Boobs, Modesty and Such

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.

Claim Your Authority

I don’t know if I have said this before, but don’t you DARE pull a “gee-whiz, little ole ME?” when you get called to a new pulpit or entrusted with a position of authority in your church, denomination, diocese, etc.

ESPECIALLY if you’re a woman!

I see so many clergy women get called to a pulpit and tweet or post something like, “I don’t know what I did to earn such a deep privilege but I’ll give it all I got and hope I don’t screw it up!”

This may be a tiny bit of an exagerration (you know how I am) but not much. Gag! Barf! Stop it!

You do too know what you did. You responded faithfully to a call to ministry. You trained. You studied. You wrote papers until 2AM. You juggled jobs and family responsibilities and you met the requirements of the several internship and field placements you were required to fulfill over years. You got certified in clinical pastoral education. You were evaluated up the wazoo, you went before numerous committees and wrote hundreds of pages of theological exegesis about your own vocation and fitness for ministry. You underwent a psychiatric evaluation. You trained under mentors. You became a fully competent professional religious leader. If you were promoted to a higher office, it’s because you are a trusted and respected religious leader.

If you are a clergywoman serving in the United States right now, it is most certainly not the time for humble pie and “shucks, kids” public presence. No one is served by your excessive humility. If you aren’t accustomed to issuing a professional statement about your new ministry setting, call me. I will be most happy to wordsmith one with you that adequately represents the gravitas of the moment and that doesn’t shortchange your preparation and credentials.

Here’s a sample: “I am very happy to have been called as the settled minister at First Parish Unitarian Church of Nunchucks, New Jersey. I so look forward to our work together to bring about the beloved community of peace and justice in our community.”

No coy smiles. No toe digging in the dirt. “I am honored to be named Supreme Most High Reverend of the Tabernacle Congregation of God’s Left Earlobe. I pray that we will do fatihful and good ministry together.”

That’s IT. It’s not hard. Wipe out the hesitancy and the verbal curtseys. Practice until it becomes comfortable to speak about your accomplishments as a natural result of your hard work and worthiness.

Also, make it your business to make sure that no one submits any images of you to any press outlet that doesn’t flatter you personally and professionally. Do not allow a photographer to pose you like this (“toilet pose”). No infantilizing pigeon toes (can you imagine posing a man like this?). And that typeface should be exiled to the island of Malta for the rest of its life. Miss Kim here is a make-up guru and I bought one of her eye pencils, so sorry for making an example of you, ma’am, but I’ve seen clergywomen posed like this and it needed to be illustrated.

Claim your authority. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for other women who need to see you do it.

“Hey Pastor, Can We Meet?”

It took me two seconds to screenshot this Tweet from an active parish minister, save it and share it.

Before I get into how to manage this kind of request, let me say that it is never, ever advisable to reference a communication or conversation with an individual from your church or ministry practice on social media. If your parishioner could recognize themselves in a critical post, delete it. You are destroying trust and your post might even be construed as a violation of confidentiality.

If you want to use your socials as a passive-aggressive management mechanism, then by all means talk trash about your clients or parishioners! And good luck with that.

I say this myself as a social media pugilist who fights a lot of people on-line and with great gusto! The people I don’t discuss online are those in my spiritual care, unless it is to post general comments about the work of ministry on my own private Facebook page where only friends will see it. I save all “can you believe someone behaved like this” content for closed clergy support groups conducted on Zoom or Signal.

Don’t assume that anything is ever private; it took me two seconds to screenshot this post and to link to the thread that follows (which is a great conversation!).

We can all agree that no one loves to get vague requests; it is a best practice to ask for meetings and to be asked for meetings with a sense of what the topics will be. For my own ministry, I need to know how to prioritize: I immediately clear my schedule for people in serious crisis, whereas a casual exploratory conversation about programs or the church in general get scheduled like any other meeting. Board leaders and ministry team chairs get my attention right away for a brief check-in, during which we may schedule a longer talk for as soon as we both have time. I drop everything for the board president because the person in that role often has immediate business to deal with, and they have almost always been a person with a full time job handling a huge amount of responsibility on behalf of the church. I am there for them 24/7 and so far, no one has ever abused that ultra-availability. Your mileage may vary.

So again, this is a great conversation! I agree with the colleagues who advise a response of “Sure, I’m happy to meet but I need to know the general topic so I can plan.” That’s not an unreasonable request, but help your caller identify their category. Are they in crisis? Do they need spiritual support for a family/job/life issue? Are we talking about leadership? Are we talking about programming? Are we talking about staff issues? Is this a general complaint/venting?

All of these things are legitimate, ordinary reasons to want to talk to the minister. None of them should cause you, the pastor, undue anxiety: you have adeptly responded to all of these kinds of needs in the past, and you will in the future. We are all a bit fried right now, trauma-reactive, and we should be able to recognize that, get extra support for it, and even explain this in a non-anxious way to our people. Honesty, what a concept! Remember that how we respond to things that make us anxious are still a model for our communities.

“I’d love to meet. I do have a lot of scheduled meetings in the next several days, but I want to make time for you right away if this is a crisis. Please be honest, are you okay?”

“Happy to get together. It would help me know how much time to schedule if you give me a sense of what’s on your mind.”

“I’d love to talk to you, I know you’ve been frustrated with x lately, do you think we should include So-And-So in our conversation?”

I code my conversations in my calendar, and I really like doing that as it normalizes every kind of conversation we are likely to have: “Pastoral/Leadership/ProgramIdeas/ComplaintDept/RightRelations”

From my vantage point twenty-five years into parish ministry, I can confidently say that the vast majority of “Can we talk, I want to tell you something” requests are not about you at all, and are nothing to be anxious about.

Take care of yourselves and your anxiety, pigeons. Kiss of peace.

You Are Your “Kind” Of Church

My friend and colleague Liz sent me this today and although I hooted with laughter, it’s true. What we wear, how we present ourselves, is an immediate visual significator of our church. This very blog got started eons ago when someone I love and respect was visiting church websites and confessed to me that she did not feel inclined to visit a nearby liberal religious community because the pastor was wearing a Guatemalan vest. She knew that her assessment was shallow, but it actually wasn’t. What it was, was instantaneous. She is an art teacher and finely attuned to visual language. What that pastor communicated with her hair, face and attire was not bad or wrong, it was, “We are the hippie church. I am freshly scrubbed, terminally earnest, someone who will not be relatable to you, and disconnected from media culture. I either don’t know about it or I don’t care. I am not culturally multi-lingual.”

Accurate? Maybe. Fair? Probably not.

But when it comes to image, we are the face of our institution and we don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

Hebrews 13:18 Plus Size Tops

When it comes to plus sizes, God BLESS the manufacturers for their consistency. They are still religiously devoted to swathing larger bodies in yards of ugly, garish fabrics in bizarrrely designed garments.
It’s Hebrews 13:18 in fashion form: “Jesus Christ. The same yesterday, today and forever.”

Meanwhile, how are you all? What a two years it has been.
I’d like to post more than a few times a year but I do have to figure out this new updated WordPress interface. Like you, I am absolutely fried from learning new tech skills, from decision fatigue, worry, anxiety, pivoting from format to format, general angst about reopening, masks, air circulation, room capacity, social distancing at coffee hour, whether we are having coffee hour, signage, sanitizers, carefully discussing how many verses of a hymn we should sing, should we sing at all, how to handle the offering, whether to handle the offering plates, and — what did I forget?

I have not forgotten you, clergy colleagues. I am coming up on the 25th anniversary of my ordination and 25th year of full time parish ministry and never in a million years could I have imagined what we are currently coping with.

Lenten love to you.