Hurting to be whole: the cultural obsession with self harm


A 65-year old man undergoes a reportedly excruciating 10-hour procedure to feminize his facial features and appears in a lacy state of partial undress on the cover of Vanity Fair as the world watches on in delighted – or horrified – fascination.

A million Twitter followers in under 4 hours on Caitlyn’s new account. A social media world record even Barack Obama can’t touch.

But for what reason?

When the story of Caitlyn first broke, I was making glacial progress on a two-mile walk on the treadmill, so I had the dueling coverage of talking heads from CNN and Fox News at my fingertips. CNN’s anchor was emoting more along the lines of unbridled glee, while Fox’s Megan Kelley and Bill O’Reilly’s banter had a defiant undertone of compassion and perhaps a touch of admiration for the strength of such a bold move. O’Reilly, at least, gave a kind of “atta boy” and said Jenner should be free to do “whatever he wanted in his private life.” Because, ‘Murica.

It reminded me a little bit of the coverage surrounding Robin Williams’ suicide last year. At least the public spectacle part of it did. And it also reminded me of another widely publicized and divisive story of human pain and suffering, of desperately-sought redemption and relief: Brittany Maynard.

Her story, too, was almost instantaneously viral, and much of the public response to her medically-assisted suicide was overwhelmingly “either/or,” at least it seemed. Either Brittany was a hero and a champion for human rights on a brave new frontier, or she was a sinful, troubled woman who took her own life and represented a catastrophic failure in both mental health care and evangelization.

But perhaps there is a third option.

Maybe when something so painful, so unchangeable as surgery or suicide seems to be the only answer, and when a suffering, sinful, struggling human being – the same as all the rest of us – steps out and publicly commits to a bold and tragically irrevocable course of action, maybe the only right reaction can be compassion.

Because whatever Caitlyn Jenner’s reasoning for attempting to migrate genders might be, the outcome will never be satisfactory.

No amount of skillful work with a scalpel or hormone injections and therapies can remove the billions of Y-chromosomes from every cell in Jenner’s body, undoing the biological foundation upon which his entire person is constructed.

But what about hermaphrodites? What about sufferers of Turner’s Syndrome? What about gender dysphoria following abuse or trauma?

All valid questions. And all incidences of disease or violence being visited upon the human person.

We live in a fallen world, and that includes the natural world. Redeemed, yes, but not yet fully restored. Things don’t work as they were intended to. People hurt. Death exists. There is so much pain and so much unintended suffering still embedded in our earthly journey.

And to deny the suffering, to stand in the teeth of suffering and shout – especial in the case of suicide – a fatalistically defiant “I will not,” cannot alleviate the pain.

Only He can do that.

The only answer to the brokenness and the pain of the human condition is the One who took it upon Himself and bore it for us.

Not so that we would never feel the sting of disappointment or the crushing weight of depression or disease, but so that we could bear it, with His grace.

Caitlyn Jenner is not going to find peace or fulfillment in a new life bolstered by cleavage and black leather corsets. And the excruciating public spotlight cast on this person – this human person, equal in dignity and worth to any other human person on the planet – will be crushing.

Jenner cannot, will not be allowed to fail, not now that the public declaration of intention has been made. There will be no room for backpedaling or reconsidering. And those who’ve thrown in their support alongside Caitlyn’s “bold, brave choice” will not allow for any waffling or wavering.

That’s the pernicious nature of a culture sickened as ours is by a fascination with death, unwilling to allow room for conversion or repentance or rehabilitation. Jenner has become a figurehead now, a spokesperson for a cause célèbre, and, like Brittany Maynard, Caitlyn has publicly committed to a course of action from which there will be no turning back.

At least not without dramatic consequences and stratospheric fallout. The media scrutiny is too intense. The public fascination – whether earnest or morbid in nature – is too great.

May God continue to have mercy on Caitlyn Jenner, and on all of us who consume the story of the other as if we were somehow not dealing in human persons but in characters and publicity stunts.

Remember that the choice made was admittedly made from a place of deep pain, and that the real failure won’t be whether Caitlyn can achieve a “realistically” feminine physique through medical manipulation, but that the message wasn’t properly transmitted to begin with: you are enough. Who you are, how you were made, is enough. And you don’t have to hurt yourself to feel complete. You can’t mutilate your way to wholeness.

Let that be the message.



  • Mallory

    Thanks for this. I had to leave Facebook for a little while, because I find my newsfeed too full of either/or articles, and it’s exhausting. We seem to jump from one cause to the next, and each cause seems to demand our full attention. But God stands firm, in the response of love, through it all. I think I will put my energy into that.

