Caitlyn Jenner, Rachel Levine, and the “Joys” of Womanhood

If gender is all about how you feel on the inside, why is Caitlyn Jenner wearing that bustier?

Illustration by Juliette Borda

Illustration by Juliette Borda

“It’s called a ‘lob,’” my daughter Marcy says a little shyly, turning to model 360 degrees of her new haircut. “For ‘long bob,’ you know?” She faces me again. “What do you think?”

“It’s beautiful,” I tell her, hiding my shock at seeing her shorn of her long hair for the first time since she was — well, since she was a toddler, a quarter of a century ago. But the new ’do does suit her, framing her cheek in a swooping curve.

“I’m going back to get highlights next paycheck. They cost a hundred dollars. Just the cut was $80.” My thrifty girl sounds both amazed at and ashamed of her cosmetic and financial daring. No wonder. I’ve never spent anything like that much money on my hair.

Apparently, though, I’m an anomaly. I just read in Time magazine that 75 percent of all American women dye their hair. Seventy-five percent! That’s an unbelievable figure to someone like me, who grew up thinking bleach blondes were immoral. There’s nothing wrong with Marcy’s hair the way it is. It’s not as if she’s going gray. It’s just that every day, the society we live in tells her — sells her — that she could be better, her truer, more authentic self, if she just did/wore/ate/lost this.

Marcy sweeps back her lob with a hand whose nails have been painted a rich, glossy pink by her manicurist. Half of me is so proud of how polished and professional she looks. The other half of me is filled with horror: When did my little girl go over to the dark side?

MARCY’S NAMED AFTER MY MOM, who grew up in South Philly, land of big hair and eyebrow pencils. Whether it was the nuns at Catholic school, the teachers at Girls’ High or the cautionary example of her peers, Mom wore very little makeup and never went to the beauty parlor to have her hair done. She brought me and my two sisters up in that same vein: Makeup was for hookers, starting to shave your legs was to be put off as long as possible, and two braids were all the hairstyling any woman needs.

Naturally, I chafed at this when I was young. I thought my mom was hopelessly backward, not to mention sexually paranoid. It wasn’t until I had a job and a house and a husband and some kids of my own that it occurred to me: Mom was just too busy to take a couple hours out of her day to hit the beauty parlor. And if she did have a spare couple of hours, she preferred to spend them painting the bathroom or rewiring the front porch light or weeding the garden, all of which is hell on a manicure.

I understand now. Years ago, I wrote an article about Marcy and me for a women’s magazine, which decided to illustrate it with a photo of the two of us. The editors sent an entire entourage for the occasion: photographer, photographer’s assistant, lighting minion, makeup artist, hairstylist, some other sort of stylist-in-chief. Their arrival on my front porch was the talk of the neighborhood for days. While the rest of them traipsed around the house and yard searching for the perfect sunlight and backdrop, the makeup artist and hairstylist took Marcy and me in hand. For two straight hours, they primped and plucked and tweezed and smoothed and brushed and sprayed and otherwise improved on what nature gave us. They were very, very nice, but it was unbelievably tedious. And it convinced me that what actresses need most in terms of talent is the patience of Job.

In the photo that ran in the magazine, wearing all that gunk, we looked … like two ordinary suburbanites, mother and child.

I guess Marcy didn’t find it as boring as I did.

WHEN RACHEL DOLEZAlL hit the news this past summer for pretending to be black, other people dissected the social-justice implications. Me, I marveled at the braids. Marcy’s college roommate was from Kenya, and she had hundreds of waist-length braids that were affixed to her head in day-long sessions of hairdressing that made, say, getting a perm look rinky-dink.

That Time magazine article quotes a Los Angeles podiatrist, Sean Ravaei, who surgically shortens women’s toes:

I started doing this in Philadelphia in 2004. This lady came to the office and said she didn’t like the way her toe looked, and we made it shorter for her. She told her friends, and more people came. That was in Philadelphia, where many, many people are obese and people do not care much about their looks.

Gee, thanks, Dr. Sean.

