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August 18, 2010

Ornamental or Instrumental?

I’d been mindlessly flipping through cable channels when I caught a quick glimpse of TV hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly bursting through the doors of an ornate cathedral, followed by a choir singing The Hallelujah Chorus. When my Spidey senses warned me that something was not right, against my better judgment, I lingered.

A young priest, at the front of the sanctuary, was addressing a packed congregation. Though twenty-seven year old Rev. Emily Bloemker had been told that she was speaking to a crowd gathered to fighting extreme poverty—which made me like her immediately—she was actually being featured on the show What Not To Wear and being given $5,000 to go shopping.

Absurd, right?

The big idea of What Not To Wear is that some unsuspecting person, who’s been turned in to the fashion police by someone “who cares,” is humiliated on national TV for wearing last decade’s styles or baggy oversized clothes that are really comfortable. The premise of the show, reflecting what is true of our culture, is that bodies are made to be viewed.

Rather than treating bodies as instrumental, made to actually do stuff, our culture views bodies as ornamental. They’re made for the visual enjoyment of others. To this end, Stacy and Clinton go to an awful lot of trouble to shame victims into looking more attractive for others. Sure, they’ll frame it all kinds of ways, like “having some self-respect” or “treating yourself well” but the bottom line is that we sort of owe it to others to give them something scrumptious upon which to gaze.

We expect this from “reality” cable TV, but it should be different in the church, right?

On most Sunday mornings, in the New Jersey congregation where my 6’5” husband cloaked in a huge black robe served, he stood beside petite senior pastor L’Anni, at 5’4”, draped in a lightweight white alb. They were totally Darth Vader and Princes Leah.

L’Anni wore that white Leah robe for one reason. When she didn’t wear it, many of the comments she received as people filed out of the sanctuary after worship would be about her outfit. As a former robe-wearer myself, I can confirm that this situation actually exists. When the outfit is cloaked, the hair becomes the hot topic of conversation. As I make a mental note to knit some liturgical headwear, I’m forced to wonder if this might not be the reason Paul admonished first century women to keep their heads covered in church. I want to believe it.

We’re in a weird pickle, aren’t we? We don’t really want to be scolded for looking plain, and neither are we thrilled when people’s response to the preaching of the word is, “I love your dress.”

There’s got to be a better way.

Although the Church hasn’t yet offered a compelling expression of bodily discipleship, I am clear that it won’t be achieved by the vote of any ecclesial governing body. Rather, transformation happens as regular women, like you and me and Emily and our friends and neighbors, live into the truth that these bodies were given for relationship with others.

This better way finds expression when we use our eyes and face to reflect the irrefutable worth of another human being who needs to know she matters. It happens when we use our lips to preach the word. It happens when our ears listen really well to someone who hasn’t yet been heard. We agree with God’s valuing of these bodies when we take an infant, or adult, in our arms and pour God’s life-giving waters over him or her. We live into a holy truth when we break bread, and pour wine, and offer gifts to the famished ones God loves. We do it when we kneel to pray and then stand to serve God’s people. We do it, from wheelchairs and hospital beds, when, resting on firm and squishy butts, we pray for others.

Here’s the beauty: other women are liberated from our culture’s nutty enslavement to striving for physical perfection as they set their eyes on other women, like you and like me, using our bodies to be in relationship with God and others. When we don’t go on and on about our particular aesthetic faux pas or how tight our jeans are since the holidays or what we wish we could change about our appearance, we bear witness to a new life-giving way.

As we live into truth, both our bodies and the bodies of others are liberated from being viewed as objects to become the agents of the kingdom. See how that’s a win-win? Suddenly, whether we’re wearing a feminine peach clerical shirt to visit the hospital or grungy jeans to work in the community garden, or vice versa, becomes almost entirely irrelevant.

Thanks be to God.


May it be so, Margot. But not easily. I would say not easily in USA, but fashionistas rule in other parts of the world too. If we could see that bodies are temples of God and houses for the real person, then we could focus on the relational purposes, as well as the gospel purposes, of our bodies.

