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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Is it really about the legs? Ask the Matriarch.

Good morning RevGals!
Do you have that Thursday morning inertia? Does Sunday seems like a long time away and you just can’t seem to get to all of the things you should be doing?

Here’s a question that is guaranteed to get your motor running- I have a feeling we’ll have lots of personal experiences and opinions to share.

So… On to the question
(And as always, e-mail your questions to

Peace to you,
Listing Straight

What is the appropriate response when someone makes an inappropriate remark about your appearance? We recently had a church picnic, and I wore bermuda shorts...long shorts. One man (who I believe to have an alcohol issue, and in fact, he may well have imbibed on this evening), said, "It is good to see you in something other than a robe. You have nice legs." What do you say to that? There were others standing around, so I ignored him and changed the subject. But, it was creepy. Should I have responded differently?

From Jan:
I once had a funeral director whisper in my ear - at the graveside -- something about my legs. Very sneaky in that I couldn't respond appropriately in that setting. But I've never ridden in a funeral limo ever since.

These kinds of comments stun me to the point that a snappy retort doesn't come to me until about a day later. My first thought is to respond with a question:
- You know I'm your pastor, right?
- (Looking both ways behind you) You talking to me?
- (Calling another person over and then saying:) Could you repeat what you just said?

Any of these would at least keep him from doing this again. The alcohol issues might keep him from even remembering he did/does this.

Or -- like you did -- you could just ignore him. Unfortunately the sexism in our culture is so pervasive, many men -- at least of a certain generation -- don't get that these comments are inappropriate/creepy/sexist.

From PPB:
When I read this question, my face automatically contorted itself into the completely confused look that I usually give in response to inappropriate comments. People generally get it without me saying a word. Now if I honestly thought someone didn't "get" that these comments were inappropriate, or if the comment was particularly egregious, I'd say something more direct. Obviously, all the ordinary "take them aside, allow them an out, don't shame," rules of confronting apply.


  1. Yes, that kind of thing can make one feel a little icky, but he may have truly meant it as a compliment, and may not have meant anything more by it. I almost asked, "Do you have nice legs?" because if you do, perhaps he was making a statement of fact.

    Some people will do stuff like this just to get a rise out of you. I've know some women in previously male-dominated fields who walked around with a chip on their shoulder just waiting for someone to say or do something inappropriate. The one thing I've found is that if you have a chip on your shoulder, you will eventually encounter someone who wants to knock it off. I've worked with men for 20+ years, and one can usually tell if such a comment is sincere or structured to generate a response. To those looking for a response, don't give them the satisfaction. Don't look shocked and apalled. Ignore them or even acknowledge the compliment as a compliment. That can really throw them for a loop. For those who mean it sincerely, a simple, "Thank you, but that is really an inappropriate thing to say to your pastor." should suffice.

    If it gets any more extreme than that or continues, make sure somebody in your denominational hierarchy and staff-parish committee knows, and take the appropriate measures to protect yourself.

  2. I've had this. It might just really be about your legs.

    It might be about seeing you in some other setting/role--not the prophetic or priestly role that is signified by the robe--and how he is dealing with that. (Kind of like seeing the teacher out of the classroom.)

    Or he could have been getting a rise out of you. I've had all of the above.

    I think the fairly neutral look of vague confusion is probably what has worked best for me. I pretend the person is speaking Esperanto.

    On the other hand, I have recently lost a considerable amount of weight, and grown my hair out from pixie to chin-length, so I'm getting a few more comments about my appearance, especially when out of the robe, but mostly from women. I just kind of evaluate them individually.

  3. Good comments.

    It is hard to know. I think what you did is appropriate for the situation.

    The alcohol abuse may be another issue that does need to be dealt with, and if he develops a pattern of saying things to you or touching you inappropriately. Then you certainly will want to do as Kim suggests take it to the higher ups and involve them in helping you.