  • Ashley

    One of my first thoughts, when I saw this story breaking this morning, was “I hope Jenny does a piece on this soon!” Because I knew I could rely on you to put into thoughtful words the thoughts that were not at all coherent in my head. I had a swirling mess of “that’s sad/wrong/what am I going to tell my kids if they hear about this” mixed with deep sorrow. And of course, you put into words exactly that, unjumbled and eloquently said. You are truly a master. Thank you.

  • Cami

    Thank you, thank you for putting this out there. I feel like our POV doesn’t get represented enough. Like you said, it’s either a sinful rights celebration or a send off to hell. But truth and compassion are necessary. We can identify the pain (as we all have it, like you pointed out) but also proclaim truth… No suffering can be truly ended through plastic surgery. As my husband says, “it’s just another way of attempting to fill the void with the wrong thing.” Very sad for Bruce. It will be a whole other kind of pain when after the glamour wears off, he still feels incomplete, but the community supporting him will hear nothing of that. They’ll only latch onto the next story supporting their lifestyle.

  • Lizzy

    I also hoped you would write about this when the story broke. Great post, Jenny! I agree-Jenner will not be allowed to fail. The media is relentless. But the majority of the studies I’ve seen about those who undergo gender reassignment are negative and full of depression and suicide. It seems to be a still-painful road even after the surgery that’s supposed to set everything right.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      thanks Lizzy.

      The research certainly indicates that the future is bleak for Caitlyn. And there’s nothing worse than watching a media circus unfold around the occasion of a person’s descent into illness and pain, like Williams and Maynard. It’s shameful.

  • Meghan

    “Caitlyn Jenner is not going to find peace or fulfillment in a new life bolstered by cleavage and black leather corsets.”

    Indeed, peace, satisfaction, and fulfillment do not exist in man-made things like corsets. But embracing the parts of your identity which God allows you to have–good, bad, and neutral–that *does* contribute to peace and fulfillment. When we dress, cut our hair, do our make-up, clasp the cross necklace–any number of shallow appearance-based things–we are expressing who we are, putting on the face that we think will optimize our ability to perform God’s work because these small things allow us to feel comfortable in our own skin. I don’t think it is fair to say that Caitlyn’s operations and dress will never allow her to be satisfied. Of course our scientific limitations cannot completely undo the fact that she was born a biological male. But perhaps she is experiencing a sense of peace, a sense of comfort, a sense of outwardly expressing the way that God allowed her to be born when she zips up the back of a dress. An outward sign of an inward realization, much the same as oils and holy water are not the sacrament itself, but symbols of a blessing received.

    I absolutely agree with the inclination to be compassionate. But that notion includes empathizing with how these operations and clothes might actually bring something very real to a person, including the ability to connect with God by embracing every bit of His creation, following His will in the best way that they can understand how.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      no, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing small s sacramental about self harm. There’s no room for self actualization or expression in mutilation.

      Jenner was sold a lie, and I really believe the price is going to be heartbreakingly steep in the end. We have to draw the line, societally and individually, at the notion that cutting or slicing into one’s own skin, literally peeling it away, can ever bring peace or fullness of life. That’s the exact mentality that leads down the path to suicide – the ultimate rejection of self and reality.

      Caitlyn was born a male not by accident or evil intention, but by design. There is an intrinsic goodness to our humanity and that includes our gender, even when there is suffering, disease, or disorder involved. Those are the incidentals, not the person’s identity itself.

