What could make the convoluted saga of Caster Semenya's disputed gender even more public and upsetting? How about a makeover?
Yes, Semenya is now on the cover of South Africa's You magazine, wearing makeup, a dress, and a new hairdo. Four inside pages also show Semenya in a variety of stylish outfits, including leather pants and a sequined top — all of which You says Semenya wanted to buy after the photo shoot. The feature includes an interview, in which Semenya says, "I'd like to dress up more often and wear dresses but I never get the chance," she says. "I'd also like to learn to do my own makeup." She continues,
I've never bought my own clothes – my mum buys them for me. But now that I know what I can look like, I'd like to dress like this more often.
Semenya apparently had to be "persuaded" to let stylists make her over, but enjoyed herself once the shoot got going. I hope she did have a good time, but it's hard not to see the shoot as a calculated move by her managers to sell the public on her "femininity." This is especially sad because up until now, Semenya and her family have been unapologetic about the way she looks and dresses. Her father said that she had always preferred pants, but that she was still a woman — and the idea that she has to put on a dress and lipstick to prove her femaleness to people is pretty depressing.
Skirts and heels do not a woman make — according to Owen Slot at the Times of London, that's for scientists to decide. He writes,
Why such a public statement about her femininity now when a team of scientists are simultaneously drawing conclusions that may not agree with it. It is indecently hasty when she could easily have waited until the science had been completed.
I totally agree with Slot that Semenya seems like "a pawn being shifted around the chess board by powerful controlling forces," and that it seems much kinder to her to let the issue of her gender fade into the background. But since she and everyone who knows her have always made clear that she identifies as a woman, it doesn't really make sense to say that the science "may not agree" with her "femininity." If she's found to be intersex, that may affect whether she can compete, but it won't automatically change her self-expressed gender identity. It seems like Slot is saying, "won't she feel stupid for wearing that dress if it turns out she's really a dude?" Um, no — her chromosomes don't dictate whether she's allowed identify as a woman, or whether she can get dolled up if she wants to.
And let's hope she did want to. If Semenya wants to branch out from the clothes "her mum" picks out (yet another reminder that she's still a teenager), then more power to her. But if the makeover was a publicity stunt to sell a certain image of Semenya (and, obviously, magazines), it's sad that this image had to be so conformist. From Susan Boyle to Semenya, magazine "makeovers" send the message that there's one way for women to look good, and the closer you get to it the happier you'll be. I'd rather live in a world where Caster Semenya can wear pants if she feels like it, rather than one where she needs a team of stylists to be considered "feminine."
Makeover For SA Gender-Row Runner [BBC]
Caster Is A Cover Girl [Guardian]
World In Motion: Caster Semenya Photoshoot Brings Sex Back To Top Of Agenda [TimesOnline]
Gender Row Athlete Caster Semenya Gets A Glamorous Makeover [Mirror]