One of the hazards for women in the public eye is an unrelenting inspection of their bodies. On a slow week, the condition of Madonna's upper arms is a favourite topic and then there's always the fascinating subject of breasts. Helen Mirren, who at 64 thrilled the world with her red bikini last summer, was under scrutiny again last week after switching to an all-in-one swimsuit.
Women with careers in show business and fashion don't complain much about such speculation, accepting it as part of the deal they have made with the media. But that isn't true of poor Caster Semenya, the South African athlete whose body is once again the focus of fevered debate.
Semenya's career took a bizarre turn as soon as she became the world 800m champion in Berlin last month. Stories began to circulate that she wasn't really a woman, upsetting the new world champion – she is only 18, after all – and prompting accusations of racism from the African National Congress Youth League. All sorts of rumours went round, but the only thing that seems reasonably clear is that tests carried out before Berlin for the IAAF showed that she had high levels of testosterone.
Three days ago, an Australian newspaper made the startling assertion that she is a hermaphrodite: someone with the characteristics of both sexes. Faced with a barrage of questions, the IAAF refused to comment and announced that it would be weeks before its results are made public. The wait is tough on Semenya, who could be stripped of her gold medal and banned from racing if it's decided that she wasn't entitled to run as a woman. I can't help wondering why the question wasn't addressed earlier and why sex tests aren't routine for athletes to avoid undignified rows, not to mention the embarrassment Semenya is likely to be feeling at the moment. If it's true that gender tests were secretly carried out after she did unexpectedly well in the Africa junior championships in Mauritius in July, the IAAF's procedures clearly need an urgent overhaul; it's not fair to allow an athlete to compete if there are unresolved questions about eligibility.
The sensational headlines demonstrate how poorly international sport is regulated; the quest for excellence has got mixed up with commercial imperatives, leaving governing bodies desperate for athletes who will break records and attract sponsorship.
Black women have suffered for centuries because they've been judged by white European standards of beauty, and it's hard not to see unconscious stereotypes at work in the reaction to Semenya's appearance. The phrase "real woman" has been bandied about a lot, and I suspect that the IAAF's general secretary, Pierre Weiss, was trying to help when he waded clumsily into the debate. "It is clear that she is a woman but maybe not 100 per cent," he said last week.
It may turn out that Semenya has a rare condition known as androgen insensitivity syndrome, which leaves outwardly female babies with male testes, but the confident pronouncements about "real" women raise as many questions as they answer.
Among the world's most famous women, fake breasts are almost the norm these days and Katie Price launched her career on a set of ludicrous implants. Breasts are secondary sexual characteristics, but there are plenty of women walking around who have had their wombs and ovaries surgically removed. Does that make them any less "real"?
Semenya has lived her life to date as a woman and I doubt whether she imagined that her ambition to become one of the world's greatest athletes would prompt a debate about her internal organs; I dread to think about the impact on her personal life. She is entitled to feel violated, and the IAAF should ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.Reuse content