You've recently lost a lot of weight, and even more recently interviewed and begun work at a new church. At a luncheon, the president of the ladies' circle says, "Have you ever watched The Vicar of Dibley?"
"Why, yes," you say, for you are indeed a fan.
The dear lady holds up the DVD set next to the picture of you printed in the church newsletter and says, "We think you look just like her!!"
Do you:* (a) Remind yourself that aside from being female and short, you do not resemble Dawn French?
* (b) Burst into tears?
* (c) Ask her to pass the chocolate?
* (d) All of the above?
In fact, I said, "Ah, well she is very funny, but she does have a staff of writers," hoping to deflect continued references to my appearance.
I wonder how the Matriarchs would recommend responding to these sorts of potentially offensive personal remarks?
Oh, to have the flashy and trenchant wit of Dawn French, who is one of my heroines. French is one of the brainchildren behind Absolutely Fabulous, half of the British comedy duo French and Saunders, author of the Great Big Knits series of books and the actress who portrayed the Vicar of Dibley, who upon her arrival at a small village church is greeted with some consternation by its conservative lay leader, and responds, cheerily, with, "You were expecting a bloke, beard, bible, bad breath, and instead you got a babe with a bob cut and a magnificent bosom." Thus sets the stage for several seasons' worth of laugh-out-loud moments, especially for those of you who've faced the kind of moments when there was nothing better to put in the church newsletter than the remarkable size of an egg laid by a parishioner's chicken.
And on that note, the matriarchs seem to agree that people "see" Dawn French not as an overweight woman, but as someone funny we all can relate to. And in that light, it was likely not intended as a slight, but we (myself included) are all wired to make that leap to hearing it as criticism for being... oh, how I hate the word ... fat. This is clearly a case where the giving beats the receiving, hands down. Our matriarchs at once are reassuring that it's probably not meant that way, and offer suggestions on how to handle the hurt.
So here's what they had to say:
I think your response was perfect. People can say the most thoughtless, idiotic things without meaning to or being aware of it. In addition to using humor to deflect and move on, I usually try to figure out what the motivation behind the remark might've been. In this case, maybe the woman was just trying to connect with you? Show some pride in having a female minister just like one on TV? Share a laugh over an enjoyable show? I don't know. But probably she was well-intentioned. With offensive remarks, I usually try to assume there was a good intention behind them.
Over time, though, if it appears there is not good intention, or if the remarks themselves become consistently and/or increasingly hurtful, the approach may need to be more direct. If people keep comparing you to the Vicar of Dibley, perhaps you could ask them directly, "Other than being female and short, exactly how do you think I resemble her?" Or even, "It kind of bothers me that you keep saying it (and here's why)."
Since the female pastor, in some congregations, is still an object of curiosity and mystery, this could simply be a situation in which people want to make semi-intimate conversation with you even if it's awkward and slightly offensive. Through the years, some have said that I:
1) look pregnant (when my stomach was merely more poochy than usual)
2) was too skinny
3) could use a hair cut
4) need a long nap.
These comments all came from people who are not particularly close to me. Again, they want an intimacy with the pastor, or assume they have that intimacy already. Such are the adventures of our own local vicars/pastors/preachers/priests. Just laugh and let it go.
Ann put the question to her own panel of experts and got:
I think your response was note perfect. Witty and also creating the option of opening a new topic of conversation.
Also, I would try to extract any ounce of honey and try to dismiss the sting. Dawn French is funny, outgoing, and pretty.
I can see how this would trigger a internal crazed response: "Do they think I'm fat, are they hinting at something?" but especially if they were not present with your on your journey to lose weight they may have no idea where the minefields are.
Wait and see if there is a pattern to their remarks to her or about other parishioners. If not, I would let it go. If so, then it needs to be brought to light.
In non-church workplaces, expecting people to be sensitive to a particular persons issues doesn't usually work out in my experience. Most folks are expected to leave their personal issues at home, and crying is a real no no. However, it does also get into the whole can of worms as to what is a personal issue and what is a systemAnnic problem (issues of race, class, gender, etc...) which the Ideal Church should be willing to tackle.
Ann also adds:
Don't project your meaning onto their words. Weight in our culture is a huge issue. It is one of the things that can evoke all sorts of prejudicial acts and words. To be compared to Dawn French who is larger than what is usually lauded is great. I think it means they see you as warm, wise, pastoral and witty.
RevHoney echoes a lot of these sentiments:
It can be really hard to come up with a good “on your toes” response to something like this. If I were a naturally comedic person, I might come back with something like “Wow, I thought I surpassed her in beauty a year or two ago…” with my tongue planted firmly in cheek.
But since I am not a naturally funny person in that kind of setting, the first response that came to mind as I read the story was “Yes, those collars do make us all look so much alike.”
You don’t know them well yet, and they don’t know you. They may have no idea of your recent weight loss (Congratulations, by the way!) I think it is best to keep it light. They likely mean no offense, but may be having a difficult time knowing how to relate to you especially if you are the first clergywoman in that setting. They are trying to get to know you, to read you…and noticing and commenting on appearance is one of the first ways new acquaintances do that. Laugh it off and chalk it up to awkward firsts….there will likely be a few more along the way.
But if you're really feeling punchy, there's always Karen's comeback:
Well, the obvious come back in this particular instance is: " Well isn't that a coincidence because you've always reminded me of Alice!" (Alice is the VOD's sidekick--thin and blonde but also a total DIMWIT!)
But seriously, in general a dubious compliment can be met with a slightly quizzical smile and the comment, "Well, bless your heart ..."
And in my own weight loss journey, I always try to remember: it's about health more than it is about inches and pounds. Good luck with your efforts as I'm right there with you, as are many of us, I suspect.
Any sympathizers among us? Or do you have an example of something that was probably meant as a compliment but came off as completely the opposite, and how you dealt with it? Please share it in the comments!