I blinked, again. I didn’t understand why this woman was looking at me with such eager glee. “Is something happening, is it?” She repeated. I racked my brains.
Plenty is happening in my life right now, she could mean anything. The civil partnership, now just a few weeks away? My recent recommendation for training for ordination, and the start of two years at theological college? I tried to work out how much she might know about my life; I wasn’t sure I knew her name, but I was getting used to the fact that parishioners always seem to know more about me than I do about them. After church coffee time often includes this kind of awkward small talk.
“Erm”, I started to reply, still searching for clues as to what had captured her excitement. Then I realised with horror that her beaming smile was directed straight at my stomach. I realised too late what was about to happen, just as she said the words.
“You’re pregnant, are you?! Having a baby!”
It’s not the first time I’ve been asked. At my previous workplace – where every other day seemed to bring someone else’s announcement of a forthcoming new arrival – I found myself in the lift with a colleague with whom I’d never had a conversation before. Her glee as she glanced at my tummy matched that of the woman in church: “Oh you’re pregnant too! How lovely!”
And both women looked equally awkward when I replied with a blunt, “No. I’m not.”
I’ve come to realise it’s a feature of my body shape: with a small frame, it only takes a large lunch to enlarge my stomach, and every one of the extra pounds I usually carry is housed there too. With the help of a little dieting to make sure I stay at a healthy weight, I’m starting to accept that.
But what I’m not sure if I’m ready to accept is that this has to be the pattern in public ministry: people feeling entitled to make comments, seriously or in jest, about my appearance.
The incident in the lift was so striking because it caught me off guard: no-one in the office had ever made a comment based on my weight before, nor other aspects of my appearance. Most people would have been incredibly careful about suggesting someone else was pregnant until they’d heard it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. But the incident in church came as part of a growing sense that when you’re in some kind of ministry, people are always watching, talking and judging. Just a few examples:
- I’d been here less than a month when I was accosted about my nail-biting habit by members of one congregation.
- After Christmas, a male ordinand joked that I’d put on holiday weight.
- In a morning service, I was praying silently after communion when I looked up to see a woman kneeling at the rail gesturing broadly at me and stage-whispering, “Smile! That’s it!”
- I took single cookie after church, only to have someone quip, “You’ll get awfully fat!” My face perhaps gave away that I felt something other than amusement, because she clarified that it was a joke, that she was envious of what she perceived as my ability to eat biscuits without gaining weight – but you see why it’s hard to tell the difference.
- Another morning, I was again praying after the Eucharist and someone came and sat down next to me, just to pinch my cheeks and ask if I was ill because I certainly looked it. I lied and said I’d had a late night, just to hide the feeling of shame.
- I’ve been told I don’t look old enough to be out of school, and yet also had wrinkles pointed out to me.
Is this what ministry is going to be like for the next 40 to 50 years of my life? And does it have to be?
Is there some theological justification for this culture of entitlement to comment on the physical appearance of those in church ministry – or does being Christian community give us reason to challenge it? Is it a ‘young woman’ thing, or a woman thing, or a young person thing? Am I not yet old enough to have my appearance accepted for what it is, or will I always be too female to be respected as I am?
I’d be fascinated to hear of the experience of others, whether starting out in ministry or many years down the line. Is it part and parcel of being a visible person in church? Have you any wisdom on how to respond, to others or within yourself?