This post is part of a series called Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls, which focuses on seeing and naming the image of God in girls. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.
In my last blog post, I wrote about undressing the dress code. I ended that post by exploring the coded word, “appropriate.” What do we really mean when we say something is inappropriate? How do we define it? Theologize it? And how do we speak to our youth without theologizing what are simply cultural norms?
I am concerned about the psyche of the middle school girl who is growing into this new body that she does not recognize. I am concerned about the teen girl that still doesn’t understand the body she is in. I am concerned about the only Black girl in her youth group who wants to wear what her friends wear but doesn’t understand why this popular outfit seems to be problematic only on her body.
Shortly after writing that post, pictures of Patrice Brown, an elementary school teacher, went viral. In these pictures, Ms. Brown is seen in her classroom wearing different outfits such as a sheath dress, an A-line dress, and t-shirt and jeans. Someone narrowed in on particular pictures taken in the classroom and #teacherbae was born. Comments roared in about her unprofessionalism and inappropriate work outfits.
Because of her dress, some questioned her ability to do her job well. You might wonder, how is an A-line or sheath dress inappropriate? What I failed to mention is that Ms. Brown has a curvy figure. So, while the outfits may be in the career section of any woman’s clothing store, they take on new life when seen not on a size 2 mannequin, but a real human body.
Clothes and Bodies
While the initial reaction discussed her inappropriateness, I think the real issue is something deeper. The problem people have is not with her outfits; it’s with her body. I must admit that I write this with hesitation. I don’t want to be yet another voice discussing this woman’s body. But this post is not about Ms. Brown per se as much as it is about the many women and girls who constantly hear the message that their body is inappropriate.
I am concerned about the psyche of the middle school girl who is growing into this new body that she does not recognize. I am concerned about the teen girl that still doesn’t understand the body she is in. I am concerned about the only Black girl in her youth group who wants to wear what her friends wear but doesn’t understand why this popular outfit seems to be problematic only on her body. My goal is to create nurturing and liberative spaces for these girls who live in a world that is constantly telling them that their bodies—which they did not choose and cannot change—are inappropriate.
When I was a teenager, I was told by an older gentleman that I should stop wearing one of my favorite outfits because my breasts were too big. He had seen me wear the outfit a few times and finally thought that he had to tell me to stop. He meant no harm, but helped cause quite a bit.
In short, I’d heard the message loud and clear: My body was problematic. So I had to find ways to fix it—and by extension, fix me. I internalized that for a very long time.
I really began to hate those blasted things on my chest. It was bad enough that these large breasts had seemed to develop overnight and change the way I had to do different physical activities, or that I didn’t know why all of a sudden I was popular with the boys who would never again look me in the eyes. Now I couldn’t even wear clothes I liked? I had already given up anything that showed even a small amount of cleavage, but now even being fully covered was not enough.
I began to find ways to minimize my breasts in ways that were not healthy. Had I been aware of duct tape, I might well have taped them down. In short, I’d heard the message loud and clear: My body was problematic. So I had to find ways to fix it—and by extension, fix me. I internalized that for a very long time. I realize that I still internalize it in the present tense, such as when, after trying on three outfits for a work event, I ask my husband “Does this make me look too much like a hussy?” (despite being an arguably conservative dresser). I ask this jokingly but also in part seriously, because it is hard to silence the voices that that have taken up residence in my head. I want to help girls evict these unhealthy voices before they get a chance to unpack themselves and stay a while.
Is This Really a Problem?
Some may read this and think: “Is it really that serious? Just dress for your body type!” The issue is actually more complicated than that. Curvy women are often taken less seriously in professional or formal settings, simply for being curvy. This is even more the case for Black women, who live with the legacy of having their bodies exploited and considered “exotic” or seen as a vixen merely because these bodies differ from what is considered to be the norm. Simply relying on the “what not to wear” discussion misses the mark.
We, as a society, like to pretend that it is about agency—why does she choose to dress like that? But it is actually about denying agency—it’s her body, not her clothes, that is the issue. She has little control over her body. There are embodiments for whom society holds there to be no appropriate clothing. I lived decades of my life in oversized baggy blouses which made me look sloppy and supposedly unprofessional, and still did not hide the size of my chest. It is also, perhaps, not a coincidence, that we are also talking about women who are under-valued by society in other ways as well.
I believe that an embodied pedagogy is imperative if a ministry with girls is to be liberating. Important in this pedagogy is that we appreciate our bodies. We do not shame them, but honor them for the God-given gifts that they are. There is a line to walk here. I realize that people make quick decisions about a female due to her body type, which is a reality over which she has little control. Therefore, it is beneficial to discuss this reality with girls in order that they know how they are being perceived in any role. But then each girl has a choice to make: She can go along with the status quo, cover up, and hide her God-given body. Or she can disrupt the space, realize that God chose to house the imago Dei in her curves, and live into that reality.
Am I saying she should wear whatever she wants? No. I am saying that we need to stop pretending that the conversation is simple.
Rev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. is currently the Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at Drew Theological School. She has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her PhD. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.