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.