terça-feira, 29 de setembro de 2009

What Makes a Woman a Woman?

The Way We Live Now
What Makes a Woman a Woman?
by Elinor Carucci

There is a painting by Richard Prince hanging in the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, a purple canvas bisected by one line of chartreuse type that reads : “I met my first girl, her name was Sally. Was that a girl, was that a girl. That’s what people kept asking.” That refrain echoed in my head as I pored over the photos of 18-year-old Caster Semenya, the South African track star whose biological sex was called into question last month after she annihilated her competition, winning the 800-meter world championship in significantly less time than her own previous finishes.

Semenya’s saga was made for the news media. A girl who may not be a girl! That chest! Those arms! That face! She was the perfect vehicle for nearly any agenda: was this another incidence of people calling into question black female athletes’ femininity (the Williams sisters, the basketball legend Sheryl Swoopes)? Was it sexist to assume women were incapable of huge leaps in athletic performance? Should all female athletes be gender-verified, as they were in Olympic competition until 1999? (The practice was dropped because no competitive edge was proved for the few women with rare disorders of sex development — it served only to humiliate them.) Should the entire practice of sex-segregating sports be abandoned?

Was that a girl, was that a girl. That’s what people kept asking.

I had my own reasons to be fascinated by Semenya’s story: I related to it. Not directly — I mean, no one has ever called my biological sex into question. No one, that is, except for me. After my breast-cancer diagnosis at age 35, I was told I almost certainly had a genetic mutation that predisposed me to reproductive cancers. The way I could best reduce my risk would be to surgically remove both of my breasts and my ovaries. In other words, to amputate healthy body parts. But not just any parts: the ones associated in the most primal way with reproduction, sexuality, with my sense of myself as female. Even without that additional blow, breast cancer can feel like an assault on your femininity. Reconstructing the psyche becomes as much a part of going through treatment as reconstructing the body.

In the weeks that followed my diagnosis, during that heightened, crystalline time of fear and anxiety, I was not, I, admit, at my most rational. So I began to fret: without breasts or hormone-producing ovaries, what would the difference be, say, between myself and a pre-op female-to-male transsexual? Other than that my situation was involuntary? That seemed an awfully thin straw on which to base my entire sense of womanhood. What, precisely, made me a girl anyway? Who got to decide? How much did it matter?

When I was in college, in the early 1980s, the gospel was that the whole enchilada of gender was a social construct: differences between boys and girls were imposed by culture, rather than programmed by chromosomes and chemicals, and it was time to divest ourselves of them. That turned out to be less true than feminists of the era might have wished: physiology, not just sisterhood, is powerful. While femininity may be relative — slipping and sliding depending on the age in which you live, your stage of life, what you’re wearing (quick: do tailored clothes underscore or undercut it?) even the height of the person standing next to you — biology, at least to some degree, is destiny, though it should make no never mind to women’s rights or progress.

Even as I went on as a journalist to explore ideas about gender, I took the fact of my own for granted: as for most people — men and women alike — it was so clear to me as to be invisible. I was unnerved, then, to discover not only that it could be so easily threatened but also how intense that threat felt. That, too, gave me pause: why should being biologically male or female still be so critical to our self-definition? Is it nature — an evolutionary imperative to signal with whom we can reproduce? Is it nurture? Either way, and regardless of our changing roles and opportunities, it is profound.

Was that a girl, was that a girl. That’s what people kept asking.

And yet, identity is not simply the sum of our parts. That’s what makes Semenya — whose first name is usually conferred on a boy but happens to be Greek for “beaver” — so intriguing. Science may or may not be able to establish some medical truth about her, something that will be relevant on the playing field. But I doubt that will change who she considers herself to be. According to Sheri Berenbaum, a professor of psychology and pediatrics at Penn State who studies children with disorders of sex development, even people with ambiguous biology tend to identify as male or female, though what motivates that decision remains unclear. “People’s hormones matter,” she said, “but something about their rearing matters too. What about it, though, no one really knows.”

There is something mysterious at work, then, that makes us who we are, something internally driven. Maybe it’s about our innate need to categorize the world around us. Maybe it arises from — or gives rise to — languages that don’t allow for neutrality. My guess, however, is that it’s deeper than that, something that transcends objectivity, defies explanation. That’s what I concluded about myself, anyway. Although I have, so far, opted to hang onto my body parts (and still wonder, occasionally, if I would feel differently were, say, a kidney or an arm at issue), I know that my sex could never really be changed by any surgeon’s scalpel. Why not? Perhaps because of the chemistry set I was born with, one that Semenya may or may not share. Perhaps merely because . . . I say so. And maybe that will have to be enough.

Peggy Orenstein, a contributing writer, is the author of “Waiting for Daisy,” a memoir.

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