Is There a Science to Beauty?

The gender issue surrounding Caster Semenya seems to directly question race and beauty. Who gets to set the standards?

Getty Images
Getty Images

“He look-a like a man.” Remember Ms. Swan? Mad TV‘s maybe-Korean, maybe-Icelandic, slightly androgynous nail technician played with adroit cultural ambiguity by Jewish-American actress Alex Borstein? Ms. Swan could never give anyone a straight answer and her subterfuge became her most famous catchphrase, “He look-a like a man.” We laughed because the answer was so obvious, yet so cryptic. Because really what does a man look-a like?

In the case of 800m World Champion Caster Semenya, the International Association of Athletics Federations thinks it knows, sorta—having compelled the 18-year-old to undergo “gender testing” in order to prove that she is, in fact, female. Apparently sixth-place finisher Elisa Cusma Piccione is an expert as well. Piccione told Italian journalists, “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.” And fellow loser Mariya Savinova of Russia, who came in fifth, instructed journalists in Berlin to, “just look at her.”

OK, but what are we looking at, or for, exactly? The thick thighs, the muscular arms, the broad shoulders, the wide jaw line, bushy eyebrows and faint mustache? Are these the physical attributes that define Semenya as inherently male, just plain unattractive or a record breaker?

The issue seems to directly question race, beauty and who gets to set the standards. White and western is more female and more beautiful, black and African is less so.

“As a beauty editor, I looked at her face and thought it’s a beautiful and very interesting face,” said Tai Beauchamp, 31, a beauty and lifestyle expert. “[It’s] not a face that is so different from some of the African models that we love.” But even that small pinch (definitely not even a handful) of women—Alek Wek, Liya Kebede—are still the exception rather than the norm to our ideas of female beauty, despite two Vogue Italia issues dedicated to black models the most recent being the “Black Barbie” issue.

In keeping with the black and barbie dichotomy, Sola Oyebade, the owner of a London-based modeling agency that features women of color, explained that to be African and beautiful in the Western fashion world, a model is defined as either one or the other.

“To be accepted as an African model you must have very strong African features, similar to the likes of Alex Wek, or you must be of mixed race so that you look as close to being white as possible,” said Oyebade, chief executive of Mahogany Models.