Great stuff, Margot. This blog prompted a hallway conversation among the women at work between "What Not to Wear" fans and non-fans. The positive side of the show's approach is that they do emphasize what is great about each woman's body--no plastic surgery on that show! If only they would give up trying to convince women to wear heels . . . It's so hard for us to give up wanting to impress others. Thanks for making us think today.

I really like what you're saying here. John Piper says something similar here - a very sound theological opinion on the function of clothing. An excerpt:
Clothes are not meant to make people think about what is under them. Clothes are meant to direct attention to what is not under them: merciful hands that serve others in the name of Christ, beautiful feet that carry the gospel where it is needed, and the brightness of a face that has beheld the glory of Jesus.
The challenge for me is to spend less time on my clothes and makeup on Sunday morning (the object) and more time using the parts of my body that are exposed as insturments for His glory.

Great post.

I love "What Not To Wear" As a Buyer for a Women's boutique, I feel we as Christian Women need to look presentable. I love the way Beth Moore dresses for her seminars. She is fashionable, but not over the top. Would you still go to see her or take her seriously if she look like she just got out of bed. Would you feel like taking your non Christian friends to see her if she looked like the bag lady downtown? NO! We need to look put together/presentable. There is a big difference between being caught up in fashion and being fashionable.
As ambassadors for Christ, we need to look our best, appear approachable and likeable.
That does not mean you need to spend thousands of dollars on top designers or look like you walked of the cover of Nordstroms catalog. Please take the time to look your best. Make sure you are wearing the right size and style of clothes that fit your figure. Makeup is OK! Just don't over do. A little concealer and blush go a long way.

It is wrong to laugh at someone just because she is wearing a disastrous outfit. But it's never wrong to wear something that would make you look good. Something that would make you look presentable. Dressing appropriately is the way to go. When applying for a job, you would want to look good so you would be able to give your employer a good impression about you. And when you dress nicely, people would give you respect and not judge you wrongly.

Being a fan of What Not To Wear, I want to simply say that I see the show as less focusing on conforming or appearing a certain way because soiciety tells you to, but respecting and seeing the value in one's self... How manay women have forgotten about themselves after having children or have lost X amount of pounds but still see themselves as a larger person, or forogt about themselves after college or having been abused? All the hosts of the show are doing is pointing out the value of the individual by showing them how to see themselves as adult, vibrant, vital and valuable women.

Jesus points out much the same when he says, "Daughter, your faith has made you well." The woman with the "issue of blood" had been shunned, forgotten about, probably spoken to poorly, and an "unclean" outcast for several years... but Jesus sees her as daughter... valuable and loved.

The message I see is clear: you have value. You are loved because Christ loved and died for you. Think of and treat yourself as one who has value.

Although I appreciate your point I have to say one thing: I feel better about myself when I am wearing something I feel attractive in. It doesn't have to be high fashion, on trend, or even make sense (I love tutu's), but when I wear something that makes me feel pretty, I feel pretty. Just as when I was an angsty teenager and I wore something dark and depressing I felt more dark and depressed. If the music we listen to and the television we watch can effect or emotional/spiritual state, why is it such a stretch to think that our clothes could not? I don't even need to be leaving the house or to be in the presence of anyone else at all to still want a little mascara and lip gloss on or to be wearing my favorite pair of jeans and most beloved cardigan. It's not for the sake of a deficiency in my self-esteem, or to make anyone else look at me, it's just something I can do to make myself feel beautiful, a way to see myself the way I know the Lord see's me. Though I agree that to strictly "dress to impress" isn't what God had in mind for our bodies, I can't ignore that when I wear something that makes me feel beautiful (be it band tee or ball gown) I am more confident, more able to approach and be approached, and thus, more apt to develop new relationships. I guess my point is that not everyone who cares what they wear or how they look is trying to impress anyone, sometimes it is genuinely about your self-respect and a way to see themselves as God sees them: beautiful. For some people it's gardening or painting or making music that puts them in touch with the Lord's view of them. For me (and many others) it's something a little more girly. And there's nothing wrong with that.

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