Katie Makkai accused me, and she was right. As a slam poetry extraordinaire, Makkai in her poem “Pretty” uses her voice as both a daughter and potential mother to ask the question that haunts every young woman’s heart: Will I be pretty? She describes her years as a teenager spent pickled in skin ointments and with a belly swollen with the blood she swallowed during her reconstructive nose surgery. Her words cause our stomachs to turn in a twist of dramatic irony that only a skilled wordsmith can master. Suddenly what is pretty is gruesome. What is beautiful is mutilation.
Makkai accused me, and I saw it – how I have mutilated my life. I saw the tattered InStyle magazine showcasing the latest fall trends sitting on my living room table. I saw my running shoes resting on the mat by the door that I have walked out of every morning this week in order to put my body through an hour of physical hell. I saw the scale that I have stepped on every day for three weeks. I saw my shadows in the full-length mirror in front of which I have pulled, plucked, and prayed, hoping that I will, in fact, be pretty. My own self-criticisms know no end, and I haven’t a clue “how to wear joy” as Makkai says.
But it’s not only my own mutilation Makkai accuses; I hear her words also combat the mutilation of my colleagues who have said to me: “Don’t be one of those fat preacher ladies.” “All the women pastors I know are fat.” “Studies have shown women gain an average of 20 pounds their first year of marriage.” “It’s very important for you to stay attractive to your partner.” “You’re an attractive woman; your mother has clearly raised you well.” “Are you sure your wedding dress will fit after the weight you’ve gained?” All of these voices course through my being and pool in the center like Makkai’s blood-filled stomach. Each voice finds me in front of that mirror teary-eyed, gripping my fatty sides and asking, “Will I be pretty?”
“No,” Makkai answers. “The word ‘pretty’ is unworthy of everything that you will be…you will never be merely pretty.” But how am I to embody everything that I will be while in a profession where the issue of sexism is considered moot, where men in authority are allowed to speak to women about their bodies and appearance, where single women are both the temptress and the threat to congregational life, where pregnant pastors are discouraged from preaching in the pulpit, where women wait on average six months longer than men to receive a first call, where only seven of the 65 synodical bishops in the ELCA are women? How can I ever be more than pretty in a church that doesn’t say anything and among people who say more than enough?