My parents raised me in the Methodist church, halfheartedly. The “halfhearted” part would come as no surprise to anyone seated within two rows of our family, as they may have noticed my mother substituting female pronouns in hymns, as well as her reputation for, if you placed her in the right company, questioning the existence of a god of any gender. My father was a bit more enthusiastic, going so far as to teach Sunday school, but even at 7 years old I sensed he was coming up with scripture role-plays out of community spirit, not devotion to Our Father And/Or Mother. When I found out as a teenager that my parents chose the church not because they were Methodist per se but because it was the only church in our South Dakota town with a female pastor and they wanted me to see women in leadership roles of any variety, the endeavor made more sense.
Given that the entire point of the Whitefield-Madrano churchgoing project was an experiment in 1980s liberal parenting, not to worship a deity we were all a little “meh” about, it made sense that we embraced the performative aspects of church. Specifically, the Christmas pageant. If you grew up even vaguely Christian, you know the setup: Kids in the church act out the nativity, dressing up in robes stored in the church basement to be rotated among the kids as they aged in and out of the appropriate roles. Three middle-school boys would carry staffs to lend them credence as Wise Men; younger kids might dress as sheep and donkeys. (The rural church a few miles down the road got to have real sheep, but we didn’t have the grazing room.) If there were an appropriately aged infant in the congregation, there might even be a live baby Jesus that year.
Then, of course, there were Mary and Joseph, the center of the entire scene. I mean, yes, Jesus was the center of the scene, if you want to get nitpicky, but he was usually played by a doll, at least at our church, given that we had around 100 congregants and therefore few opportunities for well-behaved infants to upstage Mary. And that’s exactly how I thought of it—upstaging Mary—because I knew that Mary was the center of it all. That pale, luminous face! Those glossy tendrils of hair! Those rosy lips! That demure gaze! That dainty nose, those petals of eyelashes, that maiden-like blush. Mary was the one you were to be looking at; Mary was the center of attention. Mary was a babe.
She had to be, if you look at the big picture, Christianity-wise. Goodness was beautiful, sin was ugly, and since Mary was the ultimate goodness, she pretty much had to be the ultimate beauty. To paint Mary as anything other than beautiful would be an insult*, not only to the mother of the Messiah but to the strict notions of female sexuality that ruled the church. It’s one thing for Mary to be a virgin because she’s devoted to chastity; it’s quite another for her to be a virgin if it’s just that she couldn’t get laid. The rosy lips, the loose hair, the flushed cheeks: These are signals of sexuality, but not with Mary. She alone gets to be totally beautiful, and totally pure.
None of this was lost on me as a second-grader, who, fascinated as I was by the cleavage and teased hair I’d see on my parents’ night soaps, found Mary’s virginal prettiness a tad more accessible. My religious skepticism kicked in early, but Mary’s beauty was fact to me, even as I didn’t bother to distinguish between the “real” Mary and depictions of her. I mean, could the covers of all those church bulletins really have gotten it wrong? (It hadn’t yet occurred to me that the skin of the women on those bulletins was suspiciously light for a woman of the Levant; my skepticism, it seemed, only went so far.) Proof of her beauty lay in the pageant itself: All Mary did was sit there, hold a baby, and be looked at. She didn’t even have to speak to command attention.
The only person who spoke in our Christmas pageant, actually, was the angel, who would read aloud from the Bible as nativity players assembled themselves. The role of the angel, therefore, had to go to a child who read well enough and spoke clearly enough to recite the appropriate passages. Which, in our church, was me. Every year, it was me. In 1982 it was me, in 1983 it was me, 1984. We moved to another state for a couple of years, but when we returned in 1987, the white robe was still there waiting for me, its hem still pinned from when I wore it last, now able to be let out. I have no idea who played the angel during my hiatus, because our congregation was short on kids, which is part of why I’d been cast in the role every year to begin with.
It wasn’t hard to figure out the other reason the role always went to me. I was the smart one, so I played the angel, and Lisa K.—the only other girl of pageant-appropriate age at our church—was the pretty one, so she got to be Mary. It wasn’t even a question; nobody ever asked me if I’d like to play Mary. Every year, the blue robe was handed to Lisa, and every year, the white one went to me. Joseph got to rotate; every year one of the four boys at the church would sub in, relieved that year of being one of the Wise Men. But Mary and the angel, we stayed the same.
I was hardly the only girl to absorb the pretty-or-smart dichotomy—for that’s what it was in my mind, a dichotomy. And I was happy to be on the “smart” side of things; even in adolescence, it never occurred to me to dumb myself down for boys. Prettiness seemed like something for other girls, the same way some kids had grandparents who lived in the same town or got to have Froot Loops every morning if they wanted. It simply wasn’t an option for me, and I didn’t particularly mind, telling myself that it was okay, it evened out: Lisa K. got to be Mary—just like Jenny S. got to be the prettiest girl in the class—but I got to be smart. It was an honor I shared with the other “gifted and talented” kid in my grade, a girl I spent many an afternoon in a classroom corner with, picking out words from dictionaries for each other to spell out because we’d exhausted the teachers’ resources. The pretty-or-smart equation stayed even in my head; my “G&T” friend was a perfectly nice-looking girl, but she wore thick glasses, which somehow kept my imagined scales in balance. We weren’t at risk of being the prettiest girls in the class, so good thing we were the smartest.
