This week, I have been challenged (in several different ways) to examine very public expressions of gender expectations (and, when those expectations are not met, the ridicule used to dehumanize another person). One such instance is the experience of Olympian Caster Semenya. The other, surprisingly, are the naked statues that appeared of Donald Trump.
First, Caster Semenya. For those who are unfamiliar with her, she is the
South African Olympic gold medalist for the women’s 800 meter. She has also faced fierce scrutiny for being “too masculine.” In 2009, she was subjected to “sex tests” to affirm that she was “truly a woman.” In 2011, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) passed a ruling restricting the amount of testosterone permissible in female athletes. Women with hyperandrogenism- the production of higher than average levels of testosterone- were either barred from competing or subjected to a series of medical interventions including hormone suppressants, hormone replacements, and genital surgery (more information here and here). In July of 2015, the court of arbitration for sport suspended the IAAF decision and gave them two years to prove how much advantage women with hyperandrogenism have over those who produce “average” levels of testosterone. No longer forced to be on hormone suppressants, Semenya ran the women’s 800 meter in 1 min, 55.28 sec- a personal best, a national best, and the fifth fastest time in Olympic history.
Also this week, the anarchist collective, INDECLINE placed five naked statues of Donald Trump in major cities across the United States. The statues, titled “The Emperor Has No Balls” depict an unflattering (but quite realistic) image of a nude Trump: large stomach, cellulose-filled buttocks, lines and wrinkles, and a tiny penis with no testicles. An aptly-named piece, I suppose. The comments to the piece range from comedic to cruel. The New York City Parks Department, for example, commented that the “NYC Parks stands firmly against any unpermitted erection in city parks, no matter how small.” (Sam Biederman, a parks spokeman). But outside of cheeky comments like that (which are problematic in their own right), there were also the comments that referred to the depiction of Trump as “grotesque,” “disgusting,” “nauseating.”
Here we have two cases of people who have been singled out in specific ways that relate to transgressions of gender standards and expectations. Now, certainly, it’s not as simple as that. If there was any doubt, I detest Donald Trump and his hateful rhetoric, his misogynistic comments, his racist ideology, his fear-mongering tactics, and his abhorrent ways of addressing those with whom he disagrees. Donald Trump is a fairly disturbing political figure on many levels- but I do not hate his body. I do not hate the lines and wrinkles that come from aging. I do not hate the cellulose bumps and varicose veins that can come from not being model-thin. And I certainly do not hate the sight of a small penis- one that looks somewhat like mine- small, yet present, and lacking in testicles. No, I certainly do not hate that- but I do have strong feelings about the size of someone’s penis (or the presence/lack thereof of testicles) in some way referencing his masculinity.
And in the case of Caster Semenya, it’s certainly more complicated than
hormones. Simone Biles, the first woman of color to win an all-around title at the world championships, came under fire in 2013 from the 11th place finalist from Italy, who stated that “next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too.” When trying to spin her comments, spokesperson David Ciaralli commented that “the Code of Points is opening chances for colored people (known to be more powerful) and penalizing the typical Eastern European elegance…” So the conversation about muscular women is not limited to Semenya; it’s pretty careful to include all athletic women of color in stating that “colored people” are “known to be more powerful.” So we see here that this is not simply a case of discomfort with women who have hyperandrogenism; simply an issue based on the assumption that black women are more muscular and therefore have an unfair advantage.
These two cases bring to light how strongly our culture is dominated by the expectations of gender and, furthermore, just how narrow those expectations are. Deviation from that (or, in the case of Trump, a depiction of deviation) is a source of mockery. Semenya isn’t “woman” enough to compete in women’s athletics. The insinuation is that Trump is not a “real man” through an artistic depiction- and his lack of manliness comes directly from his lack of testicles and the size of his penis.
