Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Clergy women's fashion

Talking about clergy women's fashions seems to be all the rage these days. Whether it's suitable fashion, appropriate hair care, the lack of even remotely flattering clergy vestments or otherwise, I seem to be reading about how I should (or shouldn't) be compelled to look as a clergy woman. While reading, it's nice to know that other women think of these things too, but mostly I just keep reading and then move on. But this weekend I was forced to rethink things (again). I was at a major conference youth event and had gone out in the early morning for coffee for me and bagels for my girls. As I walked down the street a man hollered something indecipherable from his window as he drove past. I'm not sure what he said, or if it was even directed at me, but it definitely hit my man-I-hate-cat-calls button. I was prompted to roll my eyes and sigh. And then I plunged into the issues of clergy women, their clothes, and their overall appearances.

Months ago I was talking with a male clergy friend and he was commenting on how *all* the clergy women seem to be so frumpy (my immediate thought was: "and the men look better?!?!"). He was ____________ (who knows if frustrated or irritated or bothered is the right word?) that they didn't take better care of themselves, stay in better shape (eh hem, do I sense a gender bias here?), or attempt to look better (which I think was meant to mean "more attractive").

I've gotta say here that as ridiculous as fashion may seem, as superficial and unimportant a conversation in the real scheme of things, it really does seem to make a significant difference.

One day I was set to be mainly in the office. I wore nice black dress slacks and a t-shirt that has a picture of ET on it and says, "Made in the 80s". I looked decent. Not exactly clergy like, but not like I hadn't bothered to get dressed for the day. Later in the day I ended up needing to do a hospital visit. I walked in and stopped at the volunteer desk and asked for the clergy sign in sheet and name tag. The woman looked at me with disdain and said, "you're a lay visitor?" I said kindly, "No, I'm the pastor." "The associate pastor?" "Yes, ma'am, the associate pastor." I was a bit frustrated. Granted I didn't look "typical", but as the youngest pastor in the conference, often by a good 10 years from the "average" but more often 20 or 30 years younger, I rarely look "typical". As I walked to the hospital room I wondered if it should even matter what I wear. I mean really. If I look presentable, do I need to "look the part"?

I took a prayer weekend this month and when we talked with one friend who does campus ministry, someone asked her, "what do you wear to preach?" She responded, "This." (indicating her jeans and sweatshirt). She went on to explain that if she wears vestments or even a nice suit to college worship, the students don't hear her, they don't receive her well. So she blends in with a sweatshirt and jeans and hopes to bring the good word.

Going back to the cat-call, and general issues with unwanted advances, sometimes I think women clergy, or at least I am, are pushed to looking "more frumpy" in an effort to ward off the unwanted advances. Sometimes it feels like the long skirt or loose pants will take the focus off my womanhood and hopefully redirect it toward God. I also think the de-feminization of clergy women's clothes has another side. I wonder if subliminally it doesn't make us more credible. I'm sure most of us are familiar with the objections to women in clergy, and I heard a new one this weekend: "Women are weak preachers." Grrrrrreeeeaaaat. If I look and act and sound less like a woman will that take the sting out of the objections? Can I diminish the naysayers if I preach like a man? or don't "distract" with my appearance? If I look less feminine, cute, or made-up, will you be less likely to focus on my gender and more likely to focus on my ministry and my call?

This post talks about some of the issues women in the ministry face--the comments, the propositions, but also the larger issue--how women clergy highlight the feminine divine, screwy issues with sexuality, among other things.

I'd really like to say I don't care and move on with my life. But I know that would be a lie. I do care. I do care that I'm taken seriously as a minister of the word. I do care that my clothes do not make me a good or bad minister. I do care that I respect the office and empower others to do the same (recognizing that there's often a generation gap here--older generations will respect the office if I look more "dignified, dressed up, or official", whereas younger generations seem to respect the office more if it is more accessible to them (meaning casual, natural, everyday)--yet another catch 22). I care about looking good and feeling good. I care about not aiding unwanted advances. I care about women's empowerment. And I care that the Word is the most important thing. So with all of those things at stake and all of those things being important, what is the answer? What does looking the part mean? What does it mean to live into the image as well as break down harmful stereotypes? Just as having tattoos, piercings, and a leather jacket doesn't mean you can't be a good Christian, I don't believe that wearing an above the knee (though not scandalous) skirt with some nice boots means you can't be a good pastor.


RevErikaG said...

I so can relate to this post, Deb.
It's tough being young and female and clergy...and then getting respect/credit....
Just keep being you...

PeaceBang said...

HONEY! LOSE THE ET shirt!!! Auuuugh!

Kiss of peace,

Kate said...

I have never heard about clergy womens clothes. Where do you even buy them? Is there a special store?