Yesterday, the Church of England appointed Libby Lane as its first female bishop. Excellent news! I wish her the very best of luck and joy in what she does. I can only hope that this late introduction of gender equality in the Church of England will help reduce its patriarchal role and increase the respect shown to women generally. I can hope. I need to hope, because we have a long way to go on that score.
Then I got on to twitter, and one of the first things I saw on the subject was @susanhillwriter. “Pleased abt 1st woman Bishop but WHY can’t women priests use some make-up and a nice lipstick and get decent haircuts ?” I got into a conversation about this, of course. She went on to say that presenting well – ie wearing makeup and conforming to certain, narrow assumptions about what beauty means, is an act of respect to all the people looking at you.
We do it to ourselves. It’s a fine case in point of why patriarchal oppression is not simply something men do to women. It is a whole system of logic around how we value and treat women, and a big part of what keeps it going is that there are plenty of women like Susan Hill (writer) who are happy to act in this way in response to women like Libby Lane who are out there doing truly important things. We’ve just seen a historic moment, and the first female bishop and the first thing you have to say on the subject is that you want her to wear lipstick and get a haircut that you’d like?
Having had a look at Libby Lane, she looks like a person to me. She has her own face, and a practical haircut. Of course what lipstick and makeup does is mimic the signs of sexual arousal a woman might get in her face at key moments – blood to lips, wide eyes, flushed cheeks… forgive me if looking aroused is not a quality I seek in religious leadership of any gender or faith. It’s a very modern fashion to equate the wearing of makeup with looking smart. Go back just a few generations and makeup meant you were probably a women of saleable virtue. Add to that the way Christianity deems vanity to be sinful, and isn’t in favour of people offering themselves as sexual objects, and you might possibly have a whole array of reasons why a woman bishop might not want to face the cameras looking like a magazine cover model.
Let’s not talk about her values, her experiences, her interests. Let’s not talk about who she reads or what charities she supports. Let’s get on social media and discuss her makeup choices, and carefully reduce her down to the status of object for looking at. Because we wouldn’t want women thinking they could be valued for their minds, skills, knowledge, ability, compassion or experience. That way lies anarchy!
Why are women so willing to value and devalue other women based on appearance? Why does conformity to the current fashion for attractiveness play such a role in how we see people whose jobs really have nothing to do with how pretty they are? The point of religious leaders is not to look at them, but to listen. We don’t give a hoot what male priests look like, in fact we may tolerate a fair amount of eccentricity and lack of attention to fashion and desirability, so why does a woman who takes on this most unworldly of work get expected to conform to the most worldly of visual standards?
You can’t see much of @susanhillwriter on her twitter profile, and there’s only one picture of her face on her homepage. She doesn’t appear to be wearing makeup, and has a short hairstyle not so very far, to my eye, to that worn by Libby Lane. Now, there’s a puzzle! But why shouldn’t she look that way if she likes?