Leading with Women's Bodies

A couple of weeks ago, the Faith and Leadership Project at Duke Div posted an essay by Fred Bahnson, which I commend to your attention. Our choices about eating have implications not just for the health of our own bodies but for our relationship with the whole created order, and church leaders are in a position to help their congregations reflect and act in ways that promote health and wholeness on both a personal and cosmic scale.

Hear, hear.

There is one thing about the article that bugs me, though.
First, a church leader can lead with her own body. She can model the kind of health she expects in those she serves. But more importantly she can lead our corporate body -- the church -- toward a more holistic, sacramental way of eating so that its members’ bodies can thrive.

Now, most of the time I'm all for the use of feminine pronouns when writing about a generic individual. And I'm sure the author's word choice here only intends to acknowledge and affirm the reality of female leaders in the church.

But when the subject under discussion is food and bodies, the gendered language is loaded.

The church, in general, continually exhibits symptoms of being more anxious about the bodies of its female leaders than those of its male leaders. It seems that congregants -- both female and male -- are more aware of the wardrobe and weight fluctuations of their women leaders, and more inclined to make judgments about the person's credibility and authority based on her appearance. There are all kinds of cultural and historical explanations for this that I'm not going rehash here; suffice to say I wouldn't be making a big deal out of a couple of pronouns if they didn't call to mind a much broader pattern.

Granted, in this case, it would also have been problematic to describe our hypothetical clergyperson with masculine terms. But there's a reason God gave us plural pronouns. Calling the church leaders "they," or better yet, "we," would have been a simple change, and would have stripped the essay of any hint of a male expert telling women clergy to watch what they eat.

I'm of two minds about the heightened attention to a church leader's body that seems to accrue when that body happens to be female. Part of me resents the unfairness of it, and wants to challenge what seems to be latent sexism. Would you have made that remark about your pastor's weight gain if your pastor were a man? Really?

But we would miss out on so many teachable moments if we tried to get people to forget that women clergy have bodies. I treasure the work of women theologians on the subject of bodies; the church would be deeply impoverished had they chosen to avoid this topic because it's stereotypically "feminine." Likewise, the church may be enriched when women pastors are comfortable and confident enough to address body issues with their congregations, whether in the pulpit, the classroom, or the coffee-and-doughnuts line.


SnakeWoman said...

When they serve as authority figures of any kind, women face a few challenges that men can usually avoid. Tiresome at best. Yet there are certain ways in which women can use their differences to advantage. Consider the methods of our former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, whose brooch collection is now being displayed at the Museum of Arts & Design in NYC. She used her jewelry as a subtle complement to diplomatic discussions or speeches. You can view a fabulous photo gallery at the following site: http://www.newsweek.com/id/216340.

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