Image Credit: Samantha Steiner
I awoke on my baptism day to an impending panic attack. It crept in slowly, settled into the pit of my stomach and sent shockwaves throughout my body. It was a familiar feeling—I experienced it every Sunday morning. It mounted as I religiously sifted through my clothes in desperate pursuit of something to wear. My hair posed my greatest challenge—I wore it out in an afro and its presence during the day depended on the extensive work I’d put into it the previous night. I was even more worried because: should I bother going through the motions of styling it when I knew it would just shrink shortly after I emerged from the water? However, if I chose not to style it, I would open myself to the usual incessant barrage of comments I got about my hair, that it was “messy” or “unkempt.” I was so entrenched in the throes of conducting a SWOT analysis on how to wear my hair that I seemed to be missing the importance of that day—this was supposed to be a monumental occasion for my spiritual growth yet it was marred by feelings of inadequacy for my physical body.
I arrived at the baptism site—a swimming pool at a hotel—to a sea of my church members dressed in white. The entire experience was live-streamed and recorded for posterity’s sake. As I waited for the ceremony to begin, I should have been praying but all I could think about was what my hair would look like outside of the water, if my white clothing would be see-through, if anyone would notice these things, if anyone would comment on these things, and how I was to disguise my feelings about constantly being commented on.
Ana went first. Two pastors held her on either side and one of them went through the rites with her. She accepted Jesus and into the water she went. When they brought her back up, the force of her ascension knocked her wig clean off her head. We all laughed at the moment, one of the pastors made a joke about the cleansing power of Jesus, the other made a joke about women and their incessant pursuit of beauty. Both pastors were male.
Susan went next, she’d just gotten her hair crocheted—a fresh set with extensions that had definitely been expensive, the workmanship probably even more so. She tied the mass of hair like a pineapple and pleaded with the pastors for them to submerge her only as far as the top of her head. They complied. Again, more jokes from the pastors, a sigh, a humorous shake of the head, “Women and their hair.”
My turn came next. I went, happy that I had worn my hair natural. I was now to become a new creation, one with Christ. I emerged from water, happy, my mind too occupied by what this meant to me to notice that my hair hung heavy with moisture. I toweled off, changed, and rushed to the church quickly afterwards to get some last-minute cleaning done for the scheduled post-baptism meeting. As I diligently vacuumed the church’s lustrous blue carpet, I tried not to fret about my hair—surely a congregation of black people would understand that natural black hair shrinks after contact with water, surely they would notice that I had no time after the baptism to do anything because I had to rush down here to start cleaning the church? Besides, I wanted to relish in that post-baptized glow, reflecting on the step I’d taken in my life. After the meeting, I struck up a conversation with one of the male leaders in the church (he’d been one of the pastors to help with the baptism) to discuss plans going forwards—scriptures to meditate on, prayers to say. Finally, to end our conversation, he looked at my hair and said, with great conviction and a smile on his face, “What a lovely rat’s nest.” My heart shattered like glass on concrete. I’d been waiting for him to say something. He always did. I smiled and laughed and apologized, like I had been socially groomed to do whenever someone (a man) upset me. He walked away and I stood there, the fresh excitement I’d had about my Christian life blew away in the wind. I still bear a wound from that day.
I have often tried to pretend that that comment was an isolated incident but I know better; it wasn’t born in a vacuum. I have never felt more gazed at, incessantly scrutinized and judged for my physical appearance than in the house of the Lord. I have spent more time thinking about my clothes, hair, makeup, and weight than my spiritual well being and this obsession with how I look has come to infect my mental health which in turn has been devastating for my spiritual growth. This hyperscrunity of physical appearance was reserved solely for women in the church. Whenever there was a meeting held about clothing, we all knew it was the women who were being spoken to.
I have gleaned but a handful of some of the numerous comments I have received. Some were directed towards me while others were aimed at the general population of women. Some were from leaders, some were from members of the congregation, all were intended as some form of control.
“I hope you have something planned for your hair, you can’t come with us looking like a bushrat.”
