Thursday, July 25, 2013

Clergy, Women, and Weight

"Men are pigs."

That was my response to a male clergy person when he said, "I don't understand what happened. Christianity is an incarnational faith.  We take the body seriously. I think that something changed once women went to seminary."

We were discussing issues related to clergy health including our higher than normal rate of obesity. I was so surprised by what he said, that I wanted to shock him back.

In reflecting on this conversation, I know my response was not very thoughtful. Offended by the implication that somehow the mere presence of women among the clergy had removed a theological emphasis on the body, I wanted in that moment was to shock him.  Still, I was trying to communicate an ongoing dynamic within ministry for women clergy.

For those first women who entered the ordained ministry, their very presence probably did change many things about ministry. They were surrounded by men, many of whom didn't want them there. By the time I entered seminary in the late 80s, the numbers were shifting. The seminary I attended was about 30% female at the time.  Although female students were accepted as part of the "norm," certain attitudes still pervaded. Comments from fellow students included the stereotype of the "ugly woman preacher" saying that the women in seminary were there because, "God was the only one who would have them."

As a single young woman attending seminary and working in churches, I had to figure out how to navigate new dynamics. Figuring out new boundaries as I interacted with fellow students and with male parishioners, was challenging. Just because you set a boundary, doesn't mean that the person on the other side of that line will respect it. More than once, I experienced uncomfortable comments or gestures from men.

For me, "men are pigs" meant men objectify women. Our culture objectifies women's bodies. Women are viewed as sexual object, and clergywomen are not an exception. Whether I realized it or not in my twenties, one of the ways that I dealt with this objectification was to put on weight as an insulator from any unwanted attention.

The conversation is complex and the issues are not easy to unravel. Our psychological self is tied to our theological understanding as well as our physical health but wrapped up in all of this is our sexuality.  And that last piece is what I think throws us off balance as clergy persons, particularly as clergy persons who are female.

For those of us who are overweight, does losing weight somehow equate to becoming more attractive?  Would that mean attracting unwanted attention?  How do we 'unwrap' weight loss from the idea of sexual attractiveness and instead marry it to the idea of self-care and health?


Barbara Mosley said...

The majority of my weight gain occurred before I entered the ministry. I've had little success taking off any excess weight.

I realize that weight loss would provide many health benefits as well as allow me to feel better about my looks. As clergy, I believe I should set an example for moderation, discipline, and good health. I'm not providing a good example.

Our bodies are wonderfully created by God. We should honor God by keeping our bodies healthy and this includes maintaining our weight and BMI within acceptable ranges. For me, weight loss goals are tied to self-care and health, not sexual attractiveness.

Thanks for this blog. You've inspired me to do some serious thinking about why I continue to sabotage my weight loss efforts.

Barbara M

the blogger said...

Over the last 3 years and 3 months (yes, I'm counting), I've been asking God to guide me in making changes to my lifestyle that will bring me to a higher level of healthfulness. One change at a time, bad habits are being conquered and being replaced by healthy ones. This spring, I had a great breakthrough and finally left the category of "morbid obesity"! Since that time I have been free from the idea that I was "stuck" and have consistently lost at least a pound weekly (my minimum goal).

The results of my losing just 48 pounds so far have surprised me. I need to lose about this many more, but have already had to purge my closet two times, each time getting rid of a full garbage bag of clothes. I am able to wear more attractive clothes and shoes. I have more choices! Soon I will be in "normal" sizes and will get to make many more choices. I am able to walk without the pain I had before in my joints. I am able to worship with more freedom and movement.

You ask "does losing weight somehow equate to becoming more attractive?" It can... and that can be a good thing. For a long time, I wanted to fade into the woodwork, to be invisible... now I sense that God is inviting me to step up into visibility and to be comfortable with who I am. As my hourglass figure returns, my healthfulness increases, and my confidence builds, I am able to more completely express God's interest in wholeness and holiness to the world and the church.

In terms of presenting ourselves as healthy persons concerned with self-care rather than promoting the obectification or sexualization of the body, I believe that comes through intentional modesty. As I am losing weight, I am wearing more tops with open necklines, but I am unlikely to choose a top that shows any amount of cleavage. If needed, I carry a shawl or wear a scarf. My hem line has moved up, but not past the knee - my preference will always be longer. I'm having fun with new styles... hair, make-up, jewelry, but want to present myself in a way that is honoring of the presence of God and of the people of God and not compromising to the work that we are called to.

Marjorie Palmer said...

There is probably nothing we women can do to change the way men view women, no matter what our shape. On the other hand I am very much for modest dressing. (I think our Moslem sisters look askance at many women in the western world and wonder WHY are they exposing themselves so blatantly!)
I lost 55 pounds 11 years ago, and I was very pleased with the results-- fitting nicely into size 10s, hourglass form. Two doctors told me I didn't need to lose any more weight, so I stopped the diet. (I was counting every calorie I took in every day. I allowed myself 1500/day.) Unfortunately, I've found too many of the lost pounds, due to the fact that they sneak back on. I never thought what sort of plan I should use to maintain the weight loss.
As bearers of the gospel message we women need to think what is the most respectful way of presenting ourselves to the world. (The world is watching us and judging our message, somewhat, by our appearance.)

Carol Gullatt said...

Sorry, folks. I was previously signed in as "the blogger" and did not mean to leave an anonymous comment.