Women clergy: Distractingly sexy?

June 30th, 2015

Several weeks ago, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt made the news for his comments about women scientists. The remarks, made at a luncheon in honor of women scientists, included the sentiment that labs should be segregated by gender. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” he said. “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!”

The backlash was swift and fierce, and women scientists took to social media to post pictures of themselves at work — peering through microscopes, collecting samples, and in surgical garb — along with the hashtag #DistractinglySexy. The posts lampooned Dr. Hunt’s comments by showing the real women at work in science in often unglamorous situations and attire, but his comments pointed to a common sentiment, one not relegated to the world of science — that women in a predominantly male field are viewed as a potential distraction because of their sexuality.

As a young, moderately attractive clergywoman, it is a sentiment that has been directed toward me. I’ve been told that I’m “too pretty” to be a priest, as if God only calls women deemed by society to be unattractive. I’ve also been on the receiving end of leering remarks when men expressed their wish that I could be their priest. And anecdotally, I know that other clergywomen have heard the same things. If anything, I’ve probably received fewer comments than my unmarried clergy sisters because of the feeling that my sexuality is somehow safely contained within my marriage.

These sorts of comments unnerved me initially. Should I diminish my appearance by not wearing make-up or styling my hair differently in order to not be a distraction? Even clerical collars and robes can only hide so much. On the flip side, other colleagues have reported being asked by congregants to “do something” with their hair or at least put on some lipstick.

It would seem that there is no right way to be a woman in a leadership position. Pay too much attention to your appearance or follow cultural beauty standards and you’re considered vain or distractingly sexy. Wear your hair short and eschew make-up and you’re disrespectful or not appropriately feminine. The clothes I wear, the cut and color of my hair, and whether or not I wear make-up has virtually nothing to do with the exercise of my ministry as God has called me. In my case, God happened to call a woman who enjoys wearing high heels and red lipstick, and I enjoy expressing myself by wearing bright colors. That is just one way of embodying femininity in ministry.

The problem is rarely with what a woman does or does not wear. Rather, the problem is that women in society are viewed as ornamental. The patriarchal gaze sees women as objects, as consumable, and then judges whether she is desirable or disposable, even if she is wearing personal protective equipment as a scientist or an alb as a minister. If we are found to be distractingly sexy, it is then our burden to carry, our problem to fix, not the man’s. The onus is ours to walk the very thin line of appropriately attractive without being distractingly sexy. We are told to dress based on how men might view us, with no regard for our own comfort or personal expression.

As Psalm 139 reads, we praise God for we are fearfully and wonderfully made, each and every one of us, in all colors, shapes and sizes. For the most part, we have little control over the length of our legs, the size of our breasts or the span of our hips. Women are not made to be distractingly sexy but to praise God with all of our being, and I pray for a day when a professional women’s appearance or dress has as little to do with the respect she commands as a man’s does.

comments powered by Disqus