      • Cami

        I feel called to respond here from personal experience. I underwent breast reduction surgery and even though it is not as dramatic as a gender transformation, I can agree with your comments here, Jenny. I am a short woman but at 5 ft tall in high school I was very large breasted. I don’t even know my true size because back then, no one measured you and the largest size in a store was a DD which did not fit, although I’d smash my breast tissue in there the best I could. I know I must have been huge because nowadays when my milk comes in after giving birth I am a G cup and it’s no where near my pre-surgery size. I had 6 lbs of breast tissue removed in surgery. I remained a size C cup. I did it for a few reasons including pain in my back and shoulders, awkwardness-especially since I was a dancer, and definitely mostly due to shame because I was severely sexually harassed. Everyday. Since my body looked like it was made for sex, I was propositioned just that in a very dirty way by my peers on a regular basis. I had no interest in being sexually active then (thank God!) but it was embarrassing and extremely hurtful. My father wasn’t in my life so I had no sense of any protection or true love from a male. My mother didn’t know how to handle it. So I was very ashamed of my body. I was petite (other than my chest) but I insisted on wearing very baggy clothes each day to hide what I considered my awful body. I thought surgery would solve the problem. My surgery wasn’t until right after college. Now 15 years later, I’m very regretful. I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to stay so large breasted but I know that having them altered has not brought me peace. I never asked God what he wanted for me back then. What did he think of the surgery? Why did he create me this way? And now, years later, in my vocation as mother, I am terrified of my mistake robbing me and my children of a healthy breastfeeding relationship. I’ve struggled with each baby and even though I’ve been mostly successful, I am haunted by the risk I took in cutting my body. I changed what God created. It was wrong. I didn’t know how to discern then. I was spiritually immature. Nowadays I regret that decision. I realize I was in pain and I thought surgery would take it away. But instead I’m left with consequences that are equally painful. God doesn’t create us to recreate ourselves. He is the genius and divine physician, and we need to seek Him to heal wounds. Nothing else will do. Nothing.

      • Meghan

        I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to agree to disagree. You assume that striving to appear not as your biological gender is a rejection of self when to many transgender people, it feels like an acceptance of inner self. You also assume that transitioning leads to a suicidal mentality, which seems to ignore the fact that many transgender people commit suicide because they are prevented from expressing their self-perceived gender, mocked and shamed when they do express it, and/or forced to attend conversion therapy.

        Obviously, I don’t have all the answers, nor am I transgender myself. But in order to truly live compassion, I feel strongly that we must take into consideration the stories and lived experiences of transgender individuals. Saying that they are enough and allowing them to come to decisions of dress and surgery with which they are comfortable do not have to be mutually exclusive.

        Perhaps instead of focusing on the individual decisions of transgender persons to dress and have surgery, we might consider scrutinizing more closely the beauty standards that we market. Even women who are cisgender engage in excessive surgery to have the “perfect” feminine jawline or cleavage or waistline. Perhaps if we did not have such standards pushed on us all the time, people like Jenner would not strive to alter themselves to a specific ideal of beauty and might be more likely to consider their facial features as another example amongst a great diversity of body types.

        • Cami

          Meghan, who can keep up with your “points”? My bottom line was that at the root of any desire to undergo plastic surgery (with the exception of restorative/reconstructive) is a wound. Trauma. Shame. Yes, you can point a finger at our culture for applying pressure and expectations and standards of beauty but a healthy person doesn’t respond with plastic surgery. Regardless of what the world tells you to be, it’s a person’s mental and emotional health that determines how they react, if at all. Discontentment comes from sin (perhaps vanity) and harming oneself comes from shame (due to trauma-also stemming from sin). I don’t think we are all here to beat down Jenner. But we can see he is a man in pain, attempting to self medicate or mitigate, in hopes of feeling better and more himself. But I think if he discovered a relationship with Jesus and saw himself wonderfully and fearfully made in God’s image, he could begin to heal the wound at the root of this pain. I don’t shame him. But I am disgusted at a culture constantly promoting a world of disorder and chaos. And using people and their pain to move along their agenda.

          • Meghan

            Who can keep up with my “points”? Really? I didn’t think what I said is all that complex. Nor did I express it in a way that is uncharitable. Are differing opinions unwelcome here?

            Yes, a healthy person doesn’t respond to a situation with *excessive* plastic surgery, that’s true. But until we sit down and listen to the stories of transgender people who have had surgery and how they feel about their lives and their relationship with God during and after that transition–maybe then we can form opinions. At this point, we as a society don’t understand a lot about transgenderism and I think it is short-sighted to state that responding to it with surgery and a new wardrobe is always unhealthy when that is not necessarily how transgender people actually feel.

        • Cami

          Meghan, to clarify, I don’t find your opinions to be complex, just jumping around a bit. We don’t agree and that’s acceptable. As far a your most recent comments go, here’s how I see it. People’s opinions/feelings about their sexual reassignment surgeries don’t necessarily address healing, especially if they already struggle with identifying the true problem. We don’t need to fully understand transgenderism to sense pain there. So although I’d be happy to talk with a transgender about their experience someday, it wouldn’t change my thoughts on their need for Jesus’ love and mercy.

    • Michelle

      Hey- I love what you had to say and for those of us who are standing with you, there is an amazing resource in the making you may enjoy checking out. Thank you for your voice.

  • Holly

    He’s never going to reach his goal of womanhood. It will become a failed lifelong journey. He will be a spectacle, and depressed his whole life. It’s sad to see. It reminds to embrace my flaws, and remember that I am made in His image.

