50 Shades of Grace- The Clothes don’t make the Woman

photo credit: mannequins via photopin (license)

photo credit: mannequins via photopin (license)

With all the strange ethos that surround sexuality and dating in Christian culture, it’s no wonder that people don’t know what to do with the idea that I could be a gendered sexual being. I have met many women clergy who, after taking this job and working for several years, began to look less and less like the person they were when they began the journey. Many have gained a lot of weight or have lost interest in the way they look. Not that that should be anyone’s focus, but I still find it interesting. Why do we stop caring?

A very talented woman I know was going through ordination a couple of years after me. She had great fashion sense and rocked a fun hair style. Someone saw us chatting at our annual clergy gathering and said to us, “I hope you two are the way that clergy women are moving; you are both so cute. And for some reason, as a woman, that gives me something that I can relate to you about.” That she should be so surprised by our appearance brings up a point: why do some clergy women have a certain asexual look?

I finally asked this question to a female pastor I know who has been serving in ministry for a long time. She shared with me that for her, she stopped taking good care of herself not just because our positions leave so little time for ourselves, but because she was trying to de-’feminize’ herself. It took her a lot of soul searching to reach the conclusion that she was subconsciously hiding the curves and things that identified her as a female. She didn’t even know she was doing it; slowly over time she just began to hide that which makes her… her. Wow, that was all she had to say to scare me. Even her fashion became less feminine, more boxy and undefined. It was as if subconsciously she was trying to blend in and not stick out. This rubs against who I am. I have always believed that God created me, and my creativity, for a reason and wants me to use that to relate to people in the way that only I can.

I understand her temptation though: the temptation to shut down that part of yourself, to not be feminine or attractive. This shutting down is something that happens when you are shamed from a young age into believing that girls that look a certain way can’t be a certain way. You begin to see yourself as somehow other than feminine. It is as if you either fit the prototype of a ‘smoking hot wife’ sex object or a school marm academic. I have had many people comment on what I wear or what I look like in ways that have been harmful and hurtful, which have caused me to consider the fact that no one seems to ever comment about the way that my male co-pastors look. I have worked with some very attractive guys, but that has never diminished their ability to share the message of God. I have actually had people say things like “it must be nice to be able to wear such short skirts.” It was a back handed compliment the person tried to back pedal by saying that I was fit and could wear such things. I was dressed modestly and my skirt was all the way down to just above my knees. I will admit that it isn’t the way I dress every day, but a modest skirt seems appropriate in any business setting, and my business attire is fitting for a  church. I try to be respectfully modest, and yet still get comments both positive and negative on the way I dress. I wish I could tell you that it doesn’t affect me, but it does. It makes me fell ashamed of who I am. But I am not willing to completely lose my sense of sexuality and attractiveness and only wear the robe to become just a walking robe. I wear my robe for times when it is appropriate to mark the sacredness of a holiday or sacrament by wearing a robe.

I had a fantastic professor in seminary who was the head of our field education department. He placed me in two unique learning environments: one a sailing camp and the other a very large Methodist church. At the large Methodist church, I shared an office with another intern. He was one of the funniest people I have ever worked with, and we had a great time laughing about life as seminary interns. Part of our training was to preach one Sunday at all of the services. My intern buddy went first and did a fantastic job. I went a couple of weeks later. About a week after I had given my first sermon, my professor approached me saying that he was frustrated. I asked him why. He relayed to me that someone had called the office to say that they thought I was a very talented and intelligent speaker. I asked him what about that was upsetting; to me that sounded great! He said it was upsetting because they were surprised. When he had asked about how the person felt the other student had done the person relayed that he had done a good job. “So what about her was surprising enough that you called this time and not when the other intern preached,” he questioned the caller. “I don’t know, she is just so cute and pretty, I never thought she would be intelligent,” was their response. For some reason I was ashamed about the way I looked. I was afraid no one was going to take me seriously.

The gift my professor gave me that day was that he wasn’t mad at me; he was disappointed in the caller. He relayed this message to me: “Sarah, who you are is great and the world is going to have to figure out what to do with that.” The thing is, I think this has affected my confidence in many ways. Sometimes I feel like other people’s response to me is my fault. I think Joshua Harris’s ethos has gotten more ingrained into me than I ever realized. So what do you do? What do you do when a big part of you is a fashionista. I really do love clothing, accessories and jewelry. Honestly, I came by it through my mom – she is a fashionable lady and has always enjoyed accessorizing. I care about my appearance. I hate to even write that; it sounds so lame, but it is true. I think we have created unhelpful dichotomies where someone is either a superficial temptress or a scholarly school marm. But what if there is the possibility that God makes each of us exactly the way we are. I love to express myself creatively. I don’t think God looks at me and thinks I am leading people astray. If I remember correctly, he asked Adam and Eve in the garden, “who told you that you are naked?” I have never worn a fig leaf to work, and nor would I. Remember, it was the snake and not God who made them feel ashamed.

  1. Dan Wiles says:

    As a middle aged guy, I have spent much of my church life listening to middle aged guys providing advice and sermons that reflect their take on spirituality. Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message. Your medium, who you are, is an integral part of your message and I find that a valuable, and yes, different take than I get from other middle aged guys. I know that pastor one is living in a fishbowl and that church politics is a “full contact sport”. On behalf of a wide variety of “church men and ladies” I apologize for bigoted and mysogynistic responses you hear. If someone has a problem with how you look, dress or simply ARE, THEY have a problem and I am sorry for them that it hinders their perception of your message. For us who value your ministry, your whole package is a message that God is in the breadth of our lives. Don’t go changin’.

  2. Janet Trenda says:

    Thanks, Sarah, for your honesty and for letting people know what it feels like to be on the other side of judging by looks. I think God will use you in this area- because of your giftedness as a communicator.

  3. Lisa Williams says:

    Thank you Sarah for this insight, I am new to the clergy world. It is the Bishops intention to appoint me to San Pedro UMC as of July 1, 2015. I love my shoes and pride myself in how I look. I too, had a mother who taught me the importance of looking nice. My hope is to stand strong, wear my fun shoes and keep my hair red. Now, where does one go for a clergy robe that doesn’t make me look ridiculous? Any thoughts?

  4. Aaron Foellmi says:

    I hope it would be overly simplistic to view those women that came before you – making end roads into a predominantly male dominated world – as somehow diminished for making challenging sacrifices to do so. Leadership in all its forms requires a certain nuanced sacrifice of personality. Great leaders ride this very fine line between meeting people where they are and challenging them to something new. Often that requires being something more or less than your authentic self.

    And the reality is that sexuality is a very real and powerful area of insecurity for most people. By pushing the “normal” boundaries of clergy apparel you’re asking some in your congregation to see you as both a religious leader and a sexual being. Something they may not be comfortable doing. Something that may make you unable to meet them where they are and lead them where they need to go.

    For others it will make you approachable and relatable.

    Its a risky decision to stray outside the norms, but one that has the POTENTIAL for great rewards.

    Although I’m saddened by the fact that many women have had to shed their femininity to minister to their communities, I celebrate their tenacity and courage to make the required sacrifice to be in ministry. My hope is that if you asked your friend if it was worth it, she’d say it was.

    Leadership requires us to make decisions that weigh the aggregate benefit versus individual sacrifice. Its a question I struggle with daily – how much individual sacrifice is worth how much communal good?

    Great blog post.

    • sarahheath says:

      Thank you Aaron for your well thought out response. I agree with you leadership takes sacrifice. I hope to always try and walk the line between challenger and comforter. Blessings in your leadership I know it is always a tightrope for all of us.

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