Along with the rest of the world, I’ve been watching the transformation of Olympic gold medal decathlon winner Bruce Jenner into ultra-femme Caitlyn Jenner, culminating in Annie Leibovitz’s Vanity Fair cover portrait. Having worked with Leibovitz years ago I know that, beyond the 10-hours of facial-feminization surgery, Caitlyn has been styled to-the-hilt by makeup, hair and wardrobe artists, carefully-lit and posed, and the images ultimately airbrushed.

Despite all the artifice, the undeniable back story behind the image is compelling: Jenner risked and endured a huge amount of ridicule in her decision to “live fully as a woman”.

I’m not doing this to be interesting, I’m doing this to live.

If I was lying on my deathbed and I had kept this secret and never ever did anything about it, I would be lying there saying, ‘You just blew your entire life. You never dealt with yourself,’ and I don’t want that to happen.”

Vanity Fair
Vanity Fair

How different is what Jenner has done in the name of personal expression as the two women I once met at a dinner party who had each changed their names, and with them, their identities? Neither would say what their original name had been, only that they’d made the decision to do so to become more the person they imagined themselves to be, and to have more opportunities. Even names can oppress by triggering assumptions and associations in those that hear them.

In a video made of the Vanity Fair shoot, Jenner says:

Bruce always had to tell a lie. He was always living that lie. Everyday he always had a secret from morning till night. Caitlin doesn’t have any secrets. Soon as the Vanity Fair cover comes out, I’m free.

I hope Jenner really will feel the liberation she seeks. As cliched as the visual persona she’s chosen appears to me, it seems to represent the most profound form of personal expression for her.

Annie Leibovitz
Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair

It reminds me of a woman whose silvery dreadlocks I admired on the street once, as I sheepishly apologized for my dyed hair (just as silvery underneath). She looked me in the eye and said:

“EVERYBODY uses their hair and body to express themselves. It’s what we humans do!”

Jimmy Nelson/Before They Pass Away
Jimmy Nelson/Before They Pass Away

 

4 replies on “Jenner: on ‘Dealing with Yourself’ and ‘Doing This to Live.’

  1. Thank you. Your entry does an excellent job of framing this story in terms of your own project with Improvised Life, and does so in a matter-of-fact way, using terms that connects this story to all of us, every single one of us. Showing how a story like this is the story of everybody on the planet, trying to whatever degree is possible to live our own most authentic lives, is a positive, healing act. And that’s why I say it again: thank you.

  2. Thanks to you both. Her story is the story of everybody. No deathbed regrets for anyone, please. The post makes that connection and Jim’s comment is particularly concise. You’ve all touched my heart.

  3. And for an entirely different critique on the matter, check out Jon Stewart’s comments from The Daily Show last evening. Spot on, in my opinion.

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