Mel Robbins: The magazine cover, like ones of Demi Moore and John Lennon, could cause discomfort, a step in shifting societal norms
It may be a tipping point for trans community acceptance, and Jenner's story shows struggle, courage as she faced her true self, she says
Editor’s Note: Mel Robbins is a CNN commentator, legal analyst, best-selling author and keynote speaker. In 2014, she was named outstanding news talk-radio host by the Gracie Awards. Follow her @melrobbins. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
By now you’ve seen Caitlyn (nee Bruce) Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. You’ll find the portrait stunning: either because it is a beautiful portrait of a 65-year-old vixen who has found her power and freedom, or because you are stunningly uncomfortable looking at it.
It’s not the first time a magazine cover has sent our discomfort into overdrive:
In 1991, Vanity Fair put an oiled, pregnant and naked Demi Moore on its cover. She was bursting with life and flaunting her seven-months-pregnant body, barely hiding her breasts with her hands. The image – like Jenner’s, shot by Annie Leibovitz – was so shocking to societal norms that retailers hid the cover behind a brown paper sleeve. Two decades later, pregnancy is celebrated with body-clinging fashion, and beautiful belly shots show up in your newsfeed all the time.
Rolling Stone’s uncomfortably intimate Leibovitz photo of John Lennon, completely naked embracing Yoko Ono, also rocked our sense of propriety back in 1980, but today, intimacy and love are celebrated publicly in more ways than you and I can recite.
What’s so powerful about iconic portraits is that they shift accepted norms and ignite something in you – immediately. There’s no doubt we’ll look back on this photo of Caitlyn Jenner and cite it as the tipping point in the movement for acceptance and rights for transgender people.
When Caitlyn’s portrait broke online, I was in the middle of a meeting and showed it to a lawyer sitting next to me.
“Doesn’t she look amazing?”
“He or she can do whatever they want to do, I’m just not comfortable with it.”
Our 14-year-old, said. “I think it’s cool that she can be who she wants to be. I’m just surprised all the Kardashians and the Jenners are on board with this. They just lost their dad. I don’t know how I’d feel if my dad became my mom.”
My 13-year-old niece was similarly supportive of Jenner’s transition, but “wondered why she didn’t spell her new name with a ‘K,’ so she would feel more connected to her daughters Kylie and Kendall.”
This kind of processing of something one doesn’t understand – this discomfort – is the way long-held personal and public beliefs begin to evolve. As society itself has evolved, we have moved from discrimination to discomfort to questioning to acceptance and support on every major equality issue: voting rights, desegregation and gay marriage.
As Jenner told Vanity Fair: “The uncomfortableness of being me never leaves all day long. I’m not doing this to be interesting. I’m doing this to live.” His discomfort with his true identity ran so deep, he waged a battle with himself for six decades.
Around the age of 10, Bruce would sneak into his mother’s closet to dress in her clothes, “fascinated” but “scared to death somebody was going to find out,” she says. As a sports broadcaster and keynote speaker, she felt she was lying. “Underneath my suit I have a bra and panty hose and this and that and thinking to myself, They know nothing about me.”
Caitlyn, who was then Bruce, told his first wife, Chrystie, in the early 1970s that “he always wanted to be a woman” and “as a little kid how that felt.” She made her first transition in the mid-1980s, going on hormones, removing her beard and having plastic surgery on her nose.
Today we can say Jenner had gender dysphoria (simply put, your sex parts do not match the gender you believe you are), but as she was growing up, society was ignorant and intolerant of trans issues.
Jenner’s discomfort made her a horrible father to the first four of her children; she went years at a time without contact and missing many of life’s milestones. “I was terrified of being discovered. I was not at a point in my life where I was comfortable with myself.” As Jenner’s daughter Cassandra put it: “There’s no way to separate what he’s going through, the trap he’s been in for the past 60 years and how that has affected his choices around love and relationships. It’s impossible.”
One of the most powerful results of Jenner’s transformation is the effect it’s had on her relationship with those four kids. They were already aware of their father’s identity as a woman. Her son Brody was told when he was 29, and says it “was almost a relief. Because it made a lot of sense growing up. Reasons and things like why he wasn’t there. Not around. I finally realized he had his own issues he was dealing with at that time.” And for finally going public with her transition, her son Brandon said of Jenner: “I’ve never been more proud of you than I am at this moment.”
It takes courage to deal with yourself, to stop lying to yourself and be who you were born to be. If there’s anything to learn from Caitlyn’s journey, it’s about discomfort, that mile maker on the road to acceptance. How much discomfort we all bear privately! How liberating it is when you finally are brave enough to face your fears, deal with your issues and live your truth.
Jenner will be awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at ESPN’s ESPYs in Los Angeles and join the ranks of fellow icons – Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Billie Jean King and Robin Roberts.
It took Caitlyn 65 years of battling discomfort to find the courage to be who she was meant to be. Judging by the life-affirming, powerful entrance she’s made, she’s clearly making up for lost time. Brava, Caitlyn. Brava!