Don't judge women by their covers
- Published: 21 November 2009
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It's time to stop demonising women who don't conform to conventional feminine ideals and instead embrace gender diversity, writes Katrina Fox.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the bearded lady was a staple attraction of travelling human freak shows. But while these sideshows may have declined in popularity, a bearded woman - or any woman who exhibits masculine traits - is still a social aberration.
Take South African athlete Caster Semenya, who has become a modern-day curiosity. After winning the women's 800 metres at the World Championships in Athletics in Berlin earlier this year, fellow athletes questioned her biological sex. Was she a woman? The International Association of Athletics' Federations ordered a series of tests.
The Australian media reported that these revealed Semenya possesses both male and female sex characteristics.
She's a young woman with a possible intersex condition who produces a higher level of testosterone than so-called ''normal'' women. For this, she has suffered the indignity of having her core identity challenged.
In an attempt to prove she is "all woman", the South African magazine You decked her out in heels and make-up and put her on its cover. The African National Congress MP Winnie Madikizela-Mandela slammed the publication for "making a spectacle" of Semenya and turning her into a "caricature". She is right.
Semenya's makeover reinforces our narrow-minded view of what a woman is - or should be. The message, ingrained in society, is: if you don't adopt the trappings associated with conventional femininity, you're not a ''real'' woman.
This notion leaves every woman who finds long hair, lipstick and a pair of 13-centimetre Manolo Blahniks to be about as useful as a fork to eat soup feeling like a failure, or even a traitor to her gender.
The emphasis on a woman's attractiveness or femininity means talent is often overlooked. Semenya is a case in point. Another example of this is the furore at Wimbledon earlier this year when it was reported higher-ranked female tennis players, including world No. 1 Serena Williams, were relegated to the outer courts while ''prettier'' players were favoured for the centre court.
Homophobia, of course, plays its part in society's revilement of women who don't conform to gender stereotypes. Legendary tennis stars such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova no doubt lost sponsorships because they were gay. But it's likely their physical appearance played a part.
If Maria Sharapova suddenly declared membership of the Sapphic sisterhood, it's unlikely she'd lose sponsors. Rather than cries of ''She's not a real woman'', we'd likely hear ''Can we watch?'' Lesbians - along with all other women - are acceptable to mainstream society if they're considered ''feminine'' enough. MTV's Ruby Rose is snapped by the paparazzi every day ''despite'' being a lesbian, because she's ''hot''.
But regardless of who they're sleeping with, successful sportswomen, businesswomen and female politicians all cop flack for looking or behaving in ways considered ''unfeminine''.
The idea of a ''butch'' woman who dares to reject feminine accoutrements and a passiveness generally associated with her gender sends tidal waves of fear thundering through the patriarchal psyche. It's time for the freak show to end. It's time to stop demonising women who don't conform to conventional feminine ideals.
The irony is that if a woman wears too little make-up, she's not a real woman, but if she wears too much, she's compared with a drag queen - that is, a man - albeit one who has taken femininity to the extreme. Talk about a rock and a hard place.
This isn't an argument against femininity itself. Many women, including me, revel in putting on a pretty frock, painting our faces and wrecking our spines by teetering around in fabulous stilettos. But that doesn't make us ''women'', any more than short hair and jackboots make a man.
Rigid gender stereotypes of women as feminine and men as masculine do a disservice to us all, as we struggle to live up to a particular image and are stigmatised if we don't.
No good can come of sending the message to young girls that, regardless of how intelligent or talented you are, your real worth is in how pretty you're considered to be. Or if you're not genetically ''blessed'' with acceptable standards of beauty, you'll be judged on how much effort you're prepared to put in to achieve a conventional feminine appearance - to ''make the best'' of yourself.
We need to shift our mindsets to allow for diversity in physical attributes and gender expression. So when sportswomen like Semenya come along, we can appreciate their exceptional talent instead of harping on about their appearance.
There has been much debate about whether Semenya is a woman, but the more important issue is to examine why she - and any other woman - has to have a makeover to prove it.
Image courtesy of Antony Turducken http://www.flickr.com/photos/anthonyturducken/2835915165/ issued under Creative Commons licence.