Defining Women’s Strength: Where Science Gets it Wrong

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Written by Abigail Cervantes. Edited by Lluvia Claudio-Albarran


Caster Semenya. 

Dutee Chad. 

Maria Jose Martinez-Patino. 

Renee Richards. 

Tifanny Abreu. 

Rachel McKinnon. 

Cece Telfer. 

Pinki Pramanik. 

Santhi Soundarajan. 

Fallon Fox.


What do all these names have in common? If your guess is that they are all women (whether they are cis, intersex, or transgender), well you wouldn’t be wrong. But, there’s something else even more important that puts all of these individuals in the same category. What they all share, apart from the fact that they are all athletes who compete in women-only events, is that they are all winners. And because so many of them are also intersex or are transgender women, controversies follow their careers that seek to cast doubt on the legitimacy of their winning records. 


While it may seem logical for the institutions that govern sports competitions to act with such scrutiny, upon closer examination it could be argued that the issues surrounding transgender and intersex athletes competing at the professional level has more to do with how science measures the strength of athletes it considers ‘women’, and how wrongly these measurements have been interpreted.


Generally speaking, all bodies are similar in terms of how skeletal muscle are formed, and how they function to perform athletic tasks. Where differences begin to occur, however, is in the development of that muscle. It is a common understanding that hormone levels between people with external reproductive organs and people with internal reproductive organs have the biggest impact on overall strength, because the average cis man produces some hormones (the hormone testosterone in particular) at certain levels that lead to an increase of developed muscle mass. 


While testosterone is a hormone that most bodies produce (there is no such thing as an exclusively ‘male’ or ‘female’ hormone) it is typically present at higher levels in a cis male body, providing more of an opportunity for increased muscle mass. 


It seems simple enough, then, to understand why science looks to the testosterone levels in cis men as an indicator of potential strength, and uses those measurements to compare how strong all others can expect to be in comparison. However, the accuracy of those measurements do not provide a complete picture of what is, in reality, a very complex interconnection of various factors.


In addition to the fact that defining strength involves so much more than just the presence of testosterone, there isn’t actually any strong scientific evidence for a correlation between the two. Determining what  ‘normal’ levels of testosterone look like in the bodies of cis men and women is difficult to achieve, and it is actually more common to find lower levels of the hormone in cis men than one would think if it is the most widely recognized signifier for strength. And, much of what science knows about testosterone in sports is based largely on the observation of cis male athletes.


When considering such studies, it’s important to note that not only is the sample pool size for this data very small, but the emphasis on their use in determining the effects of low or high testosterone levels implies that we have a firm understanding of what ‘normal’ is.


“The first step is finding out if you have low testosterone to start, which is complicated by the fact that we have no really reliable way to measure it,” says Dr. William Kormos, editor-in-chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch and a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.


Apart from our inability to accurately measure testosterone levels using a clear baseline, much less to interpret the data of those measurements in a meaningful way, this preoccupation with hormones seems based on the assumption that an athlete’s prowess is due overwhelmingly (or even totally) to the effect hormones have on the body


If the whole point of measuring testosterone levels is to ensure fairness within sports competitions, then it doesn’t seem practical to stop there.

What about other natural phenomena that hormones and other anatomical anomalies produce that are not identified with binary sex classifications? 


All athletes possess both advantages and disadvantages that are a result of their natural anatomy and thus beyond their control. What about those lucky individuals with favorable characteristics such as heightened flexibility, circulation, or lung capacity? And, when considering the issue of ‘fairness’, we should also be taking into account the social and economic advantages that some athletes are privileged to, such as accessibility to coaches and training facilities, and free time in which to hone their skills.


A prime critique of hormone-based regulation can be seen in the career of Michael Phelps, who has won more Olympic medals than any other athlete in history. He possesses an unusually ergonomic body, ideal for his chosen sport of swimming. Standing at a height of 6’4” with a wingspan of 6’7” he boasts a 3 inch advantage in his pulling power over the average person, whose wingspan is more in line with their height.


Phelp’s body also produces less lactic acid than his contemporaries, which enables him to experience less fatigue and recover more rapidly.


Phelps’ unique proportions and physiology give him an obvious edge over his competition. Should he be restricted in some way in the interest of ‘fairness’, when he is only tasking his body with what it is naturally predisposed to achieve?


On the other side of this coin, we could place grand slam champion Serena Williams, a cis woman who has never been accused of doping, but who is subject to what many see as an unusually frequent amount of drug testing prior to her matches. Her career is often called into question in part because her build, although the result only of her natural characteristics enhanced by rigorous training, isn’t considered feminine enough for some to accept that her success is legitimate


It’s becoming more and more clear to the larger sports community that Black women, in particular, have been battling a history of body policing by sports federations for a multitude of reasons, including their physiques. And if we take this critique a step further, the practice, by which largely white male-governing bodies are empowered to decide how the ‘femaleness’ of Black women should be identified, should make us question the science that allows for such conclusions regarding how strong women athletes can be.  