    But if we are talking about legs, I don't get the leg comments, cause I got short, stocky, muscular legs. On the other hand, I do get looks and comments about an upper portion of my body. I tend to ignore, or give the contorted look, like PPB. As far as I know I have been treated with respect from my church members, unless I missed it.

    However, I have had some inappropriate comments and touches from peers, the days before all the conferences got stronger on the rules about such matters. And then it was considered "boys will be boys" and you had no one to talk to or take the matter to task.

  4. In response to kim's comment, I tend to agree, though the fact that the letter writer felt "creepy" about it is a very good sign that there's more to it than just a simple compliment, or a person with a chip on the shoulder. It doesn't sound like she was offended, she was creeped out. That's something to pay attention to.

    Taking the comment at face value, I can examine the subtext in one of two ways. One subtext might be, "It is nice to see you as a 'real' person and not just someone who fulfills a ministerial role in the church." Which is rather benign.

    Another subtext could be, "It's nice to see some of your body; boy I wish I could see more of it." Which is super creepy.

    There may be still other subtexts. My point is, the intuition of the recipient is important. If it feels icky, it's probably icky.

    Liked all the suggestions!

  5. My favorite response is, "I beg your pardon?" With the right tone, the listener can take it as "Sorry, I missed that, could you repeat it?" or "Want to rethink that before you say it again?" Again, gives folks an out if they've blurted out something they might regret. Selective deafness works, too, because it's rare that these kinds of comments really call to be confronted.
    That said, I do have one parishioner who gives me serious willies. In his case, I have a few folks who are ready to give me an out, and a senior pastor who knows what's going on. I almost never speak to this individual when there's no one else around, and when I have to, there's always some emergency I have to tend to and he's invited to come to the office at a time when people will be there. I do not speak to him in my office because there's only one exit. If he wanders in, which has happened, I make an excuse to go see the secretary and let her know what's going on.
    I don't really know what I'd do with this guy if I were the only person in the office...but he's given me reason to believe that I don't ever need to be alone with him for any length of time.
    I will say, obey your instincts. This guy gave me the creeps long before he proved to me that he was creepy.

  6. Difficult one this, I suspect that you can tell the difference between an innocent if mis-place remark, and a truly creepy comment.

    My gut reaction is to keep cool, smile, and walk away to join a group of others.

    A few men of a certain generation are still coming to terms with women in ministry, but that is not a fair excuse for inappropriate comments!

  7. Depending on the situation and my assessment of the person making the comment, I myself favor the slightly raised eyebrow -- go for a look of confusion, with a touch of disbelief -- and "Excuse me?", or the not-paying-attention/walk away route.

  8. Of course, if you're a liturgical type you could always respond, "And also with you."

  9. ...or the more colloquial "Back at ya!"

  10. well he did say you have nice legs...not a nice ass right? and he said nice not sexy. Soooo... I probably would have said, "yep I know it was this pastor-thing or join the NYC rockettes!" and then walk away...

  11. Absolutely DO follow the instincts of "creeped out" -- and at the least, report it to a superior. You want to be sure you are covered for any future "interesting conversations"...

    But I have to tell you... when I was teaching, I once took my laundry to the laundromat IN the town where I lived. And a whole circle of kids from my classes were amazed and told their parents, "LOOK! There's Ms. X! She has CLOTHES on!"

    Mind you, I was wearing a tshirt and cut-offs instead of the required dress pants/skirt/dress that was de rigeur. But it still makes me chuckle. And after that, I went two towns away to wash my clothes...

    A friend who is a liturgical and robed sort of pastor told me that her communicants class totally went out of control when she walked into the class in a collar and pants (not robes, not skirt) and the child said, "Wow! You have legs!" She had the impression that he had only seen her in a robe and must have pictured her as some kinda bell-like woman. :)



  12. When it gives you the willies, trust your instincts. Write it all out, put a copy in your files of important papers and share it with a superior colleague.

    I guess I would have said, "Thanks," quietly and walked away. But trust that little meter in your gut that tells you things are creepy.

