The last time I went to Nigeria was in 2011. Reminiscing on the trip is always bittersweet because while much of my stay was great, for the first time since going several times during my childhood, I felt like a foreigner in my own
home country place of birth.
This was even more evident when I attended church there.
I decided to go with my cousins to a midweek youth service. Mind you, I was 18 at the time, more physically mature than the last time I was there at age 10. As such, there were a few different expectations of me in the church this time, one of which I would encounter in a very rude awakening.
I heard a snap to the right of where I was sitting down on the bench in the church paying attention to what the person at the front was speaking. It echoed from the concrete floor and walls that surrounded us in the hallowed space. Nearly everyone had their head tilt to the right, mine included, and my eyes met that of another Nigerian girl around my age who was looking directly at me. “Cover your head,” she demanded with a very loud whisper as her face reeked of harsh disapproval of my hair exposed in all its glory. Before you know it, all eyes were on me, lingering far much longer than I was comfortable with. I was so embarrassed and ashamed. I was thrown a medium-sized brown fuzzy piece of fabric to wear as a headscarf and so I tied it there, again, with eyes glaring in my direction and voices chattering and giggling about what they had just seen.
This was extremely uncomfortable. This sermon needed to move faster. I wanted out of there.
I recall a few days later getting into the car along with some other of my family members. For some reason, that scene replayed in my head. With my uncle in the driver’s seat I told him that I do not believe I have to cover my head in church. He said, “But that’s what the Bible says.” I didn’t say anything more. I didn’t want to argue and it wasn’t worth expending my energy. Plus, I wasn’t angry at him. I knew that across cultures, across denominations, across families all around the world, Christianity is practiced in different ways. I just didn’t understand why that was seen as necessary to those people yet, just one week prior in another church, I realized long afterward that I was given a pass to not having my head covered there because I was a “foreigner.”
What determines why we pick and choose different parts of the Bible to follow, like having your head covered, and not others, like allowing women to speak up in church?
There are few other examples of being shamed in church because of my appearance both in Nigeria and America. But unlike those examples, some could look at this example and argue that I wasn’t shamed because I am a woman; I was shamed because I ran into an unforeseen culture clash.
But that claim fails to address the root of the problem.
The truth is the onus is and has always been on the woman to look “acceptable” according to the standard of the church she attends. To wear make up or not. To have her hair long or not. To wear earrings and other pieces of jewelry or not. To have her shoulders exposed or not. To have people obsess over the acceptable length of her skirt. All of these things and more, including whether or not my hair should be covered, are done because I am a woman. Men never deal with the pressure of making sure they are “acceptable” in the eyes of church goers. My default inclination doesn’t have me wanting dress for churchgoers. And there in lies the problem: why do so many people think women should dress for their church members?
My experiences across cultures, across denominations, and within church bodies has shown me that I literally cannot win. I cannot dress in such a way that will make everyone around me 100% happy. All of the guilt I’ve experienced concerning my appearance have come from others’ convictions, never my own. And, sure, not every church in existence clings to these legalistic ideals. However, I long for the day when people realize that my sole existence is not for their viewing pleasure, both inside and outside the church.
Have you ever experienced or know of someone being shamed in the church because of your/their appearance? What was that like?
This post was part of The F-Word Linkup hosted by Kiersten, Kelly, and Brita.