Two things prompted this reflection: a clergy friend sharing a photo of herself in a form-fitting sheath dress on her way to a professional engagement and this story shared on social media.
Let’s file the latter under “Uh-Oh, There Go Women HAVING BODIES AGAIN!”
My favorite comment was, “Is she supposed to leave her ass at home?” THANK YOU, and I’m so sorry I can’t find the tweet now to credit you, hilarious lady. What else needs to be said?
We obviously live in a misogynist society. We know that. Anyone who argues otherwise can see themselves out. Go play in the street, but before you do, make a sizeable contribution to an abortion access fund.
Women’s bodies are constantly policed — and often by other women.
Some haters of this blog think that I am policing women’s bodies by analyzing image and speaking against or for particular kinds of garments. I’m fine with that; no one is forcing anyone to read my BRILLIANT COMMENTARY.
But truly, this is tricky. We live in a misogynist society and we live in the world where people are looking at each other, and none of this is neutral. Patriarchy is always at play, as are aesthetics, archetype, the history of fashion, liberation movements, and generational norms and expectations.
My bottom line is always going to be to advise that clergy be aware, intentional and strategic about how we integrate personal style (which we develop in many ways and for many reasons; all worth examining, celebrating or editing over time) with the context within which we hope to have a positive impact.
In this post-lockdown environment, I am hearing a lot of women talk about going braless. It was so much more comfortable and liberating to do without these constricting foundation garments for well over a year, why go back?
Good question! I am ample-bosomed and wore sports bras most of the time for comfort even when not leaving the house, but I find that I am less particular about shapewear now than I was before the plague came upon us. I don’t care very much that I have uni-boob under some tops. I will always wear a proper bra for ministry work, but I do make pastoral calls in a sports bra. Never a sloppy T-shirt, but comfy bras. You may not find this enlightened, but I like to have a certain shape. I like having a visible waist.
There is a very long history of constricting undergarments for ladies (sarcasm font), and I am well aware of the shrieking public reaction whenever those constraints have been loosened or outright rejected. The same shrieking has also always occurred historically when women dared to dress in “mannish” clothes– oh, the ink that has been spilled in newspaper editorials, pamphlets, and on sermon manuscripts berating women for daring to don “masculine” garments!! There is truly nothing new under the sun.
I just walked my dog while wearing no bra at all, an experiment that lead me to feeling self-conscious when I ran into someone from the wider church community. Will I never go braless again? I don’t know. I just know that boobs are political and social as well as personal, and my not liking that fact does not make it not true. Sure, I should be able to throw on some clothes and go walk my dog without showering, putting on makeup or wearing a bra — and I often do! — but as soon as I walk by the ocean, I know that I am likely to run into folks who know me as the Rev. It’s just politic to know this and to prepare accordingly. Today, I didn’t feel like it. Some may say (and they do), “Who cares? If someone judges you for looking sloppy while walking your dog, what does that say about THEM?”
I personally dislike this line of defense, as it is an overreaction and misunderstanding of the way that most humans register appearance and make assessments based on it: instantly and largely unconsciously. Elaborate denial of this reality will not ever serve to actually support the work of the clergy.
Which brings me to the subjects of biblical modesty and cleavage: the first is patriarchal garbage and should be railed against from the pulpit by clergy who are spiritually mature enough to know how damaging the temptation narrative is and always has been for as long as it has been preached. We are either supporters of rape culture that blames women for sexualized harassment and violence or we fight it in the name of God. There is no neutral ground. “Immodesty” is just another word for victim-blaming. Have you watched The Magdalene Sisters? Please do. Right away. It’s streaming on Prime and Netflix and available on YouTube. Every one of us should be aware of the Church’s role in establishing and perpetuating purity culture and demonizing women for having bodies that “tempt” men. I know it’s not just Christians but let’s stay in our lane, here. Roe v Wade was not overturned because of anything but Christofascist theologies and politics.
Cleavage is just cleavage. It’s what happens when you push breasts together in a bra (which we are supposed to wear.. what a nice predicament patriarchy puts us in!), and revealing it is supposed to signal sexual licentiousness, another misogynist projection with deep roots in the Christian church. What cleavage actually signals is, “I have boobs. They are part of my body.”
I am tired of it. I check for the possibility of Festivals of Inappropriate Sharing while considering my outfit for any professional meeting or gathering, and especially on Sundays mornings, but that is not because I am afraid of being sexualized. I am a woman who exists; I am therefore objectified and sexualized all the time and that’s not my problem. My accidentally flashing some cleavage is not an attempt to “tempt” anyone to think about bewbies. If anyone is, I don’t want to hear about it and I hope they can move on quickly to more interesting ruminations.
I’m tired, but I’m aware of the reality we live in. I will continue to try to find clothing with necklines that don’t feature cleavage but I won’t obsess about it if the neckline of my blouse moves and I flash some bazoom flesh for a second.
By all means, let’s normalize people wearing what makes them feel and look their own version of their best. But in the meantime, let’s honestly assess the context we are actually working in and understand that our choices are never made in a solipsistic vacuum.
And as always, fight the patriarchy.