Breaking Down a Body: Mythology, Sex-Testing, & Bad Design
I. American Dreamin’
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion begins her quintessential essay, “The White Album,” a piece that’s all about a person losing her script, or faith, in how she had always understood the world. It’s an essay comprised of stories woven together between 1968-1978, about the world no longer adding up, about its turning unfamiliar, allusive, uncanny. That opening line is now popular with many writers trying to justify their lifelong quest for narrative, me included. It also happened to sit at the top of the syllabus for a class I taught about mythology and imagination last fall for my high school students at Oakland School for the Arts.
I repeated this line throughout the semester more times than I can pretend to count. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live!” I would say, gesturing wildly, trying to get my students to think about the myths we live within everyday. I wanted them to consider our 21st century myths as they did the Greek myths we had read earlier in the semester, which was harder than I anticipated. “Myths are just stories that humans tell ourselves about ourselves and the world in order to make sense of ourselves and the world!”
The last unit of my mythology class began by dissecting the most ubiquitous of myths: the American dream. After a few class readings and much discussion on who and what this myth leaves out, I assigned my students the task of imagining a new American dream. I told them to create a new story that felt more accurate to them, a story that included them. I told them to forget the familiar notches of the American dream: heteronormative pairing and reproduction, economic opportunity and upward mobility; the promise of land and capital merited only by birth right and hard work. Their stories only had to include a truth that reflected their lives, and the values they wanted Americans to return to over time.
But they couldn’t do it. What happens when you can’t separate yourself from a story that doesn’t include you—a story that’s not for you? What happens when you can’t imagine a better solution?
At first, I was frustrated. We had spent so much time on this, talking it all out, looking at what this myth was designed to instill and inspire. “It can be anything!” I kept urging. “Just, like, write a story! Any story!” And yet, they were at a loss. As much as we had collectively scoffed and dissected this myth’s fallacies, it still felt so permanent, so undeniable. A skyline they couldn’t see beyond.
It’s not unlike my relationship with sports and its treatment of sex and gender. I know that sports representation is home to many issues besides sex and gender—including its relationship to race, capital, and civic institutions, to name a few—but I’m so stuck on its myths of sex and gender. Here’s this thing, athletic competition, that gives me so much life, and has defined so much of my life, meanwhile just about completely leaving me and people like me—woman, non-binary, trans, intersex, and queer people—out of its major scope. I’m so stuck on the hierarchy, or the myth, this scope creates: who gets to play what, and perhaps more importantly, who watches—and how we see those who are playing.
I feel like I’ve lost my script within this myth of binaries and cis male superiority in sports, even though I know it’s just another story told and re-told by schoolboys on the playground, by my childhood neighbors under our driveway basketball hoop, by my grandma at the sight of a woman sports commentator, by the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) recent ruling over Caster Semnya’s ability to compete with her body’s natural testosterone levels, by every dude at any bar watching any game, or on any court where I’ve ever had to prove myself—a story enforced by the absence of an accessible alternative.
So, I want to slow it all down. I want to “freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience,” as Didion wrote, to offer a different story, a story that’s always existed.
II. Birth of the Sex-Test
In “Against Women’s Sports”, a thesis published in the 2018 Washington University Law Review arguing for sex-integration as an athletic default, Nancy Leong writes,
Researchers have long recognized that sex and gender are different: sex refers to biological categories; gender to socially constructed roles. As I have previously observed, the terms are both misused and conflated in discussions of sports. Still, sex and gender share an important similarity when it comes to sports: in both instances the categories are treated as both mutually exclusive and all-encompassing. That is, an athlete is either male or female, and either a man or a woman, but never both, and certainly not neither one.
We see this binary desperately enforced not only by the practice of segregating sports by sex, but also within them. Look no further than the recent instances of sex-testing in women’s sports, especially with the CAS’ May 1st ruling against South African runner Caster Semenya, and by extension, India’s Dutee Chand. The ruling determines that “female track athletes with naturally elevated levels of testosterone must decrease the hormone to participate in certain races at major competitions like the Olympics.” Both women have been diagnosed with “hyperandrogenism,” a medical condition characterized by excessive levels of testosterone in the female body, and both have been entangled in lawsuits with the International Association of Athletics (IAAF) over their ability to compete in women’s track for their respective countries for the better half of the past decade.
“For a century, talk about testosterone as the ‘male hormone’ has woven folklore into science,” Drs. Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca M. Jordan-Young write in their recent New York Times opinion piece, “The Myth of Testosterone,” “so that supposedly objective claims seemingly validate cultural beliefs about the structure of masculinity and the ‘natural’ relationship between women and men.” In reality, however, testosterone exists in all bodies, and is a far more complicated hormone than its current cultural identity, or myth, would have us believe. The truth is that “women also produce and require testosterone as part of healthy functioning,” Karkazis and Jordan-Young write. “Even the earliest hormone researchers understood that testosterone has wide-ranging effects on metabolism, liver function, bones, muscle, skin and the brain in both sexes.”
