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What Not to Wear: Church Edition?

August 19, 2013

I had started to believe that we church folk had moved beyond judging one another’s clothing choices.  Clearly, I was wrong. 

In the past two months, I’ve heard enough snippy remarks about “those young people” and the clothes they wear to church that I could have scripted an entire season of What Not to Wear: Church Edition.  And I’m not just talking about remarks made in my own congregation – I’m talking about things I’ve overheard in other churches and in restaurants during the Sunday lunch hour.  I’m also talking about myself.

Sometimes while on vacation I visit other places to get my worship on and see what other folks are doing.  Just yesterday, as I walked up the steps to visit another place of worship, I saw a young woman in a skirt that was slit way up in the back.  I mean, waaaaaaay up.  Her rear end wasn’t exposed, but one wrong move could easily have changed that.  And boy howdy did I start judging.

You may have heard these things before (or thought them yourself):

  • “What is she thinking leaving the house in that, let alone wearing that to CHURCH!?”
  • “What are her parents thinking?  ARE they thinking?”
  • “You’d think that people would KNOW what is APPROPRIATE to wear to worship!”
  • “If only girls today had more respect for themselves and their bodies…”

Now, here’s the funny thing: when people have said these sorts of things about kids in any one of the youth groups I’ve served, my immediate reaction is to shut them down. I tell folks we should be glad those young ones are here, no matter what they wear.  I tell them that I won’t be a part of shaming young women and men for their bodies or their clothing choices. I explain that the judgments we make about women’s clothing are directly linked to the victim blaming that often accompanies sexual assault and rape.  I advise them to get to know the young people in question, because if they do, they will discover that health problems have caused the weight gain that makes clothing snug, that tight finances mean wearing clothes that no longer fit “properly”, that those jean shorts and t-shirt really are the nicest outfit a young one owns.

And yet, in a situation where I don’t know the teen, I catch myself making the same unhelpful judgments.  Oh, what a hypocrite I can be!

But enough is enough.

If you don’t have a real relationship with a teenager in your faith community, you don’t have a right to make statements about his choice in clothing…and neither do I.  In relationship, I can begin to discover who this teen really is: what she cares about, who and how she loves, what motivates her and what makes her feel defeated, how she dreams and works for a future, how she hurts when no one is looking.  I can begin to appreciate her full humanity, instead of seeing her as an object – a mannequin – dressed in a particular style of clothing.  In relationship, I also build the credibility and trust to begin having conversations about clothing, embodiment, self-image and self-esteem in ways that are compassionate instead of judgmental, loving instead of shaming, and mutual instead of unilateral.

Outside of real relationship I lack any necessary context for understanding the person or outfit in question.  For example, with the young woman I observed on the church steps, I know NOTHING about her.  Though she walked in with her family, I don’t know them or what they value.  I don’t know the circles they run in, the professions they choose, the schools they attend.  I don’t know where she plans to attend college, what event she was attending after worship, when or if she was baptized, or which family member helped her choose and purchase her outfit.  I don’t know that she attends 2 Bible studies or none at all.  I don’t know that she’s a Girl Scout or a cheerleader or a member of the math club.  Hell, I don’t even know her name.  And even if I did know her name, even if over the years I’d observed her from five pews back as she grew from a curly-haired cherub of a child into this young woman, if I’m not in real relationship with her then I don’t have the right to comment. 

Outside of real relationship, the judgments I make about this beloved child of God are more about me than about her. They are about my assumptions, my prejudice, my tastes, my beliefs and my own sense of shame. Outside of real relationship, if I judge and grouse and complain about what she’s wearing, I’m acting like a jerk.  And so are you.

We all become jerks when God’s house is closed to those who don’t have the right wardrobes.  That’s not church, that’s a country club.
If we strive to be about right-relationship more than we’re about the “right” hem lengths and start loving each other better…we’ll start acting like the Church again.

Let’s be Church, y’all.

*NOTE*  Though I write primarily about the judgments we make about young people, I’ve heard remarks about people of all ages and the choices they make in church clothing.  Too sexy, too frumpy, too loud, too shabby…these labels get thrown at adults too.  And they’re just as wrong.  We’ve got to cut it out, people.  Myself included.

*SECOND NOTE*  In response to the question of a dear friend, I am not advocating judgment WITHIN relationship.  My hope is that when we enter into real relationship (and start doing the hard work that is a part of that), the temptation to judge will turn into a desire to talk, know, understand and, if necessary, hold accountable in a way that is loving instead of all those other alternatives (a way that allows the other person to say “I disagree, and here’s why…”).  Also, while I’m at it, I recognize that this may rub folks of certain generations the wrong way.  After all, if you were raised in a time/manner in which church dress was all about respect for the sacred, it is obviously difficult to let particular styles of dress slide. We’re all welcome to think what we think and feel what we feel, and some of our most deeply held views may never change.  But let’s give others the benefit of the doubt and not assume that their choice of clothing is made out of malice or disrespect, acknowledging that we don’t know their heart, mind or difficulties.

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