone than cyclists and showed more explosive strength. But the cyclists, who had lower testosterone than both other groups, scored much higher than the others on “maximal workload,” an endurance type of strength. Across the three groups, there was no relationship between testosterone and explosive strength, and a negative relationship between testosterone and maximal workload. Though small, that study isn’t an outlier: Similar complex patterns of mixed, positive and negative relationships with testosterone are found throughout the literature, involving a wide range of sports.” Bottom line: there are inconsistencies in how testosterone enhances or detracts from performance in different sports.
The CBC posted a great overview focusing on the challenges researchers face in trying to establish what the effect and advantage extra testosterone offers to athletes, especially women. There is a lot of disagreement about what the advantage means, and a key part of the legal argument put forward by Semenya’s legal team was the lack of rigour used by the IAAF in setting its standards. The CBC referenced a recent editorial in the British Medical Journal that cited several problems with the IAAF’s own methodology, and most damningly they said the IAAF’s results could not be reproduced:
“… the authors noted the criticisms of an analysis commissioned by the IAAF which found that women whose serum testosterone levels were in the top third performed significantly better than women with levels in the lowest third. Those results, Tannenbaum and Bekker claim, could not be independently reproduced, and the data does not reliably mirror the source track times of athletes from the 2011 and 2013 world championships.”
Other articles in the days following the CAS decision have focused on highlighting the human rights issues arising from the decision to require Semenya to reduce her natural testosterone levels with medication. Jacqueline Doorey writes: “But as self-identity and gender politics continue to evolve, finding the science to back that up is getting harder. And the repercussions of using testosterone levels to classify athletes can test arguments around inclusion and fair competition — as well as possibly infringe on basic human rights.”
We also need to consider the history of policing women in sport. Slate has an excellent overview of Semenya’s battle with the IAAF and offers additional analysis of the background to sex testing and performance for elite women athletes. One of things I liked about the Slate post was how it captured all that Semenya has endured: “Although Semenya is not the first athlete to have her identity as a woman challenged, she has endured this obsession over her eligibility in the women’s category longer than any athlete in history. All along, she has continued to compete and excel, earning five global 800-meter championships even as she was likely reducing her testosterone levels under the former hyperandrogenism rules.” Slate sums up what commenters generally have been saying: Semenya is a target because she is female, black and successful.
Trans athlete Rachel McKinnon explains the future implications for the decision in a concise and clear interview with Newsweek. McKinnon begins with the model of femininity as thin and white and the idea that women who do not meet that ideal are not feminine enough or are not women at all. She highlights the exceptional success of Usain Bolt and how he is celebrated for his exceptionality, yet women like Semenya who have equally exceptional success are suspect and deemed not women. She also takes on the idea stated by some athletes that these policies will protect women in sport, noting that Semenya is in no way protected by this even though she is a woman.
The Economist has weighed in as well, chronicling the start of the IAAF’s campaign against women like Semenya. The Economist looks beyond the immediate concerns of Semenya to consider how the IOC will use this ruling to include not only intersex athletes but trans ones as well:
“Only a few runners will have to make immediate career choices after the court’s decision. But the precedent set by the IAAF’s ruling could affect female athletes in every sport. It is by far the most prominent and detailed ruling that the court has delivered regarding biological sex, and it is a potentially far-reaching one. From now on, the CAS will almost certainly use testosterone levels to determine who should be allowed to compete in women’s events. These tests will apply not only to intersex athletes, but also to trans women, who were born male but identify as women. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had already introduced a testosterone limit of 10 nmol/L for trans women in all sports in 2016, replacing its previous requirement for athletes to have undergone genital-reconstruction surgery. It is now considering reducing the limit to 5 nmol/L. This rule change has not been tested at the court, but after Wednesday’s precedent it looks likely to stand.”
The Economist also highlighted an aspect not covered in some of the other posts I read: that the decision now sets a sliding scale on determining femaleness, adding an extra layer of murkiness to the whole issue. As a side note, it is worth registering to read this article as it also covers significant cases and the challenges in research related to impacts of elevated levels of hormone levels on performance including intersex and trans athletes.
It was also heartening to see that negative or limiting opinions and beliefs could be changed. The Guardian published Madeline Pape’s commentary on how she used to think high testosterone was the issue but how now, with information and consideration, she came to a different point of view. Pape was herself an internationally ranked track athlete until injury sidelined her sports career. She says:
“As a sociologist, I have now spent several years immersed in this issue, interviewing elite track-and-field stakeholders from around the world including athletes, coaches, officials, managers, team staff and media personnel. In their accounts I have seen so many echoes of my own experience in Berlin: an astounding lack of information, an absence of alternative viewpoints, a fear of the unknown, weak leadership from national and international governing bodies, and a stubborn refusal to dig a little deeper and reflect critically on where their views come from and what biases might be underlying them. The path of least resistance is to turn away from information and perspectives that might undermine one’s investment in the simplistic notion that sex is binary and testosterone is unfair (at least in women).”
The Nation contributed a stinging rebuttal of the CAS’s decision. It’s a fabulous piece of writing, and includes this gem from Katrina Karkazis, senior visiting fellow at the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale University and one of the co-authors of the NYT piece referenced earlier: ” [This decision] endorses discrimination against women in sport and allows sports governing bodies to require medically unnecessary interventions for continued eligibility, violating women’s bodily autonomy and integrity. This neither protects nor benefits women’s sport. (…) my fear is that [the CAS decision] will foster the already circulating erroneous representations about the science of sex biology, intersex, and the relationship between testosterone and athleticism.”
These are the key articles I had time to follow up on, read and analyze this weekend. If you have others you think can add to the discussion and amplify the issues I’ve highlighted, it would be great if you would highlight them in the comments! Also helpful might be any themes you think I’ve overlooked and might be worth exploring in future posts.
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.