  • Sonja

    So many voids that will never be filled. I used to be passionate about all of these societal dilemmas, feeling like I needed to be planted firmly in the “right” camp and damn the consequences. More and more now, I’m just flat out sad. Sad that I would have made my judgements at one time in my life. Sad that my kiddos are growing up in a world that is hurting so much. Sad that I anxiously await Jesus’s big rescue, and then realize how many people have given up on their Savior, and instead made themselves their own god, or perhaps their plastic surgeon, or a (worthy?) cause. It’s so stinkin sad to see this hurt so clearly in the life of one man, and then to realize its a widespread cancer that touches us all. I need to TAKE HEART! Take to freaking heart that He has overcome this whole world, but man…what a job.

    Oh and great article! Love. Truth.

  • Shannon

    I find it hard to speculate exactly how Caitlyn will feel for the rest of her life but I am someone who appreciates research and as was mentioned in a few comments, those are sobering statistics indeed.

    If only we could believe that within gender is a breathtakingly vast spectrum of human persons. It is sobering that women who don’t feel “girly” and men who don’t feel “butch” have to question whether their design was a mistake. I don’t think the answer is found in identifying as the other gender, I think it’s found in a radical cultural revolution that says “this is how many different ways it can look to be a woman”, “this is how many different ways it can look to be a man”. For an entire society, it’s a long, hard road but it’s the road of true freedom.

    (Also, I think as parents in this generation we have a HUGE obligation to instill that truth in our children, lest they grow to be tortured and confused when they find they don’t fit into a “box”.)

    • Cami

      I can agree with that. There are various ways to describe femininity or masculinity and some stereotypical characteristics are interchangeable. (Ie. Athletic, emotional, etc) A person could be made to feel less feminine or masculine if their peers or the culture itself set a certain expectation that they don’t meet. But in the eyes of their Creator, they are whole and complete and loved.

  • Charles

    Jenny, I ran into your blog via FB, and as I started to read this article felt an immediate warmth and breadth of wisdom and compassion, qualities not often on display in many religious blogs.
    As someone who is a year younger than Jenner, obese and more pre-occupied with the status of my immortal soul than my current physiological status, I have to wonder whether, to some extent, Jenner’s decision was reached and then enacted as some sort of psychological denial of mortality, rather than a conviction that existentially Jenner could engineer “real” fulfillment by gender-reassignment? In any case, people’s pre-occupation and obsession with self-realization that borders on narcissism and/or voyeurism appears to be overwhelming the concept of the body as “temple of the spirit.”

  • Hannah

    “No amount of skillful work with a scalpel or hormone injections and therapies can remove the billions of Y-chromosomes from every cell in Jenner’s body, undoing the biological foundation upon which his entire person is constructed.”

    Thank you for saying it like it is. My freshman yr of college I walked into my Calc Recitation and saw my TA was trangendered. The poor man smelled strange (I think it was his heavy dosage of hormone replacement stuff and lots of perfume) talked in a falsetto, had visibly undergone surgeries, was dressed in cuter pink and purple clothes than I ever owned–and was so painfully obviously cut down when he caught my eye, and my face was all troubled. (I didn’t mean to make him feel bad, or even make a face, it was just the first time I’d encountered/recognized a ‘transgendered’ person and I was so busy adjusting to that fact I didn’t realize anything showed on my face at all, until across the room of 30 students, his eyes met mine, and then he dropped them, looking so ashamed.
    It hurt.
    I hadn’t meant to hurt him, and it hurt that he was hurting.
    I made him a Christmas Card. I went to his office hours. I wanted him to know he was a person to me, even if I did have trouble looking at him—mostly because I felt so much pain, his pain. The worst (for me) was looking at his hands. He had these beautiful, big men’s fingers, and every week, I could see, the abundant finger hair shaved in awkward dark stubble, the nails painted pink or red etc. The words that kept running through my mind when I saw them was “imprisoned hands”, tormented hands.
    To me he felt like such a beautiful man-child that was torturing himself. He went by ‘Isabel’ and so in my mind, I called him ‘Mr. Isabel’, because, I think, we cannot erase the gift of our gender, anymore than we can erase the gift of our race.
    A few years later, I saw him on campus, and while there was some residual evidence of the surgeries, he was dressed like a guy. He looked more peaceful, I thought. I really hope he was.

  • Caroline

    I think Saint Augustine summed it up best:

    “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
    Augustine of Hippo (354–430), in Confessions.

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