The scrutiny over and restriction of testosterone levels under the guise of fairness specifically targets transgender, intersex, and cis Black women and other women of color. This poses the question: is the way in which traditional sports science chooses to define strength actually objective, or is it threaded with misconceptions along lines of race and sex?  Limits are placed on the acceptable levels of testosterone that transgender and intersex athletes must exhibit to make the playing field ‘level’, but if Black, women and femme athletes are also constantly held to a different definition of what ‘women’ should be, then to whom are these regulations actually a benefit?


The overarching issue here is not just about talented and successful women being called into question or made to feel delegitimized. The concepts of femininity and strength are two physicalities that our general society still cannot fully accept as being intertwined, because we’ve been taught to only identify strength with maleness. And since most official sports federations are run by majority men, the view of what women can achieve is limited by what prevailing male-centric science claims women’s bodies can do.  This is why transgender and intersex athletes are often trapped in the politics of how we define a woman’s strength. 


The LGBTQIA community, Black women, and women of color are consistently aware of how their bodies are assessed and policed by cisgender standards. There is now a growing global understanding that while sex is related to a reproductive characteristic, gender is a social construct, and the two can produce different identities. Additionally, gender and sex can have overlapping qualities along a spectrum of characteristics. How then can governing institutions truly claim to be in the interest of fairness in sports competition if they insist on grouping athletes into outdated categories using insufficient criteria? The argument to limit testosterone levels in transgender women and intersex athletes deserves a more complex debate. 


Ever since sports governing bodies have existed, sports has always sought to separate females from males in the name of ‘fairness’. But, how can one classify human beings into only two categories, when no two human bodies are the same? If the purpose of a sport is to compete in very controlled environment then perhaps separating athletes along the lines of biological sex characteristics isn’t the best solution to determining what is ‘fair’.


The narrative that testosterone levels are inherently an indicator of ‘maleness’ and therefore inform athletic prowess is false. There can be no binary factor defined through sex when considering the skill and success of an athlete has to do with so much more than just hormones. What makes a ‘male’ and ‘female’ body isn’t so easy to define.

To ban transgender and intersex athletes based on the idea that a transgender woman is the same as a ‘biological’ man, or that an intersex people have the same strength of a cis man because of their testosterone levels is wrong. Sports federations should recognize how the concepts of sex and gender have changed, and apply this information sincerely when considering how to treat transgender and intersex athletes. They are operating on an outdated model, when the way sports competitions are categorized should actually be a much bigger conversation. 


The arena of sports is a great example of an area in our society where gender politics and science put forth views that contradict one another while attempting to support each other. The idea that dictating how strong an athlete is in the Women’s category should be in comparison to an athlete in the Men’s category is being challenged all the time. Crossfit’s annual competition, The Crossfit Games, divides their main categories into Male, Female, and Teams, and they accept entries into each category by people competing under the gender that they identify with. This is a governing body that understands that testing a person’s athleticism involves so much more than just strength. 


Endurance, conditioning, adaptability, and tenacity all play a part in the success of an athlete. Participants are challenged through exercises with heavy weights, muscular endurance workouts, and anaerobic and aerobic fitness challenges. Because of the understanding this organization has regarding the nuances of athleticism, their competitions are set up in such a way as to actually make the playing field more equal. Crossfit doesn’t assume that strength is the end-all-be-all of an athlete or that those that exude ‘maleness’ will prove to be more successful.


If we allow transgender and intersex athletes to compete within the categories that align with the genders they identify with, we might be able to truely reexamine how we judge sports when determining a winner. When we consider sexual identity and gender inclusion, we need to accept that physical presentation can naturally overlap with gender identity and sexual biology. 


A person’s anatomy can differ through myriad variables including hormone levels, hereditary background, reproductive capacity, and physical genitalia. It’s important that governing bodies of sports institutions find ways to be accountable for these variables when seeking to define what truly accounts for an athlete’s skills and how those skills should be measured in competition. Unfortunately, science hasn’t accumulated enough data to make informed suggestions as to how sports can calculate outcomes outside of the gender divide.


Luckily, there’s plenty of room left for growth and truly objective examination, and for all athletes to prove that their achievements go far beyond their gender.

Abigail Cervantes is a huge powerlifting, weightlifting, and taco enthusiast. When she is not spending endless hours training at the gym, she is busy running her own collective which serves to empower women of color. You can follow her lifting journey through IG @abigail.betsabe  you can follow her collective or website.

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