Despite much scientific backing on testosterone’s myriad functions within all bodies, the argument over hyperandrogenism lies in the supposed advantage that higher levels of testosterone give women like Semenya and Chand, which according to the IAAF, amounts to a 1.8% boost over other women in their field.*
The mess of sex-testing is unfortunately old news within elite international athleticism. In a 2016 New York Times article entitled, “The Humiliating Practice of Sex-Testing Female Athletes,” Ruth Pawder writes,
The treatment of female athletes, and intersex women in particular, has a long and sordid history. For centuries, sport was the exclusive province of males, the competitive arena where masculinity was cultivated and proven. Sport endowed men with the physical and psychological strength that “manhood” required. As women in the late 19th century encroached on explicitly male domains—sport, education, paid labor—many in society became increasingly anxious; if a woman’s place wasn’t immutable, maybe a man’s role, and the power it entailed, were not secure either.
As women began to compete more and more in world stages like the Olympics, skepticism around their success (as well as their sex and “femininity”) came hand-in-hand. However, in the 50-or-so years of sex-testing, neither the IOC of the IAAF have discovered a single “man” posing as a woman. Nor have they discovered any women who have transformed themselves into a “man” with the use of drugs. They have, however, discovered many intersex women, such as Semenya, and other women who possess three or more sex chromosomes. As Tony Collins writes in Sports in Capitalist Society, “A number of people can be characterized as intersex… Like all issues involving human sex and sexuality, reality is both very complicated and infinitely variable.”
III. Gamemakers & Gatekeepers
All myths are stories, but not all stories are myths: the difference being that myths assume authority. Myths do more than attempt to explain the world and its phenomenon. Yes, myths can instill morals and values, but they can also create fear, and perhaps most importantly, power dynamics. Myths seek to tell a definitive story, and create order from that hierarchy. They draw boundaries, tell us who is in and who is out—and like any story, it’s important to remember who’s telling it, and why. It’s important to consider a myth’s design.
Sex-testing reveals more than the slipperiness of binaries within the sex and gender spectrum—it reveals the mess around the idea of equity in athleticism. How can we enforce equity in sports that were never “fair” in the first place? In sports that have always operated first and foremost as a cis man’s domain? Fair for whom? Testosterone aside, we don’t regulate advantages like an athlete’s access to wealth or capital, coaching, nutrition; nor the benefits of height or stature, or other variables like IQ, vision, or even handedness. Nor do we regulate race—at least not explicitly—anymore. To ignore the inherent racism in this current resurgence of sex testing would be a gross oversight, as the only women being held subject to these humiliating sex-tests and accusations of “hyperandrogenism” are women of color—accusations that are more-often-than-not supported by their white competitors from countries with much larger athletic budgets.
I’ve never heard the same scrutiny over cis men’s adherence to the gender binary within athletic performance, with the most recent exception, perhaps, of figure skater Johnny Weir**. Compare the legacy of degrading comments surrounding the race and strength of the Williams sisters to Olympic gold medalist and swimming icon, Michael Phelps—who has been repeatedly praised for his unique biological make-up, and the advantage that gives him in the pool. “Obviously you don’t get to be the most decorated Olympian of all time without a boatload of dedication and steely focus, but being a biomechanical freak of nature can’t hurt,” writes Valerie Siebert in a 2014 Telegraph article, “Michael Phelps: The man who was built to be a swimmer.”
The article goes into detail about Phelps’ extraordinary stature (6’4” height, 7” wingspan, size 14 feet, “dinner plate” size hands, double jointed elbows, knees, and ankles) but also discusses his secret weapon: “Phelps has been scientifically proven to produce less than half of the lactic acid of his rivals. As a result, he recovers in just a few minutes, which is how he has managed to win gold after gold in quick succession in the past. This quality, more than any other Phelps possesses, incurs the envy of athletes.”
While Phelps’ competitors might fume with envy over this biological advantage, we’ve never heard a peep from any governing body—certainly not the IAAF, IOS, or the CAS—regarding this idea of “fairness” that they seem to hold so dearly. The idea of cis men getting tested, or barred, for an excess of lactic acid, or estrogen, or testosterone, or any other naturally occurring biological phenomenon in elite competition seems absurd because male outliers are celebrated in sports. They are what sports myths are made of.
“Sports men,” Collins continues in Sport in Capitalist Society, “have never had to prove that they were men—because playing sport was one of the most important ways in which men demonstrated their masculinity.” Sports as we know them were created with exactly this test of “masculinity” in mind—to prove and validate men’s strength, speed, and “edge.” Sex-testing was never about establishing fairness between women, but about maintaining the myth of fairness in order to gate-keep masculinity from all other forms. It’s about protecting the superiority of cis men within an arena that has always exalted them, and that was always created for them.
