Saturday, August 05, 2006

Does God Call Us To Comfort In Any Wise?

When I had gone fully into elastic waistbands and full, hempen floppy look during my ministry in Maryland, I believed that comfort came first. I am a strong feminist, and I knew I could look appropriate and professional in comfortable clothes.

I had a few really sharp items for appearances at the state house or into Washington, DC for political activism, or for guest lecturing or conferences. I didn't feel that it was necessary to compete in any sartorial way with really put-together professional women. I was, after all, a minister. A spiritual leader. Why should I make an effort to project any image in particular?

I believe that it is a point of feminist pride for most women to say, "I value comfort over fashion." I am definitely not knocking Zorra for saying this in a recent comment, but grateful to her for reminding me how often I hear this among the clergy, and how strongly I protest its underlying sense of superiority and difference from other public leaders.

Let me say something about feminism and comfort. I believe that women in powerful positions should look powerful, or at least in control of their image and mindful of it. I believe that women in ministry have huge issues with power -- ambivalence about its appropriateness, in the first place -- and reflect that in their comfy Mother Earth outfits.

I don't believe that we do justice to our calling by looking intentionally unconcerned with the dictates of fashion.

Place a female executive and a female cleric side by side (or a male executive and a male cleric, for that matter), and see who looks ready to lead, to make decisions, to command respect, and to take responsibility. It won't be the guy in the tie with the children's hands motif. It won't be the woman in the batik muu-muu with the enormous pendant, the floppy cotton pants, and the sandals, with the big scrubbed face and the flat, unstyled hair.

Ministers today tend to visually project comfort, giving church-goers and religious seekers the idea that religious life is unthreatening and that it will require nothing of them beyond a juice-and-cookies kind of warmth and fellowship.

I don't think this does justice to our calling or to the urgent relevance we assign to an engaged religious life.

I made a conscious decision when I moved to Massachusetts to tighten up, to buy some belts and zip-button trousers, to find a tailor, to wear heels, to hold myself accountable to fit into clothes of a determinate size rather than fill my closet with fat-accomodating "comfortable" items. I still have plenty of comfortable things, and I don't spend a lot of time dressing up for every day, but I'm so glad I caught myself before I became another projector of the Church-Is-Like-Going-To-Grandma-And-Grandpa's image.

I think this issue is dead serious, so I'll refrain from my usual PeaceBang snarkiness. My readers can flood the comments section with testimonials about the beauty of their batik muu-muu or the theological justification for their Birkenstocks, and that's fine. I hear you. I know you, and I love you. But I am trying to change the tide here, and that's not going to happen by our individual defense of what is currently a woefully dowdy group of people who have a woefully dowdy public image.

Simply put, I don't believe God calls us to comfort in the work of ministry.


P.S. When you wear structured clothing on a regular basis, they become comfortable. I can walk just as briskly in a fitted skirt as I can in a huge A-line tent. It took some getting used to, and yes, I have to be more ladylike getting in and out of the car. That's not a bad thing. Heels are comfortable now. I purchase them carefully, with an eye for comfort and swifness of movement, and I possess many pairs that I can spend the day in with no pain at all.

Best of all, when I've put some effort into my outfit, I can stand side by side with any public leader in any profession and feel an equal, not like the One So Holy She Is Beyond Fashion, which actually translates to other people as One So Out Of It She's Dressed Like a Frump.

15 Comments:

Blogger Kim in KCK said...

Amen! I have been reading your blog for a couple of months now, and as I have just entered my first parish ministry as a professional, I have become really cognizant of and intentional about how I look when I go out in public. Granted, my parishioners know that I am a wife and mother with a life outside of the church, but that doesn't mean that I can't wear t-shirts that fit rather than those with writing all over them, or nice shorts and jeans rather than those that should have gone into the trash years ago when I go to the grocery store.

I see it from three perspectives...
First, I feel better about myself when I look better. Second, If I'm to reflect God to my congregations (I serve two), frumpy just won't do! And third if I'm to reflect my congregations to the public at large, doesn't it serve them best to put my best face forward?

Those are just my thoughts on the matter. I do enjoy your blog.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely agreed.

1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know about others, but I serve a church where people are in and out all day, members and people from the larger community. I work in my office with the door open usually, and anyone walking by can see who's at the desk behind the door marked "minister." As a young woman minister in a pretty conservative New England town, people already do a double take at the fact that it's not a white man in his '60's sitting behind the desk (don't even get me started on the fashion atrocities and bad hygeine THEY can get away with and still be thought "ministerial"). So I am extra aware of the fact that every time I'm in my role as minister, I am in public to one degree or another. I know we have many colleagues who wear jeans in their professional lives, but I just can't get myself there, no matter how well-tailored they can be. People already think I'm the youth group advisor or (mortifyingly enough) member too often to allow me that luxury.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Aola said...