To put it in another context: we do not say that large men should not play
football because it gives them an unfair advantage. We do not say that smaller-framed women should not be jockeys. Instead, we recognize that certain bodies are well-suited to certain activities (on a competitive level)- and furthermore, those “well-suited bodies” fall within our expectations of gender. Men who play football are large and muscular (as we expect men to be); female jockeys are small and petite (as we expect women to be). We only hear an uproar when someone transgresses gender expectations (e.g. women are too masculine; men are emasculated)- and use that transgression both as a source of mockery as well as an argument for why they are “unfit” for a particular activity.
Another piece of my week included a community discussion in the local kink community on consent, a conversation catalyzed by a prominent member of the community allegedly breeching someone’s consent. A comment was made in that discussion that I keep turning over in my mind. In discussing how we shift the culture of our community and make further strides in being consent-minded, one person mentioned that, in America, we tend to view friendships in terms of support and loyalty. And that’s fine, the person said, but we don’t simultaneously view our friendships in terms of criticism. Their point was that, as friends, our goal should not be to simply blindly support one another’s actions, but to hold one another accountable. The mark of a true friend is one who will tell you when you are right- but will also tell you when you are wrong. And that piece of it, the person said, is the part that we so often forget.
We must learn to tell one another when they are wrong. We must be willing to call one another out, in love and friendship, when their actions
are reinforcing concepts that are not congruent with justice, fairness, and equality. We must be willing to tell our friends, “Hey. This is an incredible athlete whose hormone production is, quite frankly, none of our business.” We must be willing to say, even in our distaste of Trump, “Hey. Body shaming someone is never ok. Let’s debate the issues and not sink to his level of demonizing someone for their appearance.”
We absolutely must learn to address these small issues- these microaggressions- that we see in the world around us. And those conversations are hard. We have a tendency to hear criticism as a character attack- perhaps because we are used to criticisms like those leveled at Semenya and Trump. But criticism is how we grow, how we come to understand and, through understanding, question the norms of the culture around us. I truly believe that friendship- and through friendship, community- and through community, culture- is stronger when we are not willing to allow this kind of “gender policing.” When we are not willing to allow “small” racist comments. When we are not willing to let others define masculinity and femininity for us.
I have little use for Donald Trump—he of blowing only his own horn, hurting others, telling lie after lie—but I object to one of the attacks on him.
You may have seen the image—I really don’t want to replicate it here, and Malachi has posted it above, once is enough—and I hope that when you did you were as unhappy as me. To put it simply—I am not a fan of shaming anyone for their body, even The Donald.
As a man of approximately his age, I am perhaps more sensitive than many readers here, not to mention his being pictured with a small penis that doesn’t look much different from mine. As readers of this blog may remember, I have been shamed about my own and, of course, Mr. Trump claims his is big.
He has every right to correct statements made about him, of course, but I do wish he had said, “Well, Senator Rubio, I don’t care about yours because I have no idea what the size of anyone’s penis, or lack thereof, has to do with being President. “ That would have shut down the demeaning debate and been a generous, and significant, contribution to undermining our society’s ways of body shaming—not to mention a corrective to his reputation for sexism and his history of insulting women (especially on their appearance).
As transgender people challenge the rigid gender binary, and as lesbian and gay people continue to challenge the formerly widely held views of what is real love and marriage and sexual attraction, we are often confronted with opportunities to speak up for equality. To do that is vital.
But, equally vital is to speak up in situations that can be more subtle and more challenging, situations that often involve deeper attitudes towards bodies, indeed bodies which we may have been taught to view with some negativity.
Some gay men can be dismissive, often mean, about older men. I recently saw on a queer news site complaints that a proposed nude gym would be overrun by “men who are old and whose bodies hang everywhere except where we want them to hang” (that is very close, if not precisely, an exact quote). And on the other end, other gay men make fun of young ones (“twinks”) and others make fun of older men who like twinks (men in their late teens and early 20’s who look very boyish) and vice versa.
