K. wrote this cri de couer, and it’s a goodie.
ok here’s my question and maybe you have addressed this–if so just direct me to the post. What is it with some (many?) clergy women and nice clothes? Specifically, I am a pastor in a northern state. So I get it’s cold up here. I get there are trees and woods and we all love to be woodsy and folksy and look like we just came off a nice camping trip. I get that. I love it. I really do. However, I think as a professional it’s important to also look put together. So when I go to assemblies, do presentations, lead worship, go to meetings, etc etc I dress professionally. I am after all a professional.
But then here’s what happens every time–and it’s always from the other WOMEN who choose to attend/do these things in jeans, sweatshirts, chacos and/or those Keane sandals. They say to me with almost dramatic flair: “WOW you are SO dressed UP!” “Why are you wearing a DRESS?” “ARE those HEELS?” and on and on. Seriously. It happens every time I’m at a church event with other colleagues who are female. Men never say a word–but these ladies, some of whom I consider friends, seem to think they need to school me. The thing is, I do not make an issue about their outfits.
I never comment on what anyone else is wearing or question their style choices. So why must an issue be made about mine? And even better, how does one respond to things like this that feel like attacks? I’ve tried laughing it off, heck I’ve even been direct but it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t stop. I am not a young clergy person (I’m in my mid 40’s) so I don’t feel like it’s some kind of power play. More like contempt but for what? For me? For clothes? For looking nice? (of course our male clergy run around in suits and none of these women give them any flack). This just happened again yesterday. I was leading a presentation. Chose a nice dress, heels, did my hair etc. Walked in and my co presenter looked at me in shock and said “oh…you are so dressed up!” It’s not like I don’t know how to be causal and truly I don’t feel like I’m over dressed-and I can dress comfortably when appropriate. This simply confuses me and I’m sick of it. So thanks for listening to my rant. Please advise if you have a moment. Many thanks.
As the late Joan Rivers would say, “Can we TAWK?”
I love this letter. I love the way it perfectly encapsulates the problem I have been toiling to address for almost a decade here at BTFM, and how far we still have to go in solving that problem.
You identify your ministry context as the northern states, where your colleagues like to look “woodsy and folksy and like we all came off of a nice camping trip.” Oh, how well I know what you’re saying. Where I live, in the Boston Metro area, the liberal clergy like to look woodsy and folksy and like we all came off a nice weekend in Nantucket where we had no more important work than to strum guitars and sing about peace to tiny groups of people who think just like we do.
Protestant ministers are in a time warp, and in a reality warp. What they know of the new reality they have decided doesn’t apply to them because they don’t approve of it. Maybe the world has become more visual. Clergy don’t care, because they’re certain that words will solve social issues and save the world. Why should they wear heels and professional attire when a well-meaning slogan on a T-shirt or a big cross around the neck should communicate what they’re about to the public?
Clergy today are defensive and arrogant about public image because they know nothing at all about it and therefore conclude that it must not be important. Even clergy who have jettisoned outworn theologies that oppress and exclude many of God’s children from full participation in the life of the church refuse to revise their own dated, unevolved attitudes about what it means to represent the institution in 2014. They (and I’m talking specifically about the Boomers whom I suspect comprise the largest segment of your eye-rolling sneerers) came of age in an era when grooming and attire were suspect as part of the Establishment, and many of them are still marching under the Frumpiness is Next To Godliness banner. Then there are the Starry-Eyed Evangelical Idealists with egg in their beards and nose hairs protruding from their nostrils who honestly believe that clergy appearance is not central to attracting people to the church, because they cling to a hopelessly dualistic Body/Spirit mentality.
Look at the drubbing poor Paul Walters received just the other day for writing that pastors should stop dressing like slobs. All the usual suspects are there in the comments section: the passive-aggressive pearls-clutcher who says he’ll be praying for Paul’s soul, the defensive sloppy dresser who caved to pressure when he was accused of “putting on airs” by dressing professionally for work (God forbid he do outreach pastoral ministry about the issue), the inevitable chorus of shame from the prim critics who honestly believe that inner beauty or spiritual purity excuse slovenliness for anyone outside their immediate circle of gospel purists… and so on and so on.
The women who slyly critique you for “dressing up so much” are engaging in a time-honored tradition of women oppressing other women by holding them to the status quo and schooling them on “knowing their place.” Look at where the Church has gone under their drab leadership! Why should you aim higher by preparing more carefully for public leadership? Who do you think you are, girly? Better than me, huh?
As you say, and I’m not at all surprised to hear it, the guys don’t catch any guff for dressing like leaders. Just the chickens clucking in the hen house. Peck, peck.
This is actually a small culture war, my dear. And I encourage you to fight it with exactly the same weapons that are being used against you: sarcasm, dramatic over-attention and scrutiny. When someone stops you and says, “Is that a DRESS? Are those HEELS? You’re SO dressed up!” I hope you will respond by saying, “Why YES they are! Are THOSE cotton chinos and are THOSE Chaco sandals? You’re so inappropriately dressed!”
Turn the mirror right back to them. And then when the hostility and snarkiness have been outed for what they really are (don’t you back down for a second if someone insists she was “just kidding”), you can invite your colleagues to have an actual conversation about public image and religious leadership.
Invite me. I’ll wear a DRESS and HEELS.