Plastic surgeons are such frank souls that they assign an entire category of procedures, including breast augmentation, butt augmentation and labiaplasty (I had to look that up; don’t) the label “sexualization,” which in most other contexts wouldn’t have positive connotations. Caitlyn Jenner reportedly raised her shirt to show her son Brandon her newly implanted breasts, causing him to say, “Whoa, I’m still your son.”

Marcy was a gender studies major. She knows all about privilege and power differentials and the male gaze. Yet she spends her spare time watching the Kardashians and those terrible, tawdry Real Housewives on TV. Perhaps she’s drawn to them because she knows I disapprove. Part of what my mom was trying to convey to my sisters and me, in her dismissal of South Philly’s beautification mores, was that what’s inside a person matters more than the outside, particularly if that person happens to be female. Back when I was in college, even at my school in the South, we budding feminists shunned makeup and girdles and bras and wore our hair long and straight.

Nowadays, womanhood is defined by its trappings. What seemed like feminism’s logical extension — remember unisex clothing? — has been drowned in a sea of Instagrammed narcissism. Last May, Philly novelist Jennifer Weiner wrote in the New York Times about encountering a fan who complimented some advice Weiner had written to her two young daughters, about how “some people would judge them on their appearances instead of their hearts, but that who they are matters much more than how they look.” Weiner, who’s all of 45, was on her way to get her first Botox injection at the time.

Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens writes repeatedly regarding readers who complain about how her hair looks in her photo in the paper. Every week, Stevens says, she gets several tweets or emails telling her how pretty she could be “if I would just do something with my hair.” Stevens’s response? “I don’t need to be prettier. That is not in my job description.”

“My brain is much more female than it is male,” Caitlyn Jenner told Diane Sawyer in a televised interview in April. I’m not sure what that means. You can’t tell the gender of a brain by looking at it. Jenner talks about having worn a bra and pantyhose beneath her men’s suit decades ago, when she made public appearances in the wake of her Olympic triumph. She looks forward to hosting “girls’ nights” at which she can “talk about anything you want to talk about. You can talk about outfits. You can talk about hair and makeup, anything you want.” Asked by Sawyer what she looked forward to most after her public revelation, Jenner said, “To be able to have my nail polish on long enough that it actually chips off.”

Wearing a bra and pantyhose and nail polish and talking about hair and makeup … why is it that what Caitlyn Jenner longs most to do as a woman is what I hate most about being one?

IN THE MIDST of the flutter over Jenner’s transformation, Rachel Levine was confirmed as Pennsylvania’s new physician general. Levine is also a transgender woman, but when photos of her are published, the comments sections aren’t kind. Levine doesn’t doll up as well as Jenner does. Then again, she doesn’t have the army of “production assistants and makeup and wardrobe people” that filled Jenner’s house, as Buzz Bissinger wrote in Vanity Fair, on the day of the magazine’s photo shoot.

Besides, the natural look is no longer acceptable, apparently. As much as I enjoyed the U.S. Women’s National Team’s run-up to the World Cup soccer championship, I couldn’t help but marvel that so many of the players from all nations wore makeup on the field. As a matter of fact, an official from the Confederation of Brazilian Football credited eye shadow and mascara for improvements in the game: “Now the women are getting more beautiful, putting on makeup,” he told Canada’s Globe and Mail. “They go in the field in an elegant manner.” Yippee! You’ve come a long way, baby. Is that a push-up bra under your team jersey? Could it be?

It’s wonderful that women can now succeed in so many more arenas than when I was young. It’s dreadful that they’re expected to exude sex appeal while they do. Transgender actress Laverne Cox got at the heart of this in a Tumblr post on Caitlyn’s revelation, which, she said, “has made me reflect critically on my own desires to ‘work a photo shoot,’ to serve up various forms of glamour, power, sexiness, body affirming, racially empowering images of the various sides of my black, trans womanhood”:

[I]n certain lighting, at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards. Now, there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards. More importantly many trans folks don’t want to embody them and we shouldn’t have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves.

Nobody should, trans or not. That frisson Bruce Jenner felt putting on pantyhose as a young man — I remember that, too. I felt it when I was 12 and pantyhose were special and forbidden and therefore much more sophisticated and intriguing than knee socks. You know what pantyhose are now? Instruments of torture that I pay way too much money for, year after year after year.