Lesbians can have their own biases, depending on preferred body types and presentations, against “femmes” or “butches,” among other variables.
And cis gender women, of any sexual orientation, in the public eye are held to a nearly impossible standard. They must appear very feminine while simultaneously conveying a toughness that is well . . . really tough . . . but not so tough that their femininity is in question. The situation of Hillary Clinton comes to mind.
The Olympics and other athletic competitions also raise issues about women’s bodies, and perhaps even men’s bodies, too. Some women, Caster Semenya of South Africa comes to mind, are viewed as too “masculine” to be women.
Commentators are sure a woman who runs as fast as she does cannot possibly be a woman. She must be a man, and they claim proof for that conclusion because she has the hormonal condition known as hyperandrogenism (a high level of testosterone which appears to create significant androgyny) which occurs in some women. Pictures of this amazing athlete, running in the 800-meter race, seem pretty gender neutral by traditional standards. But then so do her excellent competitors. And pictures of her and her wife at their wedding ceremony don’t look different to me than pictures of some of the lesbian couples I have married.
Many men, like me, have hypogonadism (literally meaning small gonads, like those shown on the Donald Trump statue, especially if you receive testosterone replacement therapy). Are we now women? And what of male gymnasts and dancers—does their grace imply a certain femininity that means they are in the wrong bodies (despite being well-built and strong)? Do we have to check their genitalia or run hormone tests to be sure they are men?
White racism is about bodies, too, about judging which body shades and hair and eyes are good and which are in some way deficient or bad or ugly or dirty. Judgments among people of color about other people of color can operate like this, although given their relative, and shared, lack of social power it is not racism.
All this focus on bodies which, according to some at least, deviate from standards whose source we do not really know, so often boils down to body shaming. We must push back against it.
There is no body . . . let me repeat that . . .no body (not just nobody but no . . . body) deserves to be shamed. Every body . . . again . . . every body is beautiful. [Note: the edit function in Word alerts me to the fact that I have a space between “every” and “body,” and should join the two words to make one word, everybody. I refuse in this case because I want to be sure the reader knows I mean every single. glorious, god-created and blessed body in the world.] No exceptions.
And that means that we, and I include myself in this, must learn to stop our mental judgments when an “obese” man or woman comes into view, or when we encounter a person with a skin condition that appears unpleasant or ugly to well-trained eyes (meaning conditioned to think that wrinkles or pockmarks in the skin or folds or blotches are signs of ugliness).
Here also is one of the ways transphobia plays out. We simply do not know what to do with people who claim to be men but we wonder if they have penises or women who we think may have them—not to mention petite men and tall, big-boned women with deep voices. Before they can make the changes they wish (what used to be called “in transition”), and even after, trans people may indeed be, and feel like, victims. But we need to move, and let (and help) them move, from that location to a full-throated, heartfelt celebration of the selves they know they are.
We make victims out of people whether they are victims or not. Some people may have been victimized by maltreatment or exposure to diseases or injuries in war or on the job, but not one of them is ugly. Each remains beautiful. The same is true of people whose bodies simply do not meet the standards set by fashion and media or our ideas of what constitutes a particular gender.
Can we not see each body as yet another exposure of God’s endless and delightful diversity, whether in the body from their birth or a body they have chosen to change or one that has been changed by circumstances beyond their control?
I hope you agree with me that this is a significant piece of our work to change the world.
The way to help bring a world with such values into being is to speak up every time any one—not just Donald Trump speaking about Carly Fiorina or Megyn Kelly—says or writes anything that denigrates the body of another person, or suggests that based on their criteria and what they see, a particular person is in the wrong gender category and/or belongs in a category deserving of shunning or shaming or segregation, based on their body type, age, color, or other criteria irrelevant to their humanity.
This, of course, also means being comfortable in, and indeed celebrating, our own bodies. I am getting there, and I hope you are, too.
We can change the world, body by beautiful body.