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Laurie Penny: Caster Semenya’s pink T-shirt

The fashion statement couldn’t have been clearer.

I've never given much time to the sartorial semiotics of sporting fashion, but one tight, hot pink T-shirt has me fascinated. The T-shirt in question, emblazoned with the Nike logo, was worn by Caster Semenya on Thursday night as she ran her first race after being cleared to compete with other women by the IAAF. Semenya, 19, also wore a fetching pastel pink running sweater and had a longer, more feminine hairstyle.

The fashion statement couldn't have been clearer: I'm a proper girl, a girly girl, a girl who likes pink and labels and bunnies and butterflies. Now, please let me do what I was born to do.

With rumours rife that the teenager is biologically intersex and has had surgical intervention and her hormones adjusted to allow her to compete, Caster Semenya must now face the global gender police once more as commentators cluster like flies to give their verdict on her return to athletics. She has spent the past 11 months in limbo, after speculation over her "masculine" appearance at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin led to her being withdrawn from professional athletics while her gender was being determined and as the world watched and gossiped.

The Guardian reports that Semenya had to undergo a series of grotesque tests that sounded "more like abuse than science":

She was allegedly made to undergo a two-hour examination of her sex organs, hitched in stirrups as doctors took photographs. Afterwards she sent distraught messages to friends and family. Her coach Michael Seme later said that it had been a wonder she did not "drink poison" and end it all.

Semenya also had to endure a makeover and cover shoot for You magazine, part of South Africa's attempt to prove that speculation over the young athlete's gender were sexist and racist -- by kitting her out in western beauty drag and plastering pictures of her body all over the front cover.

Now she's been declared fit to run, it's clearly crucial that she tone down her boyish looks. So here she is, in her pretty pink get-up, hoping to placate a global media that has no time whatsoever for women who don't look how women are supposed to look.

This week, Senator David Vitter attacked the left-wing talk-show host Rachel Maddow for "not looking like a woman" on a radio station in the United States. When he was made to apologise, all Vitter could find to say was that the Maddow "did not deserve" what he clearly felt to be an atrocious insult.

More than any other cultural arena, though, the world of sports is about simple binaries, about winners and losers, about arbitrary rules on and off the pitch. That's part of its appeal, and always has been. Caster Semenya threw those arbitrary rules into disarray by being big, brown, butch and flat-chested. And, in an atmosphere of competition which demands that people fit rigidly into boxes, it was deemed necessary that she be dragged physically and psychologically back into line in the most brutal, public and humiliating way imaginable.

That Semenya is faster and stronger than nearly any other teenager on the planet, that she clocked up one of the quickest 800m times in the world in 2009, was considered less important than the central question of what in particular she had between her legs.

I do not wish to contribute in any way to further speculation over Semenya's gender. Caster Semenya is a woman; she has lived her whole life as a woman; and the insistence by the IAAF and the international community that Semenya "prove" her female identity before being allowed to compete would have been sexist on every level, even if there were any foolproof way of doing such a thing, in a world where there are more than two human genders, where there is a whole host of gender identities and physical arrangements, and where 0.2 per cent of the population is intersex.

Semenya's physicality is rather more of an issue for her career and identity than it might be for the rest of us, but I remain disgusted by the popular reasoning that any physically high-achieving woman who is not stereotypically "feminine" is an aberration, and must therefore actually be a man.

For the sake of argument, however, let's suppose just for one minute that Semenya had, in fact, been found and declared to be XXY or XXX-type intersex, or a person with androgen insensitivity syndrome.

Suppose that this wonderful athlete -- who says that she is a woman, who has spent her entire career competing against women and who expresses her triumph as a triumph in the sphere of women's sports, as a female and feminine physical feat -- happens to be among the 0.1 per cent of women without an XX genotype. Why would that be such a huge problem? And why should that have threatened to disqualify her from women's sports? What, were sports officials going to create a special intersex olympics just for her and a handful of others?

Or could they have been planning to continue to ignore and belittle any contribution to human progress and prowess not made by people who conform personally, biologically and physiotypically to western notions of the two-gender binary?

Back to that pink T-shirt, the colour of corporate femininity, of brand woman, stretched provocatively over Semenya's chest in a statement of submission and conformity -- as if anyone could blame her after what she's been through.

If, indeed, Caster Semenya had been found to have any sort of genetic "advantage" over other women, the simplest solution might have been to force her to run in a miniskirt and tottering high heels to even the odds. Her talent is such that she would probably have won anyway. And, more importantly, she'd have proved to the world that she's a proper girl -- which is what really matters.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war