How to Dress Like a Female Pastor (and other absurd questions with no good answer)

Roughly three years ago, I woke up one morning and decided to be fashionable. This sudden conviction came after an entire lifetime of commitment to a steady diet of t-shirts, hoodies, and flare jeans. It didn’t derive from a desire to please potential lovers, or because of societal pressure to be beautiful (at least not consciously). What actually happened is that I somehow stumbled into a genuine love for my body and it made the idea of developing a style identity seem like fun rather than exhausting self-torture.

I observed people around me whose sense of style I admired, and then I started shopping and thrifting and putting together my own outfits. I bought dresses and blazers and chunky jewelry. When I came out as queer in seminary, I felt free to explore other fashion impulses. I embraced androgynous and traditionally masculine clothing, and of course, vests. I kept wearing dresses too and some days, I still slid comfortably into old jeans and my favorite hoodie.

What I loved most about my new style was the feeling that I could somehow aesthetically express to the world who I was on the inside. I especially appreciated that I could—through my diverse wardrobe—convey some of the paradoxical complexities of my identity as a queer, bisexual, feminist, liberal, Presbyterian seminarian, writer, and activist.

It’s fair to say that I have, for several years now, spent quite a lot of time thinking about my clothes and appearance.

But I have never spent as much time obsessing and stressing about these things as I have lately. And I have certainly never been so mired in shame, body-hating, and insecurity.

See, a month ago I graduated from seminary and in about three weeks, I will start my first call as a minister. And while six months ago I spent most of my time thinking about questions like:

How will I graduate?

And how will I find a job?

And how will I be a good pastor?

More recently, my thoughts have been consumed by a different question:

How the heck do I dress?

I’ve spent three years figuring out how I dress as a feminist, as a queer person, as a scholar, and—most significantly—as the unique human being that is Layton Williams. But until it became my impending reality, I never thought to wonder how I should dress as a female pastor. Since it has become my reality, I have been overwhelmed by just how much prominence this question has in my life.

Two days ago, I showed up at the church to move some boxes into my office. I had been moving all morning in casual clothes and thought nothing of it until I walked through the doorway into the church building and suddenly questioned whether my tank top showed too much cleavage. I zipped up my hoodie.

That evening I tried on every dress in my closet to prepare to attend a “casual” new members event. I freaked out when I couldn’t find the thick black belt that kept my stomach from pudging out in the black dress I chose, and I cursed vehemently when the leggings I tried to put on tore. After a brief meltdown, I settled for covering my stomach with a vest and my legs with a less comfortable pair of leggings and dashed out the door already running late.

Yesterday I wore the same dress and vest—sans leggings—to walk to the bookstore, feeling certain that it was at least an appropriate outfit for such a casual solo event. Two blocks from my apartment, I stepped in front of a truck and looked up at the driver only to find him staring somewhere south of my neck, waggling his eyebrows and licking his lips. I wish I could tell you I shrugged him off – but actually, it shook me. I walked the rest of the way to the store with my eyes on the pavement and my arms crossed. I kept wondering if I was passing unrecognized church members who would wonder how their future Pastoral Resident could be wearing something to elicit such a reaction from men on the street.

Here’s the thing: the church I’ll be serving has been nothing but gracious and accepting of me: queerness, spunkiness, tattoos and all. My growing anxiety about my wardrobe has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with the rampant body-shaming our society continues to project onto women, further exacerbated by antiquated notions of female purity still undergirding our modern conceptions of church and ministry.

Like all women, I have been taught that the percentage of my body visible is directly proportional to the degree that I will be treated like an object, like meat, like an open invitation. On top of that, I am entering the world of ministry—and while I will no doubt remain the flawed human I have always been—I will certainly be held to higher level of scrutiny.

For me in particular, there are other factors too. I am queer, and I struggle to express that essential component of my identity while simultaneously wondering what sort of trouble such visibility might get me into. I have the same feeling that I am somehow doing something wrong when I am fully covered in men’s pants, dress shirt and a tie as I do in a sundress.

And then there is the fact that transitional stress eating and a little graduation celebrating have put me at my highest weight ever which—in addition to making the clothes I’ve always felt comfortable in no longer fit—has also increased the size of my breasts, butt, and hips and, consequently, given me more that I feel the need to hide or cover.

On top of all of this, I am young and female in a profession dominated by older men, and as much as I want to be authentic in my self-expression, I also want to be taken seriously. Somewhere in my head there is a chorus of voices telling me that I can’t have both.

I’m not alone in all of this. I doubt there’s a single female pastor who can’t relate at least on some level to my newfound struggle. And to my own disgust, I am quickly beginning to realize that this distracting question: “How does one dress like a female pastor?”… has no good answer.

Maybe not, but I’m not satisfied with letting it go. I can just hear well-meaning friends (mostly male) telling me not to worry about it. I can hear them saying, “you just do you.” But I won’t. Because even if I was capable of just utterly ignoring the weight of all this inculturated insecurity, it wouldn’t stop the men in the trucks from licking their lips at me or any other woman like we’re an all you can eat buffet. And my ignoring it won’t change the reality that how I dress as a female pastor could actually have very real implications for my life and career. And it won’t change the fact that all of this becomes even more complicated, more dangerous, and more damaging for women of color and for those who identify as trans*, or genderqueer, or gender fluid.

Maybe this seems like the silliest of questions to get hung up on, but here’s the thing: I am about to commit my whole life to serving God and God’s people. I’m doing that because I love and believe in a God who carefully sculpted every human body in all their myriad shapes and shades and genders, who celebrates intimacy and equality and authentic expression. I want to reflect the love of that God to every person to whom I minister. And any question that threatens to distort that vision of God is certainly worth paying attention to.

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