How Respectability Politics Within the Black Church Oppresses Women




Does my change in appearance reflect my relationship with God?

Does my change in appearance reflect my relationship with God?

The discussion of respectability politics within the black community is more than often limited to the idea of being closer to whiteness in order to be accepted in society. However, the discussion neglects how black people create those standards for other black people. Those toxic standards unfortunately stem from the church and tend to be detrimental to the black female identity. Within the black church, respectability politics is hidden under the mask of holiness and being closer to God.  I've finally noticed how this lingering issue has become benign to my self development and confidence.

"Are you really wearing pants to church?"

Yes, I am. When I was younger, I never liked to wear dresses or skirts (I still don't to some degree). I was a tomboy, so I despised the idea of wearing anything that did not include blue jeans and gym shoes. But when I started regularly attending church, I was basically taught that what I had on wasn't acceptable in God's eyes. I was given a sermon on how the youth, especially young girls, should wear their "Sunday best" to church because that's what God deserved. I was scolded for always wearing jeans and was considered not acceptable in the eyes of God.  In retrospect, I find it funny how that same conversation didn't apply to guys.

Additionally, I learned that the idea of me wearing pants instead of dresses to church was not the only problem. For some reason, the pants that I wore revealed too much of my shape. Ok, it's not "for some reason"; it's because in anything that I wear my curves are going to show no matter how much I want to hide them.

I was not the only one being told to not wear jeans. There was another girl in church who wore jeans on a daily basis and certainly did not seem like she enjoyed wearing dresses any more than I did. But when she went to the altar one Sunday, the pastor ended the prayer with a demand for her to start wearing more dresses to church. 

"Your dress needs to be two inches below the knee"

Yup, I compromised and started wearing my "Sunday best" to church. Although I really did not like the idea of getting all dressed up for church, I unfortunately thought that my appearance was a representation of my relationship with God. Then I was told that the dresses that I wore were not presentable. It was either my hips being too exposed or my butt being on full display, which is uncontrollable. I was taught that my clothing needs to be as modest as possible because ( yea, you guessed it) I needed to be modest when reverencing God.I didn't know that God was so invested in what I wore when worshipping Him, but I changed my clothing anyway. Recently, I had to change my entire outfit because it wasn't modest enough to attend a party at a church.

I also learned that the dresses and skirts that I wore were too short for God's liking (and anybody else's)Typically, the clothing that I wore would be about an inch or two above the knee. I was quickly told that it needed to be about four inches lower. The justification for this was one that didn't have anything to do with God at all. Instead, it had everything to do with tempting the men in the church. Not only did I have to worry about how God perceived me in the clothing that I wore but I also had the unrealistic task of being careful not to tempt the men in church.

"You'll be a mother one day."

No, the hell I won't. Ok, maybe I will; I don't know.

I was told this by one of the members of the church on Mother's Day. I didn't know what to say. I just smiled at her. Then, I realized how much the church puts pressure on women to be married and have children (in that order). There's this unrealistic expectation in the church for women to be married. This is tied to the burden of women being able to dress appropriately in order to be worthy of a righteous man in the eyes of God. I didn't realize this until the member just decided for me that I would be someone's mother. Then I remembered the many instances in which single women were called up for prayer because they needed to get married. Then I remembered how the church perceives women who were married as if they were fulfilling their purpose for God. It was those things that enabled the member to say that to me.

In the church, there are these unspoken requirements for women------have a purity party to profess your virginity for God when you're a teen, eventually get married (because God will send a husband to you), and have children to replenish the kingdom of God in order to spread the Gospel. For women, if you are able to do those things in order, then anything else that you do really doesn't matter. As long as women are able to scratch those things off this imaginary "Being a Saved, Sanctified, and Filled with the Holy Ghost Woman" checklist, everything will be fine.

Why couldn't I wear pants to church? Why couldn't I show off my figure? Why did a woman have to be virgin/married with kids in order to be complete? Was it because God really cares about how you dress to worship him or was it that people cared more and just used God as an excuse? 

I've realized that the latter is more true. Don't get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with a woman doing all of those things if she wants to do them. The issue emerges when women are forced to do things in order to uphold a certain standard of "holiness" within the church, a standard that has been more perpetuated by people than God. Every woman is not built the same; some can't control how much of their shape is exposed in a dress. Every woman doesn't have to wear a dress and skirt in order to be a respectable lady. Every woman doesn't want to be married or have children. Black christian women are not monolithic; they can be many things and still be a fervent disciple of Christ.

Standards such as those ultimately inhibit women and make them feel as if their wants aren't good enough, and it's been that way for years. This is not me just wanting to go against tradition and the standard that my ancestors have set; I would take a page out of Maya Angelou's handbook on wisdom any day. But, there's a difference in giving wisdom and creating a respectable (and unrealistic) image for young girls that stifles their freedom. I have felt the latter numerous times. It has made me feel less confident in my body. But those days are over. I'm a black woman, and I refuse to allow my body/ appearance  be another thing added to the list of oppression that black women have to face on a daily basis. And I'm not compromising that for anyone, not even people in the church.