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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - I'm Too Sexy for this Pulpit

Okay, so that isn't exactly how that old song goes, but same general idea. A female minister's appearance and sexuality sometimes seems to matter more to people that a male minister's. It's one of the reasons some people are uncomfortable with women in ministry to begin with, isn't it? 
This week, our question comes from a colleague who is uncertain how to handle comments about her looks. Read on:

I am still not sure how to reply to comments about how I am "too pretty" to be a pastor. Or comments about pictures on facebook, "should pastors be that beautiful?", "is it appropriate for pastors to be sexy?"

Now, I'm not posting pictures on fb where I am dressed like a slutty nurse at halloween or anything. And I'm not even sure I can even get my head around being called "beautiful" or "too pretty" in the first place. But how does one reply to such comments? Generally, I try to just say thank you, deflect, and move on to something less awkward.

But on the other hand, part of me wants to scream, "shouldn't we expect our clergy to be exactly who they are--frumpy or fashionable, thin or thick, etc--and spend less time trying to fit us into some outdated notion of what a female pastor should look like?"


Welcome to new matriarch RevHRod, who responds:

While my mother always taught us to say "thank you" to a compliment, my inclination is to respond to these questions by asking, "Why do you ask that?"  Put the responsibility for clarification right back where it belongs.  It may be an innocent compliment or it may be that this person just doesn't quite know how to deal with women clergy.  Asking the question, lets them do some pondering and keeps you from looking defensive.

muthah+ offers:

Dear Sexy,

I can assure you, I have NEVER had this problem!  Take it for the complement that it is unless it is a come-on.  You know the difference!  'Come-ons' need to be discouraged the first time they happen.  And for God's sake don't ever flirt even for fun!  It will really confuse them.
Know too that you will find envy from spouses, but you can ignore that too as long as you are genuine about your care for them.  

You have not said what kind of parish you have but I wouldn't be surprised if it is small town.  Both older men and women in smaller towns tend to have rather out-dated images of roles.  It is what makes small towns work--everyone has their niche.  I was the 'first woman' in every church I served and was always dealing with those issues of gender definition.  Allow yourself to define the ministry in YOUR way always being aware that the older folk will have difficulty.  And laugh!  Most of all laugh.  Have some funny stock phrases in your repertoire as come backs.  [Hmm, that isn't what MY mirror said this morning! or 'Oh, shucks!' finger in the dimple] just to make them comfortable.

Often it is their lack of being comfortable with a capable or good looking woman because you may be better than anything they have ever had before.  Help them to be comfortable with you and you will find that those comments will fade as they get to know you.

And Martha writes:True fact: People aren't always good at putting things into words. We do it for a living, so we may set the bar a little high for others. With that in mind...

While I must admit that no one has ever come close to saying I'm too attractive to be a pastor, I do receive compliments with some frequency on a range of personal matters (hair cut, hair color, pink sweater, new shoes and so forth). Now, I might tell my doctor I like her sweater, but I wouldn't tell her she's too pretty to be a doctor, and I probably wouldn't talk about her sweater either. It feels like a violation of a professional boundary, right? But we are in that odd profession where we are expected to maintain ethically correct boundaries at the same time people think we are their best friends or long lost daughters or surrogate sisters. 

It's my practice is to measure the intent of the person offering the compliment. Usually they are being nice. Often that niceness sounds awkward. Sometimes they are trying to say appreciative words and find it easier to make them about superficial matters than the thing they really mean. In all those cases, I smile and say "thank you," or if I want to give it a Southern polish that is also intended to bring the conversation to an end, I smile verrrry sweetly and say, "Well, aren't you nice?"

But sometimes it's not nice at all, particularly if the person is using remarks about appearance to minimize us or undermine our authority. I'm five feet tall, so I sometimes get this in the form of kidding about my size. If you suspect that is the motivation, you may want to find a moment in the life of the church to reflect your values about how we accept people regardless of appearance, just as Jesus accepted people regardless of their social status. I trust some text will come along at exactly the moment you need to say it. 

When it goes beyond saying you're pretty to wondering whether it's okay for you to be sexy, we've hit the creepy mark. That's a legit thing to talk about with your Pastoral Relations Committee, if you have one. Get some lay feedback. It's possible the person saying you're too pretty and/or raising the subject of your sexiness is actually predatory, and other people may experience that, too.
Lastly, your Facebook page is not the place for church members to be remarking on your appearance. I would recommend setting up some restrictions on Facebook, especially for photos other people tag that may present you in a less careful way than photos you choose yourself. You can set up a group of people restricted to Public status updates (go to Privacy settings and then to the category where you manage Blocking. At the top there's a place you click and then set up the restricted group). You can't control what people write on Facebook, but you can control who is able to read your updates and post on your page.