“You’re lazy with your face.”
“You don’t know how beautiful you are, if you’d only do XYZ.”
“Maybe if you covered your hair and showed your legs more often, you’d be married by now.”
“You wear your hair like you have no ambition.”
“It’s like the young girls in this church don’t have mirrors.”
“Next time, make sure you blend out that makeup and that your wig actually lays flat on your head.”
“I’m coming to your house before service tomorrow: I don’t want to see you in church with your hair looking all puffy.”
“Your makeup will scare away men!”
“The fact that they don’t respect you is your own fault— you dress too casually.”
“Why are you always covering yourself with baggy clothes?”
“That skirt is too short.”
These comments left me with an acute self-awareness that stirred restlessness and general dis-ease. Someone was always going to say something and I had to pre-empt what they would say by not doing things that would invite their comments but I was quickly learning that was impossible. In a society that weighs women’s worth of how they look, I was not enjoying having to deal with these comments in a sacred space, the helplessness I felt at not having any control of my body, my self devoured me daily. I was trying to grow into myself and accept my body but I was being handed a laundry list of unwritten beauty rules. These made me hyperaware of my body in any given context. During a service, I once sat behind one of the men in our church and noticed that his ass-crack and much more was showing from the top of his pants and didn’t care. I was filled with envy and resentment that someone could be allowed to be so unaware of how his body looked to the world that he could sit through an entire service mooning everyone behind him. If he had been female, if he had been me, someone would have boldly come up to me and yanked something down or pulled something up. But nobody did that for him—society is welcome to infringe on the time and bodily autonomy of women, but never men’s.
High heels are deemed necessary church attire and I despise this. I complied for a time even though I thought it was ridiculous for it to be implied mandatory to wear shoes that required me to have another pair of shoes (at the end of a church service, all the women are in flats or slippers, most only kept their heels on while they were on the pulpit for whatever task they were assigned). I gave up on this in favor of experimenting with gender-neutral clothing and Oxford shoes. I admired the slightly androgynous look, that was, of course, until a male leader with a fondness for using the female body as allegory, metaphor, simile, and metonymy, took to the pulpit to describe how the transformation rendered by the Blood of Jesus sets us apart and makes us do things we never thought possible so we don’t make excuses: “It doesn’t matter that you feel you can’t walk in high heels, you wear the high heels.”
This was nothing short of a personal attack because, in our small congregation, there was only one woman who was not wearing high heels and being very vocal about her decision to do so (and, in the same spirit of Pygmalion and Galatea, this speaker had often openly expressed to me how he wished to reenact My Fair Lady on me, sans the romance). This unashamed obsession with women’s appearance led me not to attend an outside church event because I knew he would say something about my hair and I wanted to spare myself the hurt. I deserved a break—he could have his jabs on Sundays but I wanted my Saturday to myself.
Perhaps the most insidious way that women are objectified is this near-constant reminder that women are to be married. To compliment how nicely I was dressed one day, someone said, “You look like somebody’s wife.” I was reminded how I had to ‘go out there and be found.’ Whenever we spoke about marriages, it was, “Brother Joe was walking through our flower garden and he found the most beautiful flower and he has humbly asked that it be given to him.” This was supposed to be sweet.
I once went to visit the household of an elder within the church who had promised he would assist me with my novel. When I arrived, I found out that he had a cold and as such had lost his voice so he couldn’t really help me, however, he still had enough vocal strength to deliver a sermon long message about how I should accept the unwanted advances of some guy in our congregation. I didn’t want to be with that person because we wouldn’t be compatible—I clocked him as soon as I saw him, he had no ambitions, he would be dead weight. The elder pressed me and said that I could spur the ambition in him i.e. he wanted that relationship to reenact the narrative trope of the wife who doubles as a mother and caretaker to teach her husband how to have initiative. I fucking hate that narrative. Later, while addressing the general population during Bible study, the elder said, “You know, these young people think that they’re supposed to get the perfect spouse. It’s because they’re young and think they have so many options. If they were older they’d just accept what they got.”
