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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — Thanks for the compliment, but...

One of our number is in the vexing position of a "compliment" that she doesn't know what to make of, from a church she's new at, and asks us to imagine the folllowing:

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:

From Earthchick:
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)."

Says Jan:

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!


  1. I got the vicar of dibley comment once,too. I hadn't seen the show yet, so I didn't know what to say.

    I wonder if there are so few media models of women in ministry that this is the first thing to pop into someone's head?

  2. One comment that my previous minister and I often laughed about (but never understood) was in a speech at her installation where someone who had known her for a long time said she was the kind of person who felt guilty if she wore something not bought at an op shop (thrift store/ charity shop). She is a very chic and stylish dresser with great clothes and always looks great. What did he mean? That her clothes look dowdy? That she is a careful steward? That he has no idea about women's clothes?

  3. PPB--I think you have a similar haircut to Dawn French's hair in the VoD. But other than that, I don't know...both of you are pretty darn cute! :-)

    I haven't gotten this type of comment, but I've had one where a woman walked out of a funeral and grabbed me by both arms and said "how old are you, you little punk??" which made me laugh hysterically later as I told the story. I think she meant well, but it was totally offensive underneath. I chose to laugh and reenact the story a number of times.

  4. Love the vicar. Hate thoughtless comments, and agree that this was probably meant to be a compliment. Your reply was great, and impressive on the spot thinking. I've had some unbelievably inappropriate comments made to me since going through breast reconstruction. Most by the same man.Who probably thought he was being nice at the time....ugh. Have not been called a "little punk" however....strangely funny, teri.

  5. I get the "cute" comment a lot which, while well-intentioned, does not make me feel like the most effective minister of the gospel. I also get an inordinate number of comments about my hair. I laugh most of it off, even when it's irritating. Occasionally I probably betray my irritation. I find the key is to take three deep breaths before speaking.

    But the Alice comment is priceless.

  6. I had some similar comments that in no way could be constued as well meaning. They truly were rude. I, too, was losing weight. It was needed and I was proud that I was having GREAT success. I ended up losing a total of 50 pounds, but when I was at about 30 pounds and a couple of sizes smaller one lady said, "You can see it in your face, which is good, because if it weren't for that I wouldn't be able to tell you lost anything." Nice!

    Another one at that same point said, "You've got quite a bit more to go, don't you?"

    Again, it was a needed weight loss, but REALLY! This all came when I had been at the church about 9 months and was about 3 months away from my wedding. Brilliant!

    Good advice here. Other than these obviously RUDE comments, I, too, had some weird ones along the way that could have gone either way. Smiling graciously and trying to get out of it is what I do, while inside I crumble. I then spend the next several days trying to reassure myself that it wasn't meant the way I took it, or if it was, it wasn't true anyway. Self-esteem and image stuff SUCKS!

  7. I have always taken the Vicar of Dibley comments (which I get a lot in Scotland) as a compliment. I would like to have more of her personality and quick wit. However there are a lot more patronising comments about my age and my gender, and assumptions made that do get under my skin.I know I should call these more often but I do my best to ignore them or see them as a cross that must be borne for the sake of the gospel and that, on occasion put more steel in my determination.

  8. Sorry that happened. I know how those comments can haunt you. Suddenly you're standing in front of the mirror every morning going, "does this make me look like Dawn French?"

    As a Minister (and in my experience as a church worker) you assume everyone will have the same kinds of filters on their comments that you have to have because of the sensitive nature of your work. But really, most people just don't think before they talk. Period. And what thinking they are doing probably has nothing to do with you, your history or your feelings. So, just remind yourself that Dawn French, just like you, is beautiful in the eyes of God (and, in your case, probably the eyes of whoever that is your marrying ;)


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