Monthly Archives: July 2008

Olympic Committee: You Can’t Tell the Boys from the Girls

Laurie and Debbie say:

Violet Blue is disturbed, as are we, by the news that the Olympic Council of Asia will be conducting gender tests on women (but not men) in the competition. The criterion for being tested is “looking suspicious.” Blue says:

You know, because we’re sneaky like that. We could, like, totally kick your ass at the pole-vault competition with more experience than a girl should probably have with a pole in China, and no one likes that.

In this context, women are being singled out as “suspects,” “gender cheats,” “getting caught,” “being abnormal” and “failing” to be female, and judged by a parade of endocrinologists, gynecologists, a geneticist and a psychologist.

In the links embedded in her column, Blue provides a lot of history: The Olympics have been struggling with the question of “proving” gender since the 1960s, when Ewar Kobukkowska of Poland, who won a bronze medal for the 100-meter sprint and was a member of a 4-person gold-medal winning relay team, failed an early form chromosome test in 1967. Although she was later found to have a rare condition which had no effect on her athletic ability, she was barred from further Olympic and professional sports.

In 1996, when the tests were much more advanced, eight female athletes showed up as male on the tests but were “cleared” later. And just two years ago, Indian middle distance runner Santhi Soundarajan won the silver medal in the 800 meters track event at the Asian Games in Qatar, and later failed a gender test and lost her medal.

Because of these experiences, and many others,

The practice came under increasing criticism in the 1990s by doctors, scientists and athletes who argued that the tests were not just invasive, but were also bad science.

“It was an unethical, unscientific and discriminatory practice,” said Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission and one of the most outspoken critics of the testing.

In 1999, Ljungqvist helped abolish the blanket testing of women, but international competitions have continued to rely on sex-verification tests in isolated instances.

Blue also quotes John Fox, senior lecturer in obstetrics and gynecology at the Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School, as stating in 1992, ‘Personal experience of several such athletes suggests that the psychological impact of failing the test, interpreted as implying they are male, is so damaging that they seek instant anonymity and disappear without trace.’ How many fall into this category? Well, the 1992 article suggested as many as 1 in 400 female athletes fail to pass the tests, and other sources are similar, putting the ‘fail’ rate at 1 in 500 or 1 in 600 athletes. That’s a lot of women being disqualified from competition because they are not ‘feminine’ enough by pseudo-scientific tests which 30-plus years of experience have shown don’t work.”

Blue is focusing on two things: one is the hypocritical Chinese attitude on sex (she doesn’t mention the hypocritical Western attitude on sex, however) and the other is the inequity of testing women to make sure they’re not men, while not testing men to make sure they’re not women. Both of these are valuable points.

Leaving aside the Chinese testing, don’t you think it’s fascinating that the International Olympic Committee, hardly a radical gender group, has decided that it’s impossible to prove someone’s gender? In a worldview that has been in place for centuries, if not millennia, sports are an area in which gender is of paramount importance, in which you are supposed to be able to say “The men’s record in this event is X seconds and the women’s record in this sport is Y seconds,” where Y is almost always smaller than X. A place where gender matters. Gender is a defining characteristic anywhere in the world: any hospital outside of a gender clinic, any school, any job, any landlord will need to know your gender right off the bat.

Nonetheless the best scientific minds in the sports world have thrown up their hands and said, “No. We don’t know. We can’t tell. And we can’t help but see the pain it causes people if we pretend we can tell.” China may be behind the times; the International Olympic Committee, on the other hand, may just be so far ahead of it’s time that people are just now beginning to notice.

Thanks to Alan Bostick for the pointer.

Bridesmaids and Olympic Athletes: Living in a Skin-Deep World

Laurie and Debbie say:

The New York Times is discussing a new trend in bridesmaid gifts: for bridesmaids as young-looking and beautiful as your dreams, you, the lovely blushing bride, can easily provide everything from tit jobs to Botox:

“Giving them something for themselves — as opposed to something that they’ll never wear again — is more meaningful.”

Some brides pick up the tab for their attendants, replacing the pillbox inscribed with the wedding date with a well-earned squirt between the eyes. In other cases, bridesmaids — who may quietly seethe about unflattering dresses — are surprisingly willing to pay for cosmetic enhancements.

Becky Lee, 39, a Manhattan photographer, declined when a friend asked her — and five other attendants — to have their breasts enhanced. “We’re all Asian and didn’t have a whole lot of cleavage, and she found a doctor in L.A. who was willing to do four for the price of two,” said Ms. Lee, who wore a push-up bra instead.

Most of the tone of the article is about how brides view this as a gracious gift, or at least a welcome opportunity, but the selfish “my wedding is all about me” story seeps through both in Becky Lee’s quotation above and in this little anecdote:

A bride asked her attendants to get professionally spray-tanned for a Hawaiian-theme reception.
Alas, two women were claustrophobic and couldn’t bear standing in a tanning capsule. “They asked the bride if they could use regular tanning cream from a salon,” [the wedding planner] said. The bride refused; she wanted everyone to be the same shade. The women ultimately declined to be bridesmaids. “Friendships of 20-plus years gone over a spray tan?”

In a completely different context, U.S. Olympic softball star Jennie Finch appeared on Fox News. No sooner had she walked off screen than co-host Jon Scott described her value as an Olympic athlete:

“A great representative: blond, blue-eyed, and extremely talented.”

Pardon us for being naive, but we thought her talent was the point, not her hair and eyes. Apparently an equally talented player of Greek, or Jewish, or Asian, or African heritage wouldn’t be such a great representative. We also thought that the friendships were the point for bridesmaids.

At least three things are going on here. First, always, racism. In this case, it’s disturbingly close to the Aryan-ideal, master-race kind of racism that wants young blond blue-eyed Olympic athletes. With the bridesmaids, it’s a somewhat more contemporary “Western ideal of beauty.” Tough to attain if you’re Asian, but clearly some people think it’s worth the effort.

Second, always, money. If and when she goes pro, Jennie Finch will get a lot more commercial opportunities than a woman of color on her team would. Remember Kristi Yamaguchi, who won America’s heart, but not the endorsements? “People like Kristi Yamaguchi don’t represent, at least with marketers, the wholesome all-American image,” as one Asian-American marketer is quoted as saying on Wikipedia. And no one gets rich encouraging brides to choose the women they love as bridesmaids and tell them how beautiful they are without changing anything.

Third, as the Times article reminds us in the headlines, we’re living in a skin-deep world. How you look–and by extension how your bridesmaids, your family, and your sports stars look–is more important than what you can do, what you have done, and what you might do: in sports, in weddings, in job interviews, walking down the street. Unless, of course, you want a joyful wedding–or a good life.

This is why this post is so important. The overwhelming message is “tell women what they should look like” but belledame222 has a better idea:

Have other women’s backs.

“Well, I think she looks great. And even if I didn’t, so the hell what? What the hell business is it of yours? Who asked you? (if one wishes to be combative) You’re no spring onion yourself. And besides, what does this have to do with (her experience of assault/her leadership ability/her position on campaign finance reform/the brilliant novel she wrote/her research in nuclear physics/anything else)? No, I said: it’s not cute and I’m not amused, and I won’t hear this.” Read the whole post.

Lynn Kendall pointed us to the bridesmaid article.