I can imagine that some people will find the idea of a blog called Beauty Tips for Ministers scandalizing.But as a woman and a potential-pastor I found the idea of addressing beauty and sexuality in ministry quite intriguing. The premise of BTfM is this: women are pastors. Women have bodies. Women who are pastors forget that they have bodies. Here’s a particular experience of thinking about embodiment.

Now, I’m not in favor of everything that comes over the wire from BTfM. I don’t buy new shoes every season. I’m certainly wary of the expense and potential for gluttony if PeaceBang’s spending trends became my own. And I’ve never teared up over a certain brand of mascara. But what I do love, what forgives all of these sins is that BTfM recognizes that there is a serious gap in addressing the particular embodied needs of female ministers.

We’re in a decade when over half our seminarians are female students headed for the pastorate. But this is obviously a new trend. Most of us planning to enter ministry have very few or no examples of women preachers, leaders, ministers and sometimes even teachers. This is new territory and while PeaceBangs doesn’t get it all right, I’m so thankful that someone is posing the question, sometimes in provocative ways.

The implicit message to young female ministers is 1) stop pretending that you don’t have a body and 2) stop pretending that the body you do have is some neutral space. Your body is a construct. Your congregation is negotiating sexuality, femaleness, youth, authority and normativity every time you enter the room.

I think the most telling cultural moment in this regard is the Mark Driscoll-type lifting up of the virile masculine pastor who thunders from the pulpit, giving tips on oral sex and encouraging men to put their masculinity (read: their sexuality) on display. But can you imagine if a woman got up in the pulpit in a form fitting dress and cleavage, preaching on the female orgasm? Of course you can’t, because power is at work in these displays.

But that’s the other option? No one knows because no one wants to raise the question. The failure to address sexuality and femininity in the pulpit stems not from the expectation of gender neutrality, but from the expectation that women should have bodies like men. What we’re really seeing is an absorbing of the female into masculine normativity.

My favorite posts from PeaceBangs come from questions from women in ministry navigating the very tricky terrain of gender and authority. What’s the best way to dress for an outdoor wedding? What’s too sexy? How should you respond to this comment or that? What’s an appropriate skirt length? Is this sheep stoll totally ridiculous? If for no other reason appreciate BTfM because it will help you see that every day is a negotiation for women in this new world of exercising spiritual authority over congregations where, for most parishoners, this is their first experience with a female minister.

But what about justice? Shouldn’t we be focusing on feeding the poor and tending the wounded? Do we really have time for this stuff? I argue we should make time for it because the body is a powerful space for control and oppression, and for women in the Global North this takes a very particular form, a subtle form. We can pretend it’s not happening, that we can carve out a neutral space immune from gendering, identity and power (and aesthetics) or we can start talking about it. From the pulpit, from the classroom, in our blogs and with our friends.

Most of these thoughts are an expansion upon my reflections on an episode of What Not to Wear that featured a young, female priest.

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11 thoughts on “beauty tips for ministers

  1. Hmmm…

    If we’re really trying to figure out how to dress for an outdoor wedding, responding to comments, silly sheep stoles, I guess there needs to be a legit space for that.

    I react against “Beauty Tips” because I view the body’s primary function as instrumental. “Beauty Tips” FOR the pulpit identify a woman’s body as ornamental, meant for the visual enjoyment of others. The function of what that woman’s body DOES from the pulpit isn’t affected whether she wears clunky Birks or elegant heels.

  2. I would disagree with that last comment. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of a woman pastor who, upon greeting a congregant at the door, is told how nice she looked up there. And she’s wearing a body-masking robe! What’s there to look good?! And what about the message?

    It’s about power. It’s saying “I don’t need to take your message of liberation/equality/poverty/oppression seriously because I can reduce you to what I like about the way you look, what I don’t like about the way you look, how you show too much skin, not enough, you’re uptight, you don’t care about the way you look. It’s a mine field. I’m interested in the navigation of that pastoral reality. And how we can faithfully express gendered identity.

    I never get the sense that BTfM’s message is “this is how to look good for your congregation.” It’s so much more complex than that. It’s more like: “I’m a woman. I’m a pastor. Help!”

    1. My take on BTfMs falls between yours and the one Margot has suggested, signonthewindow. I think the message is considerably more mixed than “I’m a woman. I’m a pastor. Help!” For one thing, that (admittedly poignant) plea doesn’t quite capture offering individual consultations at GA that include assessment of skin type in order to recommend facial care products and make-up (for a free will offering). I personally love the blog’s counter-cultural tone of wild female abandonment with regard to fashion and what Victoria Weinstein calls “grooming” (read: hair, nails, make-up). Who among us has not worried over a too-sparkly headband catching the candlelight on Christmas Eve? (Kidding, people, kidding – but I do think it’s funny.) However, it’s also accurate, in my view, that in addition to some much-needed, practical advice, BTfMs pushes hard on the need for women clergy to pay considerable attention, not just to being neat/presentable/professional, but to being concerned – beyond what those categories require (to my mind) – with the best mascara and nail polish color (because you WILL get a mani-pedi, kittens). Interestingly, Rev Weinstein herself demurs that those who greet her with, “Oh, no! I look terrible today!” are confusing the “real” Vicki Weinstein (who wears shmattes over her hair in public, for heaven’s sake) with her blogging alter ego. Telling, I think.

