The other day a friend of mine was lamenting about her needing to attend a formal dinner event. There are a few reasons formal dinner events can be less-than-fun, but what she was mainly stressed about was needing to get dressed up. She said something to the effect of, “I think it’s because I feel like they threaten my identity.”
I totally understand.
For most of my teenage/young adult life, I have refused to wear dresses unless absolutely necessary. I wore jeans, a jacket and a T-shirt that read, “DARE TO BE DIFFERENT” to my Sec 4 Founders’ Day Dinner. A little cheesy, maybe, but I just happened to have the shirt – plus, it had cute sheep on it. For my IB prom, I was sort of forced into a dress, but refused to wear it until halfway through – after I’d finished my performance, in dress pants and a blazer (see, at least I upgraded from jeans) and a T-shirt on which I’d printed the words “I CHOOSE FREEDOM.” Ha. Charming, I know.
Why did I refuse to wear dresses? I used to just say that I didn’t like them, and while there was a grain of truth in that, that wasn’t the whole story. As much as I hate to admit it, I don’t think dresses are all that bad – it’s true they are much more cooling (though at formal events you’re usually cold, rather than hot). What I didn’t (and still don’t) like is the expectation for girls to wear a dress and the idea that not wearing one somehow makes you less of a girl, as well as the strange way that people seem to suddenly compliment your beauty when – but only when – you wear a dress.
“Debbie! You look so pretty!” – Thank you, I think? What about all the other days you’ve seen me? Maybe you should be telling my dress it looks pretty instead. I know the comments were well-meaning, but it’s something to think about, isn’t it? What message are we sending girls when the only times they’re told that they’re beautiful coincide with them wearing certain types of clothes?
I could go on about the damage caused by gender stereotypes and expectations and etc, but that’s not the point of this post. What I want to talk about is what we do in response to these expectations we disagree with. Rebelling, as some might say. Refusing to conform.
In my younger days, I was on a crusade against these expectations, and the only way I knew how to fight them was by refusing to conform, outwardly – refusing to wear dresses and makeup and high heels. And that was fine. I was making a statement, and people recognized it.
But as the years went on, and I decided dresses weren’t evil after all, I realized I had trapped myself. I built my identity on not wearing dresses so much so that when it came to a point where I wanted to wear one to some event because I really didn’t mind them and I had nothing else appropriate to wear (let’s face it, those T-shirts couldn’t last forever), I felt like I’d be selling out if I did. I had a reputation I needed to defend.
I had been trying so hard to resist and free myself from the expectation to dress a certain way that I had unwittingly made myself a slave to another set of expectations that I dress a certain way.
Here’s the thing: If we try to simply resist definition by defining ourselves in the opposite way, we aren’t really free from it at all.
We may think we are, but we’re essentially still letting whatever we’re resisting control and define us. If the expectation is that I should wear a dress to the dinner and I say, “I resent that expectation so I’m going to do the opposite and refuse to wear a dress,” my not wearing a dress is still determined by the initial expectation that I wear one.
That’s not to say that anyone who doesn’t wear a dress in protest is unwittingly a victim of societal expectations, just as it’d be wrong to say that anyone wearing a dress is a thoughtless conformist to those expectations. There are people who simply like wearing dresses and there are people who simply do not like wearing dresses. The point here is that conformity and non-conformity go deeper than skin deep – or clothes-deep, or whatever-else-deep. It begins in the mind.
It’s only when we’re able to defy an expectation or stereotype on more than just a superficial level that it becomes truly subversive.
To try and repurpose a saying in the fashion world: It’s not what you wear but how you wear it – it’s what you believe what you wear – or don’t wear – says about who you are. That’s how I can wear a dress willingly but not be a sellout. I can choose to wear a dress and yet choose not to buy in to the belief that I am what I wear.
Why is this important, beyond decisions about what to wear to that fancy dinner? I believe we are called to be culture changers, to change the culture around us for the kingdom of God. In John 17, when Jesus was praying for His disciples, He said, “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” (John 17:14-16)
That’s a phrase you’ve probably heard a lot if you grew up around Christians – we’re called to be in, but not of, the world. We’re not meant to isolate ourselves in holy huddles, staying away from the evils of the world, and even if we did, you know what? Those evils can worm their way into our holy huddles. There is more worldly thinking in our churches than we care to admit. There is more disobedience among those of us who call ourselves Christians than we like to think. Just because we look like we’re doing the right thing on the outside – going to church, not swearing, feeding the poor, etc – doesn’t at all mean that we’re right on the inside.
It’s not about what we do – it’s how we do it.
Oswald Chambers says this:
“Our Lord was not a recluse nor a fanatical holy man practising self-denial. He did not physically cut Himself off from society, but He was inwardly disconnected all the time. He was not aloof, but He lived in another world. In fact, He was so much in the common everyday world that the religious people of His day accused Him of being a glutton and a drunkard. Yet our Lord never allowed anything to interfere with His consecration of spiritual power.”
At the end of the day, we are called to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind” (Romans 12:2). The Bible doesn’t say “do not conform to the pattern of this world; draw a new pattern.” It doesn’t talk about external non-conformity but internal, mental, spiritual non-conformity. We must beware of judging our state of conformity by our outward actions and behaviour. Not everyone who looks like a rebel with a cause is actually carrying that cause, and not everyone who looks like they’re conforming is without a cause.
It also doesn’t propose a simple oppositional reaction. As long as our act of non-conformity takes the object of contention as its reference point, we are still subject to the very thing we are trying to set ourselves apart from. It has to start deeper, on the inside – in our hearts and minds, the crucibles of our beliefs, which, in turn, determine our behaviour. We set ourselves apart as Christians not by simply reacting to what we see in the world, but by aligning our beliefs with God’ – by allowing Him to renew our minds so that we live in the world, but see it – and ourselves – through His eyes.
I’m still not in love with dresses, but whether I wear them or not and whether you compliment me or not, I know that my identity is secure in Christ – and that’s all I need to know.