In Against Women’s Sports, Leong writes,
Men invented most sports, and they did so at a time when the idea of women engaging in physical activity would have been viewed as a joke. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the sports men invented often showcase physical endeavors for which men’s bodies tend to be better suited. As a result, the activities we consider sports emphasize physical abilities such as strength, speed, and power. Sports that showcase flexibility, agility, and balance—areas in which women tend to excel—are less common, and those that exist receive less attention.
I can only describe reading this passage for the first time as something like a lightning bolt. In all my efforts to think outside of our current sports system, I’d always considered the antagonists to women’s athletic ability—the myth enforcers—but never the design of the games themselves. The sports that I know, and all of their structural possibilities, have always just existed: the skyline I live within.
However, I wonder how that power dynamic would shift, or equalize, in sports designed with an actual sense of equity? Sports that balanced the strengths and qualities of a variety of bodies? Sports designed by and for other bodies?
Later in her essay, Leong points out sports where women regularly outperform men, typically endurance sports. She mentions Gertrude Ederle, who, in 1926 at the age of 19, became the first woman to swim the English Channel in a record-breaking 14 hours and 34 minutes. Her record would stand for 24 years, until another woman, Florence Chadwick, beat it by an hour and 16 minutes. Then there’s rock climber Lynn Hill, the first person to successfully free climb the sheer rock face of El Capitan, called The Nose, in Yosemite Valley in a single day in 1994, and again a year later. More recently, in 2017, long distance runner Courtney Dauwalter won the Moab 240 Mile Endurance Run—a grueling race in the Utah desert that took her 57 hours and 52 minutes to complete—by more than ten hours over the nearest competitor, a man.
I don’t mention all of this in a “girl power” sort of way, although I do want girls and women—cis, trans, intersex, and everyone in between—to be much more empowered—both in sports and life in general—and especially empowered to design systems that actually work with and for them. Despite my inability to imagine a healthy, successful integrated sports system, I’m not really interested in more sex segregation in sports—although I would like to see the WNBA get some more love, since it feels borderline queer to me anyways, but that’s a whole other conversation.
Mostly, I write this to peel away at the sex-segregated myths and hierarchies that we all get so stuck in. That I get so stuck in. I think these instances of women so extraordinarily outperforming men help remind me of the myth that is gender: the story that keeps trying to explain why and how a person should be, despite all of its failings and exceptions. It’s a story we keep trying to pull over one another, a story that keeps slipping. A story that doesn’t fit most of the people it’s trying to explain: a bad design.
IV. Be a Body
Eventually, in my mythology class, I threw out the assignment of creating a new American dream. I wanted it to be this empowering thing, a chance to change the narrative, make it new. I want to say that I was able to give my students another inspiring prompt in its place, but it didn’t really happen like that. Changing a narrative is hard. It’s not something that happens overnight, or over a semester. It took Didion ten years to write “The White Album,” and even then, her essay ends with, “writing has not yet helped me see what it means.” Instead, I told my students to write about the experience of coming up against the American dream, which worked for some—but at that point, the assignment kind of petered out with the end of the semester.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the authority myths hold over us. But in both cases, the American dream and the myths of sex and gender, it’s the fact of a body that dispels a myth’s power. The American dream presumes social fluidity outside of race and gender, but the very existence of a different kind of body reveals it for what it is: a myth of the powerful given to the powerless to hide their lack of power. It’s the same with sports: segregating competition into a false binary, only to disqualify successful athletes on the basis of being outside of that binary in order to protect the sanctity of masculinity for only a certain kind of body.
Or maybe dispel is the wrong word here. I think the fact of our bodies excludes us from these myths, even if a myth’s spell, or infrastructure, remains.
It’s important to know that, despite the IAAF’s ruling, Semenya still has South Africa behind her, including the country’s Minister of Sport and Recreation, Tokozile Xasa. Xasa’s released a statement calling Semenya South Africa's “golden girl,” and thanking her for “uniting a nation and inspiring a rural girl.” That South Africa stands by the validity of Semenya’s body on the world stage is no small thing.
Changing a narrative is hard. It’s important to remember this, and to remember the validity of our bodies in the face of these imposed infrastructures. It’s not a question of any gender’s inherent value, as gender is just another construction, but of the value we give to the designs we’ve created around them. We have to tell and re-tell these other, less dominant stories in the face of ubiquitous bad designs and designers. We have to let the fact of our bodies hold more value than the deception of their old myths.
*(That number, however, was called into question after the British Journal of Sports Medicine disregarded the techniques that produced the 1.8% finding six months after its publication.)
**In 2010 Johnny Weir was mocked by Canadian broadcasters who suggested he should take a sex-test because of his flamboyant costumes and “body language.”
Jordan Karnes is the author of It Hasn’t Stopped Being California Here (Carville Annex Press) and More Silver Than Gold (Finishing Line Press). She is the Chair of the Literary Arts Department at Oakland School for the Arts.