This equation was never spoken aloud; nobody ever taught it to me, and certainly I knew better than to go around announcing it. Nobody needed to teach it to me. It made perfect sense: No one girl could be too much. To be the smart one, and the pretty one, was too potent for any one person. It was too much power, I suppose, though I wouldn’t have used that word then, as power wasn’t high on my priorities in the second grade. But like many a 7-year-old, I had a keenly tuned sense of justice, and I knew that to be the smart one and the pretty one would violate the fairness that I believed ruled the cosmos. I didn’t believe that being pretty was better than being smart, or vice versa. But I knew they were both qualities that people admired, and keeping in line with my sense of justice, I figured it was pretty much fate as to which one you got.
So I accepted that white robe, year after year, just as I accepted my role as the smart girl. It was my duty: I could read better than Lisa K., and Lisa K. could look more daintily pious than I could, and that was that. With the naive condescension particular to precocious children, I even began to feel sorry for Lisa K. I mean, I’d figured this whole thing out and was more or less cool with it. But Lisa K.! She hadn’t figured it out! She was going to play Mary her whole life and would never know why! Because she wasn't the smart girl! I bore the agony of my knowledge nobly, channeling my dignity into my solemn reading of Luke 2: 1-20. Still, every year in early December I would feel a twinge of hope that maybe this was the year that Lisa K. would get the white robe—I mean, she did know how to read—and I’d get the blue one. And every year, just before the roles would be announced, I’d abandon that hope, and every year, adults would compliment me on what a good reader I was.
By our last Christmas at that church—our last church Christmas period, as we’d move to Oregon the following year, where my parents would quietly decide to scrap the church thing altogether—I’d aged out of the pageant. I’d been confirmed that spring; I was now an adult member of the congregation, not the mere child I was at 12. Luckily, a new crop of kids was ready to take over. The three boys as the Wise Men, the slightly older kids to be Mary and Joseph. There was even a well-behaved infant who would make a cameo as the Messiah.
They’d chosen a new angel, and it wasn’t a surprise who. A 7-year-old with strong reading skills, a flair for performance as evidenced during her occasional solo with our meager choir, and a headful of strawberry blond hair was the new angel. I’d felt a kinship with her even before the casting: She was smart, like me, a little quirky, like me. I was ready to retire, and at a sage 13 years old, I felt confident the role was being passed off in a fine manner. For the first time, I watched the pageant from the pews. I watched as the strawberry blond climbed the dais, swimming in my old robe, now rehemmed, and took her place at the pulpit.
Here, I am tempted to say my reaction was what it might be now, as an adult: that I watched a 7-year-old girl reciting scripture, and saw it for the charming act of religious pageantry it was, not as an enactment of the pretty-versus-smart balance of scales that existed in my head. That watching her, I understood my equation as a tender cruelty to both Lisa K. and myself, one I’d invented as a misguided way of navigating the beauty messages I was aware enough to pick up on but immature enough to handle poorly. I’d like to tell you that I watched a 7-year-old girl tripping on the hem of her angel’s robe, reciting scripture for the congregants to smile over, and saw that her prettiness was beside the point.
That would be untrue. I was still a child myself, one who had always assumed that her level of emotional maturity matched her level of intellectual maturity, which it didn’t. No: I looked at her, and looked at the girl who was playing Mary, and saw that she—the angel—was the pretty one. The lights fell upon that strawberry blond hair, her fair skin and freckles seeming impossibly adorable, and she read with the kind of expertise that I recognized. Instead of beginning to wonder if the smart-pretty equation was off in my head, I immediately assumed that it wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair, that this girl was the angel and pretty.
It was a sensation I’d have again a few months later, when my G&T dictionary cohort would exchange her thick glasses for contact lenses, revealing her enormous amber eyes—and thus, her babedom—for the world to see; I’d have it again when I started high school and found that the smart-kid program was full of pretty girls—girls who boys liked, girls who hadn’t fallen rank-and-file onto one balance of the scale or the other. Girls who would, eventually, lead me to see that smart vs. pretty was a game none of us actually wanted to play, a game engineered by a sensibility that was assuring a generation of young women that they could become whatever they wanted yet couldn’t let go of the checks and balances that had supported the status quo of femininity for so long. Girls who went on to be pilots, mothers, biologists, dancers. Girls whose own mental arithmetic may have stayed as private as my own, girls who may have decidedly chosen one but simply couldn’t help being the other too, girls whose scales bore different labels than mine but prompted the same shuttering of self. Girls who would have dismissed the notion of any pretty-versus-smart scale out of hand, had I ever shared that corner of my mind with them. Girls I would watch for the four critical years that make up high school. Girls who, maybe, watched me back.
I sat there, watching, jealous of a 7-year-old, and ashamed for that jealousy. I wasn’t above evaluating the looks of a second-grader, but I knew I should be above envying her for them. In time I would learn that pretty and smart played just fine together, finally giving credence to the evidence I saw everywhere around me. But I didn’t know that then. All I could do is listen to her recitation: Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people. She read beautifully.
*For more on this, check out Ambiguous Locks: An Iconology of Hair in Medieval Art and Literature, by Roberta Milliken.