Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Last Straw and the #Truth

It seems I still have more to say on this issue, so those who are tired of it already may want to just close this post now and avoid the next few.  I promise to move on to another subject soon, but having NOT written about this for ten years of ministry, I've built up a list of things to say.  And it seems that there is a segment of people who have been yearning for someone to write about this. 

So what was the straw, the final thing that made me break my silence?  I think it was the "fat-shaming professor," Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico, who tweeted, "Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn't have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won't have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth."

For the record, having written an M.A. thesis, a D.Min. thesis, and something over 300 sermons, I'm pretty sure that's not the #truth.  But I was raised by a fat man with a Ed.D.  He always told me what the hardest thing about finishing a dissertation was, and it wasn't his weight, it was having his daughter born during the dissertation writing.  I know a bit about what it takes to finish a dissertation--I was born into that legacy.

It's not that I was so angry over what Prof. Geoffrey Miller said, though.  Actually, it was a relief to have somebody say it so starkly, when usually it's never said aloud to our faces.  The #truth was finally out in the open, and the #truth was that fat prejudice does keep us from getting jobs.  And it's not because our fat makes us unable to get the job done, it's because of prejudice.  But it gave me the opportunity to talk about the fact that this kind of prejudice is common for us, and does affect us, and in ways that are not fair and have nothing to do with our ability. 

In ministry, I've known all along that while weight doesn't really affect my ability to do my job, it affected my ability to get a job.  I was told this by people in positions where they would know.  I have no doubt that past and present settlement directors would agree that fat ministers have a harder time getting asked to interview.  And they would tell you this in very kind ways -- they're not to blame, and I certainly don't blame them for the situation, and I'm appreciative when they see the situation.  And I'm not trying to say that other people don't have prejudice against them, or that this struggle is harder than other struggles.  I do say that many isms we are confronting openly, and this one we're not.  Whether that makes it harder, I can't say, I can only say that it makes it more hidden, which is what I'm trying now to do something about.

A couple examples from my own life about being fat and trying to get a call to a congregation may serve to illustrate.

During my seminary years, I was in a room with a bunch of seminarians and a minister who was with us because he was looking around for a new associate minister.  I was soon to graduate, and looking for just such a job.  And yet, no matter how many times I tried to inject myself into the conversation, I couldn't get this minister's attention.  I felt invisible.  We all feel invisible at times, but I was told later by another colleague that this wasn't a big surprise in this case, and that it was likely about weight.  I didn't put the weight interpretation on it initially; my initial interpretation was that this guy was just a jerk.  The weight interpretation was given to me later by a person who was in a position to know.

Another example: In a pre-candidating weekend, I was asked to preach at a neutral pulpit in a mid-sized church.  The search committee of the small church I was pre-candidating for said to me, "Your pulpit presence is so large.  Do you think that could work in a smaller church?"  Now, mind you, I've now been preaching successfully in small churches for over a decade.  The comment was, at first, baffling.  Should I have been somehow more meek in the pulpit?  Made eye contact with fewer people?  Gestured as if the room was smaller?  But then it seemed a clear interpretation emerged.  I do think that this comment was not so much about size of the congregation as it was about size of the minister.  Usually it's not a problem--in any size church--for the minister to hold the attention of the entire congregation during the sermon.

All of these little things could not be about weight.  They could be about other issues.  That congregation could have been looking for a meek pulpit presence.  Any one incident can be picked apart and explained by other reasoning.  I've heard African-American ministers tell me that this is something that happens to them often, that they'll tell about an incident of racism, and the white listeners will want to pick apart the incident and analyze it and get to decide for themselves whether or not it was an incident of racism, rather than just accept the experience of the teller.  I can't prove to you these were about size.  I can't prove that size was a factor in any of the congregations that chose not to interview me, either.  I just know that overall fat ministers have a harder time in settlement than average.  That's the #truth.

In our society, everyone is judged on their looks.  And ministry, for all that we are a liberal denomination, is a field where the image is part of the job process.  There's a degree to which looking particularly "ministerial" is an asset in this profession, and not looking like the image of a minister is a detriment.  And "fat" is not part of what people's internal image when they think "minister."  This is not the only trait people carry on their bodies that has this struggle, to be sure.  But it's one we're not confronting actively.  It's not a part of the "Beyond Categorical Thinking" discussion, to my knowledge (although it's been so long, I could be entirely wrong here).  I've never seen a workshop or discussion where people were working on getting over their fat prejudice in the process of hiring a minister.

The fat-shaming professor has been rebuked.  The school has said it's not their policy.  Academics everywhere are distancing themselves from him and from his opinion.  And yet it is the #truth that sometimes we still need not apply, because we will not be chosen.

The other side of this, and it would be remiss of me not to say this, is that sometimes a congregation doesn't let weight stop them from picking a good minister.  While I've never had a congregation where weight wasn't raised as an issue with me at all, in my current congregation the times have been few and far between.  This congregation I'm in treats me like my ministry is valued, and I really can't say enough what a great group of people they are.  I feel like here there's a clear understanding that my worth as minister isn't measured by the scale on my floor.  #truth

7 comments:

Kenneth said...

"I didn't put the weight interpretation on it initially; my initial interpretation was that this guy was just a jerk."

I think you had it right even without the weight interpretation.

Unknown said...

These microagressions are not small but instead constant. I believe we will come to see our prejudice in this area to be reinforced by the dominant culture for their monetary gain. What would happen if the diet industry went "belly up" and people were active and happy with who they are?

Love ya, Kimi

JAVS said...

Thank you, Rev. Cyn, for this and your previous blog on the issue of prejudice against those who are overweight. I have to confess that it was a wake-up call for me. I was very thin as a child and was mocked for that then. Now I'm "normal" weight (maybe slightly above) and yet I, too, have had an inclination to feel somewhat dismissive of those who are overweight. Now I see that my own attitude is similar to the attitude of those who dismissed my potential as a female scientist when I was looking for a job in the predominately male profession. We really do need to keep learning how to be inclusive. Thank you again for your courage in confronting this issue. And I'm glad you have an appreciative congregation.
I have been a follower of your blog for some time, but rarely comment.

Cynthia Landrum said...

Kenneth -- :)

Kimi -- love ya, too!

JAVS -- thank you! Your comment alone has made putting myself "out there" on this issue worthwhile.

Amy said...

Cynthia, your online ministry to me is so powerful, and whenever I read your writing I think how fortunate your congregation is to have you. You make the case by your excellence. What a loss it would be for any congregation: to be so unable to see past their own assumptions about what weight means that they miss out on calling a minister like you.

Love this topic, love your courage. Keep on preachin'!

nelliemcclung said...

I can see your problem. People shouldn't be prejudiced against fat people but they are and they act on it. It is going to be a hard row to hoe to make any changes in attitude given that most people believe it is possible to do something about being fat which isn't the case with skin color or sex.

If I think about fat ministers I have known, they were all twice as smart or twice as interesting or twice as funny or twice as hard working
as the rest of us. I guess that's what it takes. Just like it is for women who want to succeed. What happens to those who aren't I can only imagine.

April Lashbrook said...

I'm having a heck of a time commenting, but I'm going to keep trying. My blog is bbwesquire.wordpress.com, and I did a few posts in January 2013 that were adapted from a lay sermon I did at my UU church a few years ago. This is an important issue, and I'm so glad to see that someone else is talking about it!