    However one reacts, short of giving him a smack, is probably appropriate. After all, you didn't do anything wrong. And some people are just plain stupid.

  13. You may say "Perhaps you'd like to talk to your mental health counselor about your tendency to blurt out inappropriate things." Or "maybe you could talk about this in your AA meeting." Or "My legs are none of your business" no, too hostile. How about, I'll tell my husband (or spouse) you said so.

  14. Having recently made a drastic change in my hairstyle (from long and brown to short and grey), I get a fair number of comments about that aspect of my appearance, but they have all been along the lines of "You look great--more grown up!" or, oddly, "You look great--so much younger!!" I think there are times when people want to say something nice to us and just don't know how, in part because they are used to having a male pastor. The remark about the questioner's legs, however, goes way beyond an attempt to be nice.
    I would definitely mention something like this to my Pastoral Relations Committee. I am another person who would only think of a snappy retort later, and that may be just as well. I think the look of mild surprise and confusion always works well in response to any kind of inappropriate remark.

  15. I'm the one who asked the question! And, I appreciate all of the responses. I probably should have said, 'my husband thinks so'...and remember, he's a heck of a lot bigger than you! it just took me so by surprise. Then again, this job is filled with surprises almost every day.

  16. These are all great responses.
    I had similar ethics type issue with an elderly "gentelman" in church who insisted on calling me, "Baby."
    It really annoyed me, but did not help that he often refered to my predessor as a "real ball of fire" and then complained about my preaching, teaching, etc. Had it been an older guy that was nice to me, might have been okay.
    I had one shorter, flouncy, girly skirt I wore and people told me I looked like one of the kids.
    i often told my male s.p. that he had it lucky because his wardrobe was easy.
    One day with men in pantyhose, an itchy bra and slip...that's all i 'm asking

  17. The husband of one of our choir members always seems to put his arm around me just a little too low on the waist. So, whenever he comes near me to give me a 'hug' I figure out a way to sidle out of his grip. And another choir member, who just started singing with us is also a little to touchy-feely with me. Ick.

  18. Yeah, it's creepy, but I'd go with Hot Cup Lutheran. Start with humor. (I also liked lutheranchik's quip. Hey, we Episcopalians and you Lutherans really are in full communion ;-)). It's not as if he harassed you.

    I've found people either desexualize you (the more frequent reaction) or oversexualize you when you're a minister. Laughing and keeping good boundaries --and having a good set of friends away from church-- goes a long way. Naturally, documenting can be helpful and creeps do exist. But sometimes people are just flirts in a bumbling sort of way.

    So I'm back to the Rockettes remark.

  19. smile and move on. After all you do have GREAT legs :)

  20. Completely off topic sorry!

    I have just started reading Velvet Elvis and I can't get any work done!!!

  21. This type of comment can be creepy - especially if a creepy kind of guy makes the comment. My response for many years has been to take a long look at the body part in question and then to smile and say, "Yes, yes I do" as I walk away to join another group.

    Just don't let yourself be alone with this kind of guy - boundary lines are clearly in question.

  22. 1-4Grace,

    An older gentleman at my hubby's church started calling me "honey." I said he couldn't call me honey, because my husband calls me honey. Now he calls me "sweetie." In this case, I think its just that he feels close to me, not that its creepy.

  23. Sometimes, when I'm wondering if something is sexist/gender-based/inappropriate, I try to imagine the scenario with the genders reversed.

    Can you imagine some woman coming up to a male minister and telling him that he had nice legs? It would be ridiculous. When I look at it that way, I'm sure it's a come-on or a flirtation, almost definitely inappropriate.

    But what you do with that is the hard thing. Because sometimes making you flustered is how people make themselves feel powerful. If that's the case, you don't want to seem upset by it. On the other hand, I'm not wild about just letting it go, either.

    Wow. A whole bunch of not helpful from me. Sorry about the dithering.


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