On Getting Dressed
Karen Smith stands in front of the mirror in the 10th outfit option of the last 20 minutes.
She notices the slimming way that the jeans hug her thighs. She’s lost more weight recently since the birth of her second child, and people are really beginning to notice. She has just weaned the baby, and any post-partum woman will attest to the effect that nursing a child has on your physiology. Suffice it to say that her blouses fit differently than they did before. There is a greater need for propriety and coverage today so as to not attract unwanted attention.
Unwanted attention. These words echo in Karen’s mind as she pulls off the 10th pair of jeans and trades them in for some trousers. The trousers are looser on her thighs and button higher at the waist. This way she can pair them with a tunic top and blazer and still have her bum covered. Yes, this is the solution, she thinks. As Karen reaches for the tunic to cover her bum in the high-waisted trousers, her eyes drift back to her favorite pair of jeans collecting dust in the corner. She wore them last to a ministers network meeting at a nearby megachurch a couple weeks ago.
As she walked in she was greeted by a man in his 60s. He was hosting the meeting and inquired as to who Karen was. Karen told him her name and title and as she spoke she noticed that the man began to look around. He was no longer making eye contact with her at all as he asked which one of the men there was her husband. Karen told him that none of the men present were her husband. The elder man, clearly confused, asked, “Where is your husband?” Karen supposed her husband was at work, although she couldn’t be sure since she hadn’t spoken with him since that morning. She continued in her explanation of her role and ministry and experience, reaching desperately for his comprehension. Before she could finish her speech something clearly dawned on the man. As he realized that she was in fact the minister there to attend the network meeting, he interrupted her by grabbing her elbow and tilting his head back in a jovial laugh, blurting out in a tone louder than the medium hum of everyone else’s conversations, “Well aren’t you beautiful. Just beautiful.” And then he gently and paternally patted Karen’s cheek as he walked off to commence the meeting.
Karen reasoned that she did look quite young that day. And perhaps it was confusing. She was at least five to 10 years younger than any of the other ministers there, and certainly young enough to be this man’s daughter. But still, she felt demeaned and overlooked. Misunderstood and embarrassed.
This memory is interrupted by the present reality that this tunic top is not going to work. She needs more structure. She needs to look professional, not like a teenager. She will be teaching from the book of John to over 100 people. She sighs deeply and re-enters the chamber. This is what her closet feels like. She’s trapped. Trapped by her wardrobe and trapped by her body.
Like most women, there are many times when Karen wishes she looked different. Most women want to be prettier, skinnier, or more fashionable. Karen finds herself wishing herself less pretty than the reflection in the mirror. Perhaps if her eyes were less blue, hair less blonde, and body less curvy, then her clothes would talk less (too short, too long, too tight, too loose, too young, too old). She is quite sure that if she were not an attractive young woman she would not have dealt with the situation that occurred this past Sunday. As she separates the hangers of the dry cleaned, color coordinated blouses from each other and moves them down on the clothing rod, Karen recalls her most recent turn on the Sunday morning greeting rotation.
While Karen stood in the lobby, a long-time member walked up to her. Smiling proudly, he said, “I’m so glad they hired someone pretty for this job” (wink, wink). Karen was stunned and spent the rest of the pre-service time in her office. She wasn’t sure why she couldn’t shake the feeling of being dirty and exposed. As she sat in her office she refused to be some old man’s eye candy and entertainment. No thank you, she told herself.
As she scours the floor of her closet looking for a matching shoe, Karen realizes it is men like the one on Sunday who make her want to look attractive but not too attractive. The blouse she selects in lieu of the tunic top is a simple button-down that falls longer in the back.
The dichotomies present in one outfit feel suffocating. How is she supposed to look attractive but not too attractive, skinny but not too skinny, fashionable but not young, professional but not boring, and tidy but not expensive? Oh dear, are those shoes too expensive? If she wore them, would people think she was bragging? Are they bragging shoes? Maybe she’s trying too hard. Exhausted, she sinks to the floor of her chamber, head in hands. She remembers that the last time she felt accused of trying too hard was the fundraising dinner. She cringes as she thinks back to that night, and frustration and self-loathing begin to rise and fall in her chest.
Karen had spent six months—and countless hours within those months—preparing for this dinner. It consumed her life, her time, and her staff’s resources. This was the dinner that made all of the summer plans financially possible. This was the dinner that could establish her credibility and leadership. The night of the event, Karen was walking the grounds, mulling carefully over every last-minute adjustment and personally preparing each detail with gentle care. She glanced at the clock. Twenty minutes before guests would arrive. Across the lobby she saw a prominent church member. She knew he would be attending, and she was nervous, honored, humbled, and proud all at the same time. She felt each emotion inflate in her chest and stood a little taller as he approached. She noticed his big smile and bright eyes look her over head to toe. And then he said in an impressed tone, “You are beautiful. I mean, you just look really really nice.” Taken aback, Karen realized that he was commenting on her hair, makeup, and clothes. Karen slowly deflated. He said nothing about her dinner, her hard work, or the detailed presentation all around.
Karen was still trying to recover the pieces of her broken pride even now while making a final decision on today’s outfit. She decides that the shoes she found are not too name brand (and they match so that’s a bonus), that the button-down top is okay because the blazer is structured, and the high-waisted trousers are the safest bet for her teaching time this morning. Her accessories should complete the look.
Outfit completed, confidence hanging on to her hand bag like a thread, Karen walks out the door 20 minutes behind schedule.