Thank you, matriarchs, for your good input. What about others of you? What is your experience with this issue, and how have you handled it? Please join us in the comments section for more conversation. And, as always, if you have a question for the matriarchs to discuss, send it our way at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.

- earthchick


  1. I wholeheartedly agree with RevHRod--put it back on them so they can think more deeply (or for the first time!) about the comment they've made. Find your own question that "fits" you, like: "Why do think that's so?" or "I wonder what were you taught that makes you think that?" or "That's an interesting comment--would you like to get coffee sometime to talk about what underlies your question?" These aren't quite right, and you don't want to offer a shaming question, but find one that works for your situation... because it's not really about you, is it? It's thier discomfort with something.

    I also agree with Martha that is should at the least be mentioned to your Pastoral Relations Committee--they should know what comments you receive and how you try to respond.

    1. While I admire your attempts and RevHRod's to put the question back on the questioner, I think it will always come across as defensive or worse, combative. People aren't wanting deep thoughts or analysis, they're being awkward. While it turns my stomach a little, I agree that the laugh and the deflecting Well aren't you nice? are about your only options. Then yes, talk to Mutual Ministry committee about the difficulty.

  2. This stinks. I hate it when anyone gets that kind of question. But if it were in the workplace, particularly a federal or state one, it would be considered a harassing comment. And it needs to be addressed with the other party. I would also be VERY selective in who gets to see your pictures on Facebook. I have drastically reduced the number of people who can see my pictures. I have also reduced my "friends" to adults (no more teens or young adults who could be my children). And I've made my name not "findable".

    That said, I would also go to someone you trust - another pastor or a mentor -- and ask them to look over your Facebook photos with you. Ask them "is this too sexy?" Even though it is an inappropriate comment, you want to be above reproach. And talking with your church leadership (assuming THEY have not been guilty of this as well) might be wise.

    Finally, remember this - ANYTHING you put on the web is "public" -- even if you make it "private".


    1. Does this mean you think it is possible for a pastor to be too sexy?
      I think this is an interesting discussion.

    2. Marci, "Be" or "appear"?

      As a layperson, I do not want to see my pastor in a "slutty nurse" costume.

    3. I think we bump up against style trends. Last year I rented "thirtysomething" from Netflix, and I was surprised at how modestly all the characters dressed. Hope didn't look much different from the mom and daughters on 19 Kids and Counting. Even the hipper, single female characters were very covered up, because that's how clothes looked then. We're living in an era of more exposure. Dresses and tops are LOW. I'm short, so they are even lower on me. I know which of my assets are most attractive, but I'm selective about when I share them with the world. That's not the part of me I want church folk to focus on, not because there's anything wrong with being sexy but because I have my own boundaries about where and with whom I want to share that aspect of myself.

    4. You are so right, Martha. Style trends is part of this whole mix. The things I see teenage girls wearing today - and to church! - would have been considered risqué when I was their age (even for going out with friends, let alone to church), but is now considered the norm.

      It can make discerning what might be considered "too sexy" trickier than it once was, imho.

  3. An answer that's given me good mileage to questions comments like that: "God made me this way, and God called me the way he made me."

  4. After church last Sunday, I saw sitting at a restaurant with some members of the congregation when a man I didn't know came by and I was introduced as "our pastor." Despite the fact that my name, which was clearly state, is pretty obviously feminine, the man reached past me to shake my husband's hand just as I stood up to shake his, which ended up with his open hand colliding with my left breast.

    And that has nothing to do with your question except that we won't always know people's expectations and motivations until they're revealed, sometimes in awkward ways.

    So the first time a person responds inappropriately, I give him/her the benefit of the doubt and say something like, "The qualifications for my job aren't physical" or "Our denomination was among the first to ordain women." It's possible they just don't know and/or just awkward in social interactions.

    If it happens again with the same person, though, I make very clear that we won't be talking about physical appearance or whatever because my role in my public relationships is to address spiritual issues. I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable (well, not most people anyway), but I'm not fulfilling my responsibilities to God if I allow myself and my calling to be treated disrespectfully.

    And I hesitate to bring this up, but the few times something similar has happened to me (never having to do with anyone being astounded by my beauty, alas), I've used the opportunity to reflect on how I'm presenting myself, depending on the situation. We have a right to dress and act as we wish, but there are times when the costs outweigh the benefits.

