The body of Christ and its Ministers’ bodies

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?

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About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
This entry was posted in Gender, My life and faith and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The body of Christ and its Ministers’ bodies

  1. Yes I’ve found that people are watching you all the time. After leading a song at our harvest supper one year I received in the post an anonymous gift of some hair elastic covered in cotton. The note said “I noticed you’d tied your hair back in an rubber band”.

  2. Annie says:

    I get comments about how tired I look all the time. I just look like any mid-fifties woman and I have eyebags because I can’t afford surgery. I also get asked if I’ve lost weight regularly, which doesn’t help because it really means ‘you are fat, though maybe a bit less fat than last time I estimated’. I would hate to work in a church where ministers didn’t robe, as at least I feel I am not judged while I preside and/or preach.

    • Paul says:

      These are probably the same people who cry to a manger when a cashier doesn’t smile enough for them.

    • Claire says:

      That’s an interesting one, having come from a church where there were no robes and currently on placement where there are many robes – I think I felt more comfortable in the first because I could choose what to wear and avoid lumps and bumps whereas now its just the church’s cassock alb. But perhaps that will all change when I’ve got my own, better fitted vestments!

    • Marti says:

      So agree about wearing a robe. I need it to take me out of the picture. That’s its purpose – clothes of service. I get accused of being too formal and unable to relate to young people because I don’t wear jeans and a golf shirt and perch on a stool. The real issue is I lack the “proper body parts” to be contemporary or relevant.

      I get the “smile” thing quite a bit. My other favorite issue is how every one likes to comment on the haircuts!

  3. Annie says:

    I don’t respond to appearance-related comments, ever. I just move on. I usually ask the other person a question about themselves.

  4. Hazel says:

    I was on the receiving end, not so long ago, of the comment by a member of our congregation ‘you dress like a teenager’… I’m not convinced it was meant to be a compliment! The classic, very early on as a Curate, on being introduced to someone: ‘and is there a Mr Curate?’ what?! I’m afraid it’s not just appearance, once you are in a public role it seems nothing is off limits for comment…

    • Claire says:

      I can only imagine the questions we’ll get…! Rose has already had some interesting ones from strangers on Twitter, the opportunities to be inappropriate only increase online!

  5. Paul says:

    I am surprised you think that this happens just at church. I’ve worked retail for over 15 years and have learned that customers feel it is okay to make comments about the associated appearance or other things because they work behind a counter. They make rude jokes trying to be funny or ask personal questions that make you feel uncomfortable. It happens to both male and female employees who have to put up with it because that is retail culture.

    • Claire says:

      Hi Paul, interesting to hear your experience, thank you. I wasn’t suggesting this only happens at church, its just that my only experience was with my previous office job and my current placement in churches – I can only compare what I know! Sorry to hear that you also have to deal with inappropriate remarks.

  6. theologybee says:

    Hi Claire. You are so right! I think the public nature of the role, compounded with the entitlement over a woman’s body means that this is sadly inevitable.
    My experience of comments from near strangers (read: parishioners) came to the fore during my pregnancies. I actually blogged about it (https://www.theologybee.com/well-done-part-two/) if you’re interested. It’s definitely changed how I would comment on another person’s appearance.

  7. Jane says:

    I’ve found this is somewhat context-specific. I have had the odd totally inappropriate comment in previous churches (the glorious and not-even-accurate: ‘you look like our previous placement student …though she was thinner’). Where I am now, no one has, in a year, commented on my appearance in a way that isn’t ok – they tell me if they like my jacket or if I’ve done something new with my hair. Very occasionally people overstep the mark in ways that don’t relate to appearance (no, I don’t want to date your vocations adviser…) but it’s unusual.

  8. Clark says:

    I remember when I was in my upper thirties a woman of maybe 60 straightened out my hair as if I were her little boy. She also had a way of adjusting my stole. (My hair was not that out of order, and if it was, that was not because I hadn’t combed it.) Another female colleague once asked me out of the blue if I had considered getting hair implants. I actually don’t mind people telling me I look tired…it’s happened few times. Also a comment or two when I lost a little weight once. Oh, yes, and colleague who asks me how it is I never learned to tie my shoes properly. Of all of these, I think it is only the hair comments that really got on my nerves, because they were people trying to impose their own preference on me, with a little condescension thrown in.

  9. marciglass says:

    I get comments a lot. They are often intended to be compliments. It has occurred to me that we, as a culture, are trained to comment on the appearance of females “what a beautiful baby she is!” My infant son’s were more often called “strong” or “clever”.
    I wonder if the church could become to place where people model a different way to say nice things about women that aren’t appearance related. It starts when we are young.

    When it happens to me, and I can tell they are trying to be kind, I deflect it to something of substance. When it happens in a creepy way, I shut it down fast.

  10. kevanroyle says:

    Perhaps it’s because you succeed at making people realise they are your family, brothers and sisters in CHRIST. So taking their familiarity as literally being loving family removes it’s emotional negativity. Be encouraged. They would never be so bold if they perceived you as cold and aloof. You’ve made it. Accepted.

  11. Bobbie McGarey says:

    Attempting to avoid comment on my clothing in the pulpit I’ve most always worn a robe. When I started in 1977 I realized that though my colleague could wear different suits if ties without comment — the style even color of my dress was noted.
    In regards to over the line intrusive comments I think it’s become a cultural thing. Permission is no longer necessary . My daughter is a physician and people seem to feel free to comment on her looks. Especially when she was pregnant

  12. Rachel says:

    I’m not in a leadership role in the church, but I do use a wheelchair. That seems to give people the opening to ask all sorts of (sometimes very personal) questions and allows them to comment on my health – “you look ……”. Comments might come out of their concern, but sometimes I just want to chat about stuff and not feel I need to justify how well I look (when usually I feel awful however I look)!

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