Last week I got an e-mail from a friend that asked this question:
“There is a trend lately with Christian women [speakers and writers] encouraging other Christian women to stop striving for perfection, comparing ourselves to other women, and buying tons of stuff to replace God in our lives. The issue I have is they are preaching this while wearing a perfect outfit, with perfect hair, sitting in their perfect living room with their perfect children/husband….How are we supposed to hear their genuine message if we are comparing ourselves to the very speaker?”
I wanted to share this question because I think it’s important. It’s something I consider a lot, but my stance has also evolved over the years. The answer is not quite that simple, so I’ve divided my response into two parts: my thoughts as a speaker, and my thoughts as someone who listens to speakers.
My thoughts as a speaker
This might seem like a rabbit trail, but I want to begin with my own thought process, not just about my physical appearance, but the “person” I’m putting out there. In our internet world of sound bites and tweets, speakers (and leaders, pastors, and teachers) have to be thoughtful and intentional about how we communicate ourselves. It’s trickier than it seems, but I hope in providing a look at my own thought process, it will be helpful to people who are wondering about it.
So here goes…
In a nutshell, here’s what I believe: the way I dress, speak, or LIVE, none of it should ever “get in the way of” my message…or more importantly, Jesus. I don’t want people to be so distracted by what I’m wearing, or how I’m living, or the harsh tone I’m using, that they can’t focus on what I’m saying.
So I have two principles that guide my thinking about appearance. The first comes from 1 Timothy 2:9, which teaches, “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” This verse is typically cited within the context of sexual modesty, but the original context would have been about wealth and extravagance. It’s a helpful guideline when I think about my appearance.
For me, this means taking how I would LIKE to look, and then scaling it back a step or two. For me, it also means modesty should be a characteristic of my entire lifestyle–the things I own, the car I drive, and even the way I express myself.
This verse also means being honest with myself, again and again, about my motives. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think there will always be some part of myself that wants to be the cutest girl in the room, or to have the cutest house, or the most perfect looking family–speaker or not. This verse, and many like it, are a major check on my heart.
So the first principle that guides my choices is modesty. However modesty is a relative concept, so I turn to 1 Corinthians 9:22 to give it some feet: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” In short, it’s also important to be relatable.
Appearance can be a barrier or a bridge to loving others, but dressing down is not necessarily a bridge. There is something to be said for dressing for your context. There is also an extent to which your preferences, fashion or otherwise, are indicative of the audience God has called you to reach (emphasis on TO AN EXTENT–sometimes our preferences need to change). That said, how you think, live, dress, and see the world, all represent a segment of the church that needs Jesus, and they can relate to him through you.
If women look at me and see someone “like them,” they are more likely to relate to my message. BUT, there is a huge responsibility sitting just behind that truth. Dressing for my context does not mean reinforcing the status quo for people like myself. Instead, it means leveraging my influence with my particular audience, and then calling them to more.
Not to overstate this point, but this is exactly what Jesus did. When God became human, he took on a form that we could relate to, and then showed us what it truly means to be human. Our call is similar. Whatever my preferences or tastes, and whoever my audience may be, my call is to show women what it means to pursue Christ in their (our) context.
So I balance those two things–modesty and relatability–when I consider my appearance.
And what if women still feel insecure because of my appearance? For me, I try to walk the line of honoring other people’s struggles without being a slave to them. And this is where it gets REALLY interesting, so hang with me for a minute.
Focusing in on the question of physical appearance–particularly of women feeling insecure about other women–it’s weirdly similar to the issue of sexual modesty. For example, I want my appearance to honor men’s struggles with lust. But, I can’t be a slave to every man’s struggle, because every man’s threshold of temptation is different. Sexual modesty is a bit of a moving target that way, which means it is impossible to “protect” every man from this struggle.
There is a similar dynamic at play in terms of how women judge one another’s physical appearances, except our struggle isn’t lust–it’s comparison. It’s amazing to me that the subject of “women’s appearances” is the center of so much scrutiny–for men AND women–but I think the two struggles shed light on one another. We are called to honor the “weaker sister” (1 Cor. 8). without taking the standard to an extreme. At some point, an insecurity says more about what’s going on inside that person, and that truth sets me free from legalistic guidelines.
So that’s my thought process. I aim to be modest while also relatable to the audience God has called me to reach. But let me be 100% real for a second–I fail at this ALL the time. These are my ideals. They are the guidelines I strive after. But like any human being, I fail. Which leads me to my next point…
My thoughts as someone who listens to speakers
If you have ever encountered a speaker or leader who looked SO put together, SO perfect, that it led to an internal struggle–which is probably most of us!–I have a few thoughts for you too.
First, trust your gut. If something seems off, or their teachings aren’t quite biblical, or there is a glaring inconsistency between their message and their life, then that might be the Holy Spirit cautioning you. Talk to your friends and talk to your pastor. They can help you determine if your instincts are right.
However, in most cases, I would encourage you to give them the benefit of a doubt. At least in my own circles, the writers and speakers I know are very transparent about their struggles. It’s possible that you’ve only seen a sliver of their public persona. Between their writing and their presence on social media, I know a lot of women who are pretty OUT THERE about their imperfections, but you may not know that if you’ve only seen them speak at a conference one time. I tend to believe that looking nice at a conference is not somehow a betrayal of their authenticity, when they’ve spilled their guts in a book about their miscarriage, or their eating disorder, or troubles in their marriage. Try not to assume that what you’re seeing during that 45 minutes on stage is their whole reality–or any reflection of yours.
As a final thought–and this comes STRAIGHT out of my own struggles–when you do feel that sting of insecurity, I would encourage you to look inward for understanding, rather than outward in blame. As I said above, insecurity often says more about ourselves than it does the object of our comparison. Insecurity challenges us to ask WHY we are insecure: What part of myself feels like I am not enough? What part of myself needs validating? Am I comparing my insides to her outsides? What about the comparison is based in truth, and what is based on lies (or assumptions)? Lots of times, comparison is the great revealer of those hidden things in our hearts.
If, after all of that, there are some women whose appearance or presentation are just too great a distraction, there are more than enough gifted teachers in the church that you can turn to. Every speaker is not for every woman, and that is totally ok. However–and this is true for every single speaker/leader/teacher/pastor on earth–we are all VERY imperfect people serving a perfect God. Satan wants to use that imperfection for harm, but God uses it to direct our attention back to Him. God will never make us feel small or insecure, which is a promise no Christian speaker can make. The best a speaker can do, is simply point back to Him.
I hope that is helpful, y’all. And sorry it was so long! But if you have more questions about this, or other struggles, please post them in the comment section. And if YOU are a speaker and have more to add, please do!