A Photoshopped version of femininity

by Melissa Musick Nussbaum

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The headline read, "Game Changer." Below it, a picture of the July Vanity Fair cover girl: 65-year old Caitlyn Jenner -- breasts up and forward! chin tilted! hair full! button nose barely there! wasp waist cinched! -- posed like Barbie in the Dreamhouse.

The game hasn't changed. It's the same old game with some brand new players.

The quest, we are told, is to live authentically. When, I ask, does authenticity get to wear comfortable shoes? When does authenticity get to stop holding in its stomach? When does authenticity get to grow old? Since I am only two years younger than Jenner, I think I'm qualified to ask the question.

Here's a real game changer: Annie Leibovitz photographs Jenner in NYD (Not Your Daughter's) jeans, the ones with a touch of latex to hold in the jelly belly. The waist will be snug, so Jenner will be wearing a Chico's tunic to cover the muffin top. A loose, gold-toned belt will give the illusion of a waist. (Not a wasp waist, just a waist, or, at least, the hint of one).

The tunic will have sleeves, because 65-year-old upper arms keep waving good-bye even after you've said your farewells and gone back into the house. Around Jenner's neck, she'll have a cleverly knotted scarf positioned to hide the turkey neck. (Notice that the metaphors are all food-related. Metaphor is as close as Barbie gets to a cookie).

By my count, Jenner has six biological children. So, add a pair of Jobst stockings for the varicose veins. And that bulge in the crotch everyone is looking for? Keep right on looking; it's just the Poise pad for the inevitable six-children bladder leaks.

Want to really change the game? Leibowitz photographs Jenner in a pair of no-name elastic waist jeans and a pink "No. 1 Grandma" sweatshirt. Jenner has a Fitbit on her wrist. Her silver hair is cut short so it won't be a problem at water aerobics. Scarves get in her way, so the wattle is on full display.

She wears white, Velcroed New Balance walking shoes and carries a gym bag. She wears glasses. Like one of my aunts, she wears her lacquered gallstones as drop earrings, because, as she will tell you, they cost more than diamonds.

It's a game anyone can play: dress Barbie as a 65-year-old grandparent. But looking like a 65-year-old, not to mention a grandmother, is what's really transgressive now.

We are told Jenner underwent a 10-hour facial feminization surgery. Ten hours. Ten hours to risk cardiac arrest and stroke and hemorrhage and antibiotic resistant infections and all the other risks associated with surgery, surgical anesthesia and hospitalization. Ten hours for "fuller cheeks and a thinner nose."

If I am going to undergo 10 hours of surgery, I expect to wake up separated from my conjoined twin.

There are women walking around with sunken cheeks and big noses. They wear shoes to accommodate bunions. They have stretch marks. Some have one breast, or no breasts at all -- just mastectomy scars marking where breasts once were. Most 65-year-old women have scars or disfigurements of one kind or another: cesarean scars and the scars of knee replacements, and the curving fingers molded by arthritis and work.

These women read and travel and take care of children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews and garden and write and teach and bicycle and practice medicine and pray. They have thinning hair and white hair and hair that they mean to get dyed or plucked or shaped or waxed. But they're too busy living to make and keep the appointment.

I remember my first Barbie doll. They were new and they were hot. We drove to Knorpp's Toy Store in Amarillo, Texas, to stand in line to get one of the first.

My best friend and I played with our Barbies for hours. But the dolls couldn't be made to stand. The feet -- warped in a permanent high heel curve -- were too small even to hold the doll's tiny (and, at the same time, weirdly, ballooning) body aloft. The arms weren't jointed, except at the shoulder, nor were the legs jointed at the knee.

Mostly, our Barbies sat -- in a pose a lot like the one Leibowitz arranged for Jenner -- while we arranged elaborate dramas to swirl around them. (Having to stop from time to time to find one of the heels that had fallen off when the soldiers invaded or the tornado hit). We bent them at the waist and had them watch. Floods came and fires blazed and wars raged and Barbie sat in the middle.

Did you notice that Jenner's hands are behind her back, hidden, unavailable? Hands can't be fixed, like noses, or plumped and lifted, like breasts. They tell their own story.

If Jenner's hands told a story different from the one on Vanity Fair's cover, well, then they had to go. Because Vanity Fair, and Jenner's upcoming reality television show, are selling -- and we are being sold -- a Photoshopped version of femininity that cannot survive outside the studio, out of the reach of an army of stylists and lighting technicians and clothing designers.

This not a game changer. It's just another roll of the same old rigged dice.

[Melissa Musick Nussbaum's online column for NCR is at NCRonline.org/blogs/my-table-spread. More of her work is at thecatholic catalogue.com.]

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