For a longtime I didn’t wear figure-flattering clothing to church. I figured this type of clothing wasn’t appropriate for the space and, of course, I had learned that my clothing could lead a man into temptation. So I tried my best to keep my skirts knee-length and A-line and my dresses flowing. Not until I reached my mid-20s did I begin to dabble in wearing figure-flattering clothing to church because I became comfortable with my body for my sake. I remember on one particular day of wearing a form-fitting outfit a close female friend looked at me and said, “Wow, why don’t you dress like that more often?” She asked. “You are bodied-down,” she said. I thanked her for her compliment, but in the same moment felt a slight pang inside. My bodied-down self and the bodied-down selves of many women in the church have long been concealed and subdued because of the effect it might have on men. Women have had to pay the price for the possibility of a man’s temptation instead of men learning how to temper their desires and divert their eyes. Women are told to be careful about the way they dress lest the man stumble. One wonders how many of these oh-so-vulnerable men are ever asked to stumble into a therapist’s office. It is as if anytime a woman puts on something that shows her figure, she must be dressing for a man and not for the sheer pleasure of enjoying her own womanhood. The problem is as old as time and yesterday it reared its head again when Erica Campbell, half of the gospel duo Mary Mary, released pictures from the photo shoot for her debut solo album. Dressed in a form-fitting, knee-length turtleneck dress, social media tongues were wagging and a pastor commented on it on Facebook saying,
“THIS IS NOT OKAY. Yes, you are a beautiful, curvy woman…but NO MA’AM YOU ARE SINGING THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST. Saints…smh COME ON.”
Though many assumed this comment came from a man, it was actually from a female pastor, Apostle Stacey Wood, who issued a long response explaining her comment. That the comment came from a woman and not a man indicates the pervasive nature of the church tradition that thrives on concealing women’s bodies. This tradition reaches further back than many of us are aware of. There has been a struggle between body and soul dating back to Plato, the Greek philosopher from the 4th Century, BCE. In his “Phaedo,” Plato wrote, “the soul is most like the divine, deathless, intelligible, uniform, indissoluble, always the same as itself, whereas the body is most like that which is human, mortal, multiform, unintelligible, soluble and never consistently the same.” For Plato, the body is subordinate to the soul, the former being only the temporal prison of the latter. His sharp distinction between body and soul was instrumental to the ways in which he categorized lower and higher pleasures–for him sexual pleasure would be considered a lower pleasure because it diminished the power of eros for higher things. Augustine, the most prominent theologian in the history of Western Christianity, was influenced by the work of Plato and many interpreters have read him according to this same duality, suggesting that they impact sexual desire—the body puts us in danger of putting sexual desire ahead of the higher goods. These teachings have all become a part of the Christian tradition and have weaved their way into the fabric of our churches, making it nearly impossible for people not to look at the body as anything other than a vessel for temptation and sin, with sex often being the sharpest example of both. The problem with this conception of the body, however, is that it is deeply in conflict with two of the most significant doctrines of the Christian tradition: Incarnation and Resurrection.
Good dualists that we are, we too often forget that the incarnation of God happened through a human body–the Virgin Mary’s body as the birthing vessel and the body of Jesus that she brought forth. “And the Word become FLESH and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14, NRSV).” God used a fleshly body to do saving work on this earth and though many denied the efficacy of this body’s power to do saving work, it did. This is not to separate Jesus’ humanity from his divinity, but it is to make a particular point that Jesus came in flesh to do God’s will, empowered by and imbued with God in himself. It is to say that the infinite God is united to a finite human in fleshly form. We also forget that the resurrection of Jesus that had to take place for fulfillment of his prophecy and our redemption is a bodily one, so much so that the narrators of his resurrection appearances felt it significant to talk about him walking around, eating and drinking. Incarnation, then, the union of the Creator with creation, is the affirmation of bodies—not just one body but all of them—and resurrection is their redemption and fulfillment, along with all created things. The new life we live in Jesus is through these bodies which we do necessarily give up as the temple of the living God. We don’t abuse these bodies by presuming they are full of temptation and sin precisely because we know of the original sacrifice that was made through Jesus’ body and blood. Our bodies are bodies built by the gospel of Jesus Christ and because of this our first task is not to judge them as one thing or another but to receive them just as we imagine Jesus would have received them, with grace and mercy.
I want to suggest that Erica Campbell’s dress and body are not the problem. Too often, rather, the Church has been the problem, allowing itself to be captive to a sort of Folk-Platonic dualism that disproportionately conceals women’s bodies—especially black women’s bodies (when they’re not being offered as spectacle). This has the result that the invisibility of the body has become a prerequisite for holiness, preventing us from recognizing that the bodies are holy as such, in virtue of the one through whom and for whom all things were created. Moreover, in this context the gifts women offer to God are too often not recognized as the good gifts that they are, but are rather undermined and tossed aside. Instead we need to bring ourselves into the light of Jesus, who does not conceal bodies but makes bodies visible in his life, death and resurrection, and who didn’t and doesn’t judge humanity by appearance, except to reaffirm the words of the Creator that humans, bodies and all, are very, very good.
It’s a funny thing when more of the focus can be on what Campbell is wearing than the fact that she is continuing to proclaim the gospel in her life’s work. She is still in the business of proclaiming the gospel through song and I would wager that this instance is not the first in which we have seen her wear something figure flattering, nor will it be the last. Therefore, we can choose to debate and obsess over what she is wearing, implying that her figure-flattering clothes are going to cause the saints to stumble which in turn perpetuates the damaging body and soul duality brought to us by Plato and his promoters. Or we can choose to believe that a dress is just a dress and she is going to continue to do good work for the kingdom, drawing women and men to Christ by way of her gift in singing. Long story short, it’s time to get out of Plato’s closet. That means getting out from under the philosophical and theological assumptions that lead us to stymie the good work of bodies, and that allows us to define a Christian woman’s commitment to the gospel according to the dresses she wears.