  5. I think 'too pretty' is an outrageous thing to say. This is about the normative white male heterosexual married man enjoying an invisible sexuality. Anyone else stepping into the pulpit wears their sexuality on their sleeve, whether they like it or not. It's an outcome of western patriarchal culture.

    Some examples: when women were first ordained, people were supposed to have been wondering 'I wonder if she has her period?' I heard of one minister who stopped wearing earrings in the pulpit because of comment from a male colleague about earrings and prostitutes. When the issue of ordination of gay ministers was being discussed in our denomination, I heard an elderly man say 'I just can't help thinking about what he might have been doing the night before'.

    The comment about being too pretty is, in my view, part of this picture, but with additional weight of being diminishing, like you're just a little girl. It says that if a woman is beautiful she ought not to be so audacious as to use her brain in public. Be pretty or clever, not both.

    Of course none of this helps in the moment, except to be strong, not to be embarrassed and say whatever asserts your place as pastor. "Peace be with you" has worked well for me.

    1. Great examples - there is a double standard at work here.

    2. This is a fantastic and insightful assessment of what is at play here. Thanks so much for these good examples!

  6. It's not just a question of whether a pastor can be "too pretty" or "too sexy" -- it's that someone feels like it is acceptable to verbalize that judgment to you personally! "Anonymous" above said that this could be a harassment issue -- and it is. I think a two-sided view of this - 1) that the person needs to be "schooled" on what is appropriate/inappropriate to say (TO ANY PERSON) and 2) that the pastor may need to seriously edit what is publicly seen on Facebook. That includes pictures of progeny (whenever they come along).

    It's really hard to rise above these kinds of comments. Are people so petty that they get stuck on your external image? Well, yes. They are that petty. But as Sister PeaceBang says, "You're in the public eye. And God knows you need to look good."

    I'm far past the age of "boobalicious" (more like sag-a-licious) but I do make an effort to not show cleavage or wear things which are too tight. And I consider, even when I'm only going to the grocery, what I'm wearing and so on. Because sure as shootin if I have on my exercise pants and a tank top, someone will see me with the many "reasons" for my exercising, flapping away.

    In response to comments which are out of line, I either use a smidge of sarcasm with my humor, "Umm... ookkay." and "Wow. Thanks. I think." to silence (which can be seen as avoidance) to direct responses "That's really not OK for you to say to me."

    One final thought - I'm not advocating female pastors wear a burka or deny that they have God-given curves. But I think it is appropriate to think about how "much" of those curves are in the public view. I don't want my body to overshadow what I want to live out by my example. I would say the same thing to a male counterpart who picks the "sexayy" outfits for his pulpit or appointments.

    1. These are all great thoughts, and thank you for sharing them. But the last question does make me genuinely curious - what would be considered a "sexy" outfit for our male counterparts? Truly, short of going shirtless, I don't know what a man could do that would be considered "dressing sexy."

    2. So I wonder if this is a patriarchal left-over? Because I'm not coming up with anything for your average female. But maybe I'm not average! :)

    3. Ack. I mean "for your average female ogling male pastors." Sigh. Where's the coffee??? :P

  7. it is about justice and that was not is harassment. I am a woman of very good humor. I can ease in and out of conflicts and I am not afraid of them...but I am so very tired of this blatant sexism. Maybe it goes both ways...I don't hear it from the other side, so I don't know, but wow...and then to hear that the senate blocked the pay equity is a never ending battle for justice and equality, even in this 1/3 world....just imagine the battle in the 2/3 world. Until we change our response to these kinds of comments and until we confront them head on, they will never change. Until we stop accepting these comments at humorous or even a compliment they will continue to hold us back. We indeed are sexual beings but we are powerful intelligent and intellectual spiritual beings with values and ethics and intellect and a voice...let's put them together...too sexy? No way...never....Not sexy enough...I am sexual...I am intellectual...I am who God has created me to don't be so surprised or shocked...maybe is what we need to do! Be bodacious!

  8. Our original questioner writes:
    Thanks for the comments. Very helpful advice.
    Many of the comments I get (and this isn't something that happens every day, btw) come from people who aren't in my parish. From other pastors. From people who knew me from college. Occasionally with people from church, but those are actually the easiest to deal with.

    1. So, if it's other pastors? That's either a very creepy way of hitting on you (if they are men/women attracted to women) or a mean girl way of putting you down (if they are straight women). Either way it's harassment. I hate that for you.
      And if it's people from college, I think you chalk that up to the average person's ignorance of the full range of people called to ministry. Ignore it. If it comes on Facebook and is provocative, you can hide the thread from your timeline. Facebook is ephemeral. You have no responsibility for keeping every post and comment on your page visible to the universe.


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