  3. Mel, this is great stuff. You’re right, our bodies are always already occupied by networks of power. The pulpit is a particularly strange node in the field of power in our world. I remember in my homiletics class, watching a video of myself preaching with an instructor, and being amazed at how she showed me all the ways I was being a typical male in the pulpit. For example, I kept on grabbing the top edges of the pulpit when I was trying to make an important point. As I gripped the edge, my forearms would flex (although I don’t have much muscle to show, the power move was obvious). I said I was doing it because I was nervous; and she said that that is usually why men feel the need to flex their muscles. She was good. She also told me that it’s usually better for men to wear long-sleeved shirts in the pulpit. It makes sense.

    Regarding the comment above, I don’t think our bodies are “instrumental”–as if we could distinguish something essential to our selves that is not dependent on our bodies. We are our bodies, and we are the persona we create for ourselves through our styles.

  4. Like Sally, I feel pretty ambivalent about BTfM. There was a time in my life (mainly in college) where I thought any amount of mirror-gazing was a sin and renounced makeup in the name of Jesus, so to speak. But I also recognize the alternative isn’t all that great and smacks of masculinizing (i.e., power suits for women execs, etc).

    A fellow student here at Duke told me that she and her friends lament every time a woman-pastor-to-be succumbs to the “man cut”, i.e. a short, manish hairdo that will “fit better’ in the pulpit. I’ve also heard another woman, a part of the AME tradition, give a presentation on the policing that goes on in her church regarding the skirt lengths of female pastors. If the pastor’s skirt is not shapeless, dark and to the floor, there are “prayer quilts” specifically used to cover her legs when she sits down. There is something very threatening about the female body in front of a church. And there are plenty of ways that the congregational body attempts to subdue that body, or at least render it less noticeable.

    I love the story by the Lutheran pastor, Heidi Neumark, in Breathing Space. Her child was 4 months old and still nursing, and during a particularly long service, as Heidi lifted the chalice of wine during communion, her daughter began to cry and her breasts let down milk with abandon, soaking the entire front of her robe. She writes, “This story will probably provide someone with one more argument against the ordination of women. To me, it’s a reminder that religion is not and should not be a disembodied affair….Leaking milk is an undeniable sign of real flesh under, as well as on, the surface. Perhaps that’s why menstruating and nursing women were barred from getting anywhere near an altar for so many centuries. Even in our own time, the body has been interpreted as an obstacle to priestly service….Flesh is not always convenient, prim and trim, neatly wrapped and rubric ready.”

    Neumark experienced in a pretty extreme way her own female embodiment behind the communion table, and it had nothing to do with high heels or mascara. And I guess that’s what I want to argue for — expressions of female embodiment that aren’t dependent upon a billion-dollar beauty industry that profits off of women’s insecurities, fears and feelings of inadequacy. I have to believe there are ways to be fully female without hairspray or lip gloss, right? Or ridiculous rainbow sheep stoles.

    I think BTfM is intriguing, but I could stand for a little more critique of an industry that has swallowed countless women whole. Believe me, at a recent book club of Christian women, a large portion of the time was spent complaining about bodily imperfections. These are not Birkenstock-wearing hippies but skinny, JCrew, Laurel-wearing women who, despite their fashionable clothing, stylish haircuts and pedicures, were not at home in their bodies. These things were a stand in, a way of masking deep-seated self-hatred, and THAT’S something Christian women everywhere need to renounce as sin.

    1. I so love Heidi Neumark’s story of abundant milk flowing behind the communion table! Thanks for that, Heather. And I am in complete agreement with your comments on embodiment. I confess that every time I cut my hair short, I worry that someone will think it’s the “man cut” – rather than exhaustion and wanting a break from managing it when it’s longer…I read in some blog somewhere that women who cut their hair short evince a loss of interest in their sexuality (which then was connected to the loss of a husband, as I recall). Sigh.

    2. H – I agree. And I think you bring up a good point – self-hatred and dis-embodiment are present across the board. I do think PeaceBangs is addressing a particular segment of the ministry world and trying to shake it up a bit. You and I both know the older female priest crowd she’s talking about. And yes, there needs to be a better critique. My concern is the reaction that this is vanity or unimportant or frivolous, as if women really have a choice to get away with not engaging the issue of how they look. And since no one else has been willing to write about it in a consistent way I’m thankful that it’s being done in this way here.

      1. Absolutely. Both messages are so problematic: (1) that women aren’t judged based on appearance and (2) that somehow those of us who enjoy fussing over clothes or make-up or hair (or whatever) are somehow less worthy as pastors.

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