And I’m a low-maintenance female. No one has ever called me glamorous. Yet there’s a threshold of feminine accoutrement that I feel I dare not slip below in my professional capacity, one that includes leg-shaving and eyebrow plucking and shoes that hurt and mascara and foundation and lipstick and a dress or skirt with jewelry to match it — at the very least. How I long to be free of all of it — to roll out of bed like a man does, put on a suit and tie, run a comb over my head and go to work. And maybe grow a beard.

According to Time, at the world’s largest plastic surgery convention, no one talks about “plastic surgery”; they prefer terms like “realization.” Real-ization. Doctors in the U.S. last year performed such realizations 15 million times, and that doesn’t include the many millions more nonsurgical procedures, like Botox and Juvéderm. Total cost per year: $13 billion. That’s the equivalent of Albania’s GDP. That’s getting real.

The funny thing is, if anybody ought to know about the disconnect between outward appearance and internal satisfaction, it’s Caitlyn Jenner. As she put it in Vanity Fair, “The uncomfortableness of being me never leaves all day long.”

Authenticity matters. A new study in Psychological Science reports on a series of experiments in which researchers compared the emotional reactions of people who were asked to remember a time when they did something that made them feel “fake” vs. a time when they did something that made them feel authentic. Those recalling the times when they weren’t true to themselves reported feeling more “dirty” and “tainted” than their authentic cohort. The researchers speculate that “being true to thine own self is experienced as a form of virtue” — and being inauthentic as a form of guilt. Christ, no wonder women say “I’m sorry” all the time.

That research dovetails nicely with Jenner’s experience: For her, coming out as transgender was a moral imperative. But when she celebrated this past Father’s Day by going off-roading with her clan in a white shirtwaist dress and platform sandals, I had to say: “Huh?” How are you going to get the mud stains out of those clothes?

The way that women choose to present themselves is their own business — so long as they’re truly doing the choosing. Caitlyn Jenner is. Most of the women in our society are not. How much have you read about Hillary Clinton’s campaign wardrobe? How much have you read about Scott Walker’s, or Jeb Bush’s, or Ted Cruz’s? How are we supposed to separate out how we feel about Hillary as a woman from how we feel about her as a candidate? God, I bet she wishes she could put on the male uniform and be done with it. In a Facebook Q&A, she spoke of the “daily challenge” of cultivating her appearance while trying to focus on the “real” work she faces. Of course, that’s not a problem for Caitlyn, who on the night of her triumphant ESPY speech tweeted a behind-the-scenes photo of her being fawned over by stylists. “It takes a village … ” she captioned it.

I haven’t got a village, though.

I can’t figure out what happened to that liberation we were once on the verge of. It’s as if just as we women were getting someplace, the world set up an elaborate labyrinth of bikini waxing and French manicuring and eyebrow threading and cellulite dissolving and dared us to find our way out. We can’t risk looking old or tired or jiggly or, witness Rachel Levine, just like ourselves; we need to seek a higher order of real-ization, mimic those Housewives and Kardashians, spend our time and money on a level of maintenance that used to be reserved for those who lived their lives on-camera.

Well. We all live our lives on-camera now.

MARCY EMERGES FROM the changing room at T.J. Maxx in a rose-colored knit dress that’s tight and clingy. Before I even say anything, she holds up one pink-tipped finger: “Now, I’ll be wearing it with Spanx, so it will be much smoother. … ” She runs her hands down over her hips, willing away the imperfections she sees.

Spanx, Sara Blakely’s billion-dollar empire built on constricting women’s bodies and spirits. The name really couldn’t be more appropriate.

Caitlyn Jenner had to wait till she was in her 60s to experience the glorious joys of womanhood. I’ve been at it for nearly half a century. It could be that in a decade or two, she’ll be as over lipstick and nail polish and pantyhose as I am. If that happens, call me, Caitlyn. We’ll commiserate.

Originally published as “Crankcase: Just Like a Woman” in the September 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.