When I look at the glamorous pictures of Bruce Jenner dolled up as Caitlyn, with his flowing locks, long lashes, plump lips, and full breasts, I have to laugh. Not at him, but at the irony of it. What Jenner seems to have achieved with a lot of money, cosmetic surgeons, and talented makeup artists, I wanted desperately as a young girl and had to suffer through years of natural—and sometimes humiliating—development to attain.
You see, I wasn’t a very pretty girl. Actually, I looked like a boy. (I know, the irony.) We lived in a military town, and my mom used to take me to the barber on the base to get my hair cut. She would drop me off at the shop where I’d sit alongside Marines who were either coming or going to Vietnam. I remember how big they seemed, how strong, how brave. Trying hard not to make eye contact, I would slump in the chair and face the mirror. A thin, freckled boyish face stared back at me.
I can still smell the shaving cream and Windex that hung heavy in the warm, sticky air, and hear the whirr of a corner fan that sent hair tumbling across the floor and the buzz of electric razors that left heads shaven high and tight. Without a word, the barber would chop my hair, dust the back of my neck, shake off the cape, and send me on my way. I hated it. I hated being the only girl in the place. I felt small and fragile next to the Marines with their mile-long stares, jagged scars, and missing limbs. But my parents didn’t think much of nurturing femininity, so they insisted I go. It didn’t matter that I was just a girl.
After every haircut, I would go home and pull on a stocking hat that I’d gotten for Christmas. It didn’t matter whether it was summer or winter. I’d always wear it. It had a yellow tassel at the end, and I would toss it over my shoulder as if it were a braid of long golden hair. I loved how it felt down my back. After having read “The Lord of Rings” countless times, I would imagine my luxurious hair falling over pointed ears, my perfect skin shining, my eyebrows slanted upward over blue, sparkling eyes. I would pull on a sheet and tie it around my neck as if it were a cloak. I was an elf from Rivendell. Gentle, strong, and beautiful. That was my fantasy.
Of course, my mom made me take my stocking hat off before I went out to play. “It’s silly to wear that thing,” she would say. Off I’d go, climbing trees with the boys in the neighborhood, picking hornworms from tobacco plants in a nearby field, and building forts in vacant lots. As I chased fireflies and romped through the woods, I would forget my hair. But then I’d glance in the mirror as I cleaned my dirty hands and be reminded of just how plain, how boyish I really looked, and I’d pull the stocking hat back on.
The Trial of Growing Into Womanhood
Such are the trials of growing up as a girl, of longing to be a beautiful woman. My hair was only part of it. I was a tomboy, flat-chested and skinny. I thought of that as I listened to commentators go on and on about Jenner’s perfect breasts. “How sexy, how perky, how lovely,” they gushed. How nice for Bruce not to suffer the indignities of developing real breasts. Some girls develop early, others develop late. There’s the teasing, the awkwardness, the silliness. We endure it. It’s all part of a girl becoming a woman.
My development was particularly humiliating. While all my friends had developed nice, full breasts early, my boyish looks held fast—until the little buds began to grow in middle school. The thing was, with me, they didn’t exactly grow evenly. The right one developed before the left one. I was painfully self-conscious about it, and would wrap myself with tape when my mom had me wear a fitted shirt. Not knowing much about such things, I became convinced something was terribly wrong with me and that I probably had breast cancer. I wanted to tell my mom, but I was too ashamed. So I kept silent, keeping my worries to myself.
That changed when I became sick with bronchitis, and my mom took me to the hospital on the base where a corpsman asked me to remove my shirt so he could listen to me breathe. Sheer panic took over. I started crying hysterically and refused to take off my shirt. The corpsman asked my mom to leave the room. After several questions about whether I’d been abused, I told him the truth. “I have breast cancer, and I’m going to die,” I sobbed.
Looking back, I realize now how kind and patient the corpsman was. He took his time examining me as if I might have cancer. Then he told me to put my shirt on. “You don’t have cancer,” he said gently. “You’re just growing up, becoming a woman. Sometimes both sides don’t develop at the same time. It’s normal. They’ll eventually even out. Nothing to be afraid of.” He asked my mom to step into the room and explained what was wrong. He put his hand on her shoulder and said, “Mom, I think it’s time to buy this young lady a bra.”
My mother was horrified, and she felt like a complete failure as a mom. Of course, she wasn’t. How could she have known what I was going through, since I didn’t say anything? We laugh about it to this day, and it’s a running joke in our family, but it’s part of life, part of a girl becoming a woman.
Surgery Can’t Give Bruce Jenner XX Chromosomes
Not every girl has such an embarrassing story, but each one remembers. They know what it’s like to grow up and become a woman, and those experiences are integral to shaping their feminine identity—and an identity that is rooted in their nature, in their genes, not in their fantasies. It’s something no transgender man can ever know. He might become an imitation of woman with artificial breasts and hormone injections, but he will never be a girl who became a woman—and that is all the difference in the world.
He will never know what it’s like to wait expectantly for that first period. Like everything else with me, things didn’t develop quite as I’d imagined; mine was late in coming. All my friends had started, but I was going into high school with no period. Then one summer day, as I was getting ready to attend a wedding, the magic happened. My heart raced, and my face flushed. I was so relieved, so happy. I was finally a woman like my friends. I wasn’t destined to be a freak like I was afraid I’d become. At one point, I even thought I was going to become a man, and I regularly checked my chin for stubble. But those worries were gone, and my monthly reminder of being a woman began.
That early delight faded pretty quickly as the pain and drudgery of menstruation set in. I had heavy flows, cramps, and lots of accidents. The worst was in ninth grade, when I was sitting beside a boy I liked at school. It was an extended class because we were testing that day. I was wearing blue slacks and had lost count of my days between periods. As I sat there, pink-cheeked and stealing glances at the boy next to me, I felt that sudden warm flow, and knew I had to get to the bathroom. I raised my hand, and the teacher excused me.
When I got there, I realized I had leaked all the way through. Thankfully, my mom worked at the school, and she went home to get me a change of clothes. When I returned to the classroom and approached my seat, I looked down in horror to see blood smeared on it, now dry and browning. The girl who sat behind me snickered, and the boy wouldn’t look at me. I considered that a kindness. I sat down and tried to clean it off with my palms. I never looked at that boy the same way again.
Jenner won’t have to endure such humiliations. He’ll never know what it’s like to be a girl, to bravely face the realities, not the fantasies, of nature. He won’t know the joys, either. The comfort of a girl resting in her father’s strong arms. The sweetness a woman feels when her husband makes love to her and they create life together. The soft movements of a child as she or he grows inside her womb. The peace she feels as she feeds her baby at her breast, having given life and now sustaining it.
The celebration of Jenner “becoming a woman” is a fantasy. It’s artificial. It’s make-believe. It’s not authentic at all. It’s a mirage. Jenner has always fantasized that he’s a woman, dreaming of the possibilities of becoming what he imagines himself to be. But possibilities in life are only fantasies when they aren’t rooted in something real. You can’t become a woman without being a girl, complete with XX chromosomes that determine our sex. The man posing as a woman on the cover of Vanity Fair is a delusional mockery of every woman who knows what it’s like to be a girl with all the pains, humiliations, and joys of actually growing up and becoming a woman—and each one of us, in different ways, has faced it bravely through every stage.