What That Stunning Photograph of Chelsea Manning Really Shows

The picture released by Chelsea Manning following her release from jail shows someone fresh-faced and seemingly at ease. And her hairstyle says so much more.

via Instagram

French philosopher Roland Barthes famously theorized that a photograph can have a punctum, a “poignant” visual “accident” that “pricks” and “bruises” the viewer, disrupting the literal contents of the image. The punctum is the arresting detail that turns a simple family snapshot into an unforgettable image.

For me, the punctum in the first photograph Chelsea Manning distributed of herself on Thursday—after her release from prison earlier this week—isn’t her striking red lipstick or even her piercing, lightly-lined blue eyes but rather a certain quality of her hair: soft, downy, obviously freshly-washed. That single, difficult-to-describe detail says more to me about Manning’s post-release feelings than words ever could.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the whistleblowing Army private, sent the photograph to reporters on Thursday afternoon with the simple note that it is “the preferred image to use in stories about Chelsea moving forward for the time being.”

At the same time, Manning herself unveiled the photograph on Twitter and her new Instagram account, where she has spent the last two days sharing pictures of simple post-release pleasures: A pair of Converse Chuck Taylor shoes, a slice of greasy pizza, a glass of champagne.

Left out of all these photographs was the transgender woman’s face: we saw only her hands and feet. That only made the social media response to the new portrait all the more electric. In a sense, people felt as if they were seeing Chelsea for the first time.

But the photograph wounded me because I have one just like it. At some point early on in my own gender transition, I finally decided that my hair had grown long enough for me to abandon my wig—a wig not unlike the one Manning can be seen wearing in that tragic black-and-white selfie from 2010 that the press has been using for years.

My hair wasn’t nearly as long as I wanted it to be, but it would have to do. My hairdresser—who had become a sort of surrogate aunt to me during my transition—carefully washed it, trimmed it into a feminine style, and snapped a picture.

I don’t share that image with anyone but I had the same restrained smile on my face that Manning is wearing today.

What I don’t have, though, is a photograph of myself in jail.

Manning spent seven years in prison for disclosing classified material to WikiLeaks. She was convicted by court martial under the Espionage Act in 2013, had the remainder of her decades-long sentence commuted by President Obama earlier this year, and is currently trying to appeal her original conviction with the help of the ACLU.

But while she was being held in Fort Leavenworth, Manning was forced to keep her hair short, as seen in the mugshot that Manning had been using until today.

Even though Manning was given access to hormone therapy years ago and finally received permission in 2016 to undergo sex reassignment surgery, the imprisoned soldier was required to conform to United States Disciplinary Barracks male hairstyle standards, which meant that her hair could be no longer than two inches in length.

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That detail about her hair has sometimes been occluded by the other drama surrounding her time at Fort Leavenworth: the reported suicide attempts, the hunger strike, the endless health care battles. But it is a detail that has never escaped my attention, perhaps because of its personal resonance.

In November 2015, the Department of Justice filed a court brief arguing that allowing Manning’s hair to grow out would “pose a significant security risk, and would undermine the USDB’s important military mission.”

When Manning announced she was starting a hunger strike in 2016, she specified that she would “refuse to voluntarily cut or shorten [her] hair in any way.” 

At that point, she had reportedly been given psychotherapy for her gender dysphoria, speech therapy to feminize her voice, and “subdued cosmetics”—as the DOJ court brief put it—to adorn her face, but the USDB would not budge on her hair.

Hair might seem like a smaller concern relative to 35 years imprisonment, but in a gendered world, it matters.

Hair is so often a part of personal identity, not just for transgender people but for cisgender people, too.

As clinical psychologist Dr. Randi Ettner once wrote in support Manning, “the refusal to permit [her] to consolidate her female gender through the outward expression of her femininity causes her to suffer extreme pain, depression, and anxiety.”

Manning was—and is—a woman. The government used female pronouns to describe her even as they held her in a men’s facility. And although hormones were transforming her body, long hair was ostensibly too much of a “security risk” to allow Manning to have it.

This difficult disjuncture obviously bothered her. In fact, she made special mention of the “routinely forced haircuts” she received in a recent statement anticipating her release.

But even though Manning desperately wanted to grow her hair out, she also wanted the world to see how she was being forced to wear it. Until Thursday’s photograph came out, in fact, Manning used that short-haired prison mugshot as her Twitter photo.

Early on in her confinement, Manning authorized Philadelphia artist Alicia Neal to draw a more aspirational portrait with long wavy hair, partly out of her dissatisfaction with the widespread proliferation of her private black-and-white selfie, as the Verge reported. But Manning hewed close to the mugshot.

When her attorney, Chase Strangio, started a GoFundMe for Manning’s “Welcome Home” fund, he received complaints about the mugshots because of the masculine hairstyle Manning wears in them.

“She prefers these photos,” the GoFundMe organizers clarified. “They capture the reality of her prison life. She is forced to keep her hair short—a source of pain and trauma that we have been fighting in court for years. But she wants that to be visible and documented.”

Indeed, the truth is that even without the lipstick and the eyeliner and the haircut, the mugshot still showed Chelsea.

Transgender women do not become women once they get a cute photo. Indeed, the punctum of that now-dated mugshot is that Manning’s womanhood is so readily apparent in her eyes, no matter how she’s being forced to wear her hair. Her calm gaze says that no prison can define her gender.

Looking at this new image, Manning’s relief is clear. Gender dysphoria itself is a kind of prison but—as many parallels as I can draw between my own experience and hers—I can never relate to the experience of having a literal prison control my gender expression.

This new portrait is the first time since her conviction that Manning has been able to control her own image. As the Verge reported, she never intended for the public to see that black-and-white selfie with the wig. The prison mugshot was taken in captivity.

The drawn portrait is a step removed from reality. This photograph is the first literal representation of Manning we have seen in seven years.

Upon her release, Manning told ABC News that the past “is only my starting point, not my final destination.” That is true not just of her personhood but her appearance as well. There are reports of a Vogue pictorial in the works.

Her hair will keep growing. She’ll probably keep the chucks. There will be more images—images that I can only assume will get closer and closer to how Manning has wanted to appear for seven years.

But for now, we have this single striking image of a woman at a turning point.

They may never get more arresting than this.