When I spoke about this and the slew of other comments to someone in higher office, he told me that the other man was just joking around because of the rapport we had established. He apologized on the man’s behalf and advised me not to read so heavily into situations, basically he was trying to tell me that a cigar is just a cigar. There is a blatant hypocrisy in the fact that I, as a Christian, must be hypervigilant to the devices of the enemy (2 Corinthians 2:11) because the devil is like a prowling lion seeking whom he may devour (1st Peter 5:8) so I must be able to uncover the hidden meanings and think critically about the world around me, but a man’s dogged obsession with how I look in a beauty sick culture that defines women by their decorative qualities is just him ‘joking around.’
There is also a distinct hypocrisy in teaching that every person is responsible for their own salvation and must work it out knowing that they will be the only one to answer to their sins (Philippians 2:12) and then having a male leader (the one with a fondness for female body as allegory) teach you that women are responsible for the men in the church via their clothing: “If a man walks into a church and sees well-dressed beautiful women, he is more likely to stay and join the congregation. Women make or break a church.”
I wanted to challenge him when he said that, I had had enough. But I was too scared and small. The Bible is littered with women who spoke out of turn and are only remembered for the punishments rendered upon them for their insolence. In that moment I realized that the day God made me female, He made me an enemy. In that moment I realized that the day God made me female, He became my enemy.
My pastor is a woman. She is blessed with the gift of prophecy and her tongue is anointed with a righteous flame. God knew that what I needed was for Her word to filtered through a female avatar. Her life story is the epitome of the phrase, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Her father, a respected and decorated elder of their church, had adamantly refused to let her further her education under the reasoning: “What’s the point of sending a girl to school? They’re just going to go get pregnant. It’s a waste of money.” She, incensed by this edict, educated herself – she bought the books she needed for the exams and did them. She is currently working on a Master’s degree.
She was invited to be a guest speaker at a sister church and the entire congregation poured out in support. That church’s pulpit was slippery, made of a slick material perfect for flat shoes but wholly inhospitable to high heels. Nobody would have known this, of course, because that church’s pastor was a man. When my pastor made her entrance, she nearly slipped but quickly caught herself and changed into the flats that all women are taught to have on hand. She delivered a powerful message that day. There was, however, something to say about how distressing it was to watch a woman with enough kinetic energy to set a crowd ablaze for Christ nearly fall because of those God damned high heels.
It is protocol in our church for the congregation and church leaders to stand during the high points of a speaker’s sermon (like giving snaps at a spoken word event). During a weeklong service, my pastor stood in those high heels for every service, for several hours at a time. After each service she would also do her duties as pastor – making sure that the guest speakers were taken care of, delegating tasks to everyone, ensuring that the space is fit for the next round of services, etc. The following week when I went to visit her, she mentioned how her back was badly hurting from standing in those high heels. It didn’t register as a complaint, she saw it as a fact of her life. I felt sympathy for her and a slow silent rage at the salient objectification of women in this holy space. I just wished I could explain that the messages that validate women based solely on their appearance breed the same toxic thinking that a woman doesn’t deserve to be educated because she is essentially breeding chattel.
In Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, Renee Engeln, Ph.D., posits that women’s clothing tends to be highly restrictive and often serves to take away our attention from our tasks. My pastor preaches in heels that often get kicked off during the climax of her service, none of the male preachers have to bear this same problem. The heels are a symbol of society’s need to see women as decorative, our lives are a performance for the pleasure of others – why else would women only wear the heels when they were walking around for others to see them then quickly switch to flats?
Male bodies and female bodies are not judged on appearance in the same way. My pastor extensively plans her outfits in advance because she knows that if she wears a dress too frequently, people will mentally register it and silently judge her (and all our services are recorded so there will be physical proof). Her husband, with whom she color matches, only has to wear a suit and change his tie sometimes, his only worry is that his wife wears pink too often. He takes comfort in knowing nobody is looking at him that way, all he has to do is press his suit and he is the epitome of polished manhood.