I am not a minister but I am a woman and I believe we should respect ourselves enough to look our best. Granted this a new outlook for me. I am a reformed slob.. after having 3 kids after that age of 30 (that's hard on a body)I pretty much let myself go to the dogs but I am making a comeback.
Thanks for your encouragement to do so.

3:37 PM  
Blogger dame olympia's page said...

BRING IT, Peacebang.

I have mangaged to be comfortable and be fashionable. It does take an extra effort.

However, as a young clergy person, I do notice the difference. And it's a big one, when the young clergy looks like clergy and not like someone's teenager.

You got it going, girl!

Now, speak to us of facials, please.
How often? Any recommendations for products to be used? What about facials at home? What do they do when you go to get a facial?

thank you,
Dame O.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Sue said...

Amen! You are so right about women and power issues in the church.

I'll second that request for a word of wisdom regarding facials.

6:09 PM  
Blogger zorra said...

Let me clarify--I am not a pastor, I am a seminary-trained clinical psychologist. I can't get down on the floor with a child if I'm wearing a pencil skirt. Most days I wear attractive (at least I think they are) tailored slacks, or a comfortable dress/skirt (not shapeless) in which I can move easily. I never have developed a taste for high heels (I might need to chase the kid with autism who tries to dart out the front door!) or tight clothes, but I think I can dress professionally and still be both comfortable and non-frumpy. As Dame Olympia says, it does take an extra effort.

The average person is more used to the idea of a female counselor/psychologist than to the idea of a female minister, so I think that female ministers may face challenges to their perceived competence and professionalism that perhaps I am not as likely to face. But I'm sure we can all find ways to look professional without TOO much suffering for beauty! :-)

7:38 PM  
Blogger Songbird said...

I don't disagree with your premise, but I would submit that dressing as you describe when you are supporting a single person on a pastor's salary is a sight different than dressing three children and their mother on a pastor's salary. And when that pastor's salary is at the low end of the scale, even more so. I am striving to look a bit more dressed up and haunting the sale racks at favorite stores, for the children and for me. I've recently added some jackets to my wardrobe, and I have to say I like the "finished" way they make an outfit feel.
I suspect the plain Jane dressing of some clergywomen has a subconscious element of the nun to it. But I frankly mind that less than the ubiquitous navy blazer and knaki skirt I see on some of my older UCC colleagues. That look has all the flair of clericals, which may give us another hint to the models women clergy have had in mind.

8:30 PM  
Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

You know, reading this, all I could think was, "What would Jesus wear?"

I like fashion and style (to a point; sometimes it's just kind of ridiculous - like $4000 handbags), but really at the end of the day I don't think about what people are wearing.

But I guess within a professional context, it makes sense to look professional.

9:03 PM  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Songbird, women in Europe often have one good skirt, one good wool skirt, and two blouses.
There's no reason American women can't follow this model. Most low-income working women I know dress better and more thoughtfully than clergy.
Thoughtful dressing and good grooming can be done at any budgetary level. Even if you don't spend money on clothes more than once every few years, you can make sure what you buy is classic.

And we're not nuns. Addressing that unconscious association is part of my purpose. I am an ordained religious leader. I have not taken vows of poverty, chastity or obedience.

10:04 PM  
Blogger Jordan Stratford+ said...

I'm grateful that, like a lot of Indie Caths and their offshoots, we chose to retain Roman clerical attire. Black suits, clerical collar. Cassock for dress occasions. An instant visual shorthand for 'the priest is in the house". Easy, classic, done.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Caroline Divine said...

I loooove cassocks.

Caroline, Happy Anglican

10:29 PM  
Blogger boyinthebands said...

It works for some of the Prots, too. In my last pastorate, I wore clericals for all occasions where I exercized pastoral ministry or represented my church. (Makes packing easier, too.) But clericals are rarely cut well for women and that's the main readership here, and many of both sexes wouldn't like them.

I was very, very broke in my first pastorate. I kept my wardrobe simple and avoided items that needed to be dry-cleaned. I essentially used the criteria I still use for packing (non-clerically) -- clothes that hold a shape, widely interchangable, and of one or two color families. I also overcame my aversion to poly blends.

10:39 PM  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Kim, welcome to Beauty Tips! Thanks for reading!

10:40 PM  
Blogger Chelle said...

As a non-minister.....I think that before going out on a professional matter one needs to ask oneself "Would someone who sees me be shocked when they hear that I'm a minister?" If the answer is yes, you have on the wrong clothes. As my mother would say "Who do you think you are and where do you think you're going in that?"

It doesn't take a lot of money to dress well....but it does take a little time and the understanding that money, wisely used, will last you a lot longer than blowing to the winds of fad.

11:23 PM  

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