I often feel that the pulpit is wholly wedded to the pornified pop culture through which we swim. I see no difference between Kanye West demanding I strip down and shake my ass for his pleasure and a male pastor’s constant request for modesty, but apparently not too much modesty because then how would I be expected to attract male suitors. Both factions demand something of my female body and I can only navigate within these narrow confines. What is appropriate church attire for women? High heels only entered mainstream because of porn and now they permeate church culture but a corset worn as a fashion accessory is too extreme for the Sanctuary. Who decides what is canon? Women’s bodies are expected to toe the line between male pleasure and male disgust. The male gaze dictates.
Last year, my Apostle delivered a word at a church event. I am very bad at remembering sermons from the week before yet this one has lingered with me. He spoke on the anger broiling within Moses when he saw the Israelites being treated mercilessly by their captors. He said,
“Anger is an indication that God has called you to correct something. The fact that it rouses you to anger should spur you to action. Anger is not inherently evil.”
This was the first time I had ever heard someone with spiritual authority speak so consciously and candidly about anger. We despise anger so much that we mistake passion for anger then demonize that anger to bully dissent into silence.
I have been away from my congregation for an extended period of time—I am currently attending Sarah Lawrence College for my second master’s degree, a creative writing MFA—and as such haven’t been embroiled in this constant awareness. I have spent more time dissecting bell hooks, Flannery O’Connor, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie than worrying whether my lipstick wiped off when I took that sip of water then obsessing about who else has noticed it. I didn’t realize when that armor of hyper-surveillance peeled off. Also, it should be noted that I am staunch academic and feminist, I always have been, but it is difficult to maintain ideals in very homogenous environments (to accurately quote Sartre, hell is other people).
One particular Sunday, I decided to pay Jesus a visit, during the afternoon service. I spent the morning writing an essay that demanded my attention and only forcefully tore myself away from my desk when I realized I’d be late for the service if I didn’t leave now. As I got dressed, all I could think about was the essay—I remembered how I have this habit of overusing certain words because I am fond of them (my newest favorites are profundity because it sounds so silly and quandary because it makes me think of math). My mind was wholly wrapt in words and writing until my feet were out the door. I remember that drive to church—it’s a two-hour straight shot drive and I kept my mind busy listening to Peggy Orenstein narrate Girls and Sex. When I was thirty minutes away I suddenly became hyper-aware of my appearance – I wasn’t dressed for church. It’s not that I was slovenly—I was wearing a silk summer dress and a pair of sandals and my hair was in my trademark buzz cut—but I wasn’t decorative enough. I wasn’t wearing any jewelry or makeup. I had hit a threshold where I realized that I would be returning to a space with a gaze, a gaze that I had long forgotten after spending so long away from it. The inadequacies of old came flooding back full force and it made me realize just how much we need to assess what should be canon in church culture.
In my reverence to God and fear of the unknown, I had become permissive. I journeyed to a land overflowing with milk and that same honied misogyny that I have come to expect and accept from within the body of Christ despite it being a latent lasting poison. I mourn all the minutes I wasted worrying about how I looked to others while I worshipped the Lord instead of actually worshipping the Lord with reverence.
I attended the service that day in my sundress and sandals surrounded by women dressed to the nines in their performative gear. I remembered myself when I used to partake in this performance of hyper-femininity that left me scathed and exhausted.
Scripture states that my body is a temple. This same scripture is often weaponized to shame women. I wish for my body to be my home. One I can feel safe in. One I can feel comfortable in. Let me render my prayers in peace.
Bracy Appeikumoh is a Sarah Lawrence College Creative Writing (Speculative Fiction) MFA candidate who writes to imagine a world wholly different from our own. She explores issues such as sexuality, gaze theory, the subversive effects of fandom culture, and internet culture. Also a nerd. Find her on Twitter @bybracy. Humor her by visiting her website appeikumoh.carrd.co. You’ll get a cookie.