Every time Sister Nancy Ruth turned on the television, a nun would be waiting. “Movies, TV shows—just something about nuns whenever I’d turn on the TV. Every time,” she says. She took it as a calling to become a nun, but her family responsibilities meant she couldn’t live in a convent. “So I prayed about it. I said, ‘God, you know what my situation is. I can’t go into a convent, I can’t be cloistered.’ The very next day, I opened a magazine called the Anglican Digest, and there was an ad for the Order of St. Andrew. He answered my prayer.” She’s been a nun with the Order of St. Andrew—which allows its brothers and sisters to live independently, hold jobs, and marry—for 17 years, and she became life-professed in 2000. In addition to her responsibilities within the order, she works as a pharmacy technician. We talked about the inherent femininity of a habit, the way our clothes might advertise our values, and where a gal can get a good vodka tonic. In her own words:
I don’t think being a nun requires you to be unfeminine. I feel very feminine in my habit. I generally don’t dress for anyone but myself, so the idea of going out and trying to impress somebody else through what I wear just isn’t going to happen. Me in a strapless evening gown was never going to happen, whether I was a nun or not. It’s not because I don’t ever feel girly or sexy, but that form of sexiness isn’t going to be who I am.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever consciously tried to feel sexy. I’ve experimented a little bit more now that I’ve lost some weight; I’ve experimented with showing a little skin. Like, I have a dress that shows more cleavage than I’ve ever shown, and it’s a little uncomfortable to wear because it exposes more than I ever have in my entire life. But I found the right undergarment that gives the right kind of support, and I found the right necklace to go with it, one that sort of covers a lot of the area. The outfit isn’t necessarily revealing, but the effect is more intentional than anything I’ve worn before. I’ve survived! People have liked the look.
Makeup depends. Fingernail polish should be clear or very pale when you’re in habit. Most of the sisters wear at least foundation. I normally wear eyeshadow, eyeliner, and mascara, but in habit I don’t wear any makeup at all. My eyes are one of my better features, so I like them to stand out. It’s just a way to feel girly, I guess. In the summertime I wear mostly dresses. They’re comfortable and cool without pantyhose, but I also wear them to feel girly. Feeling girly to me might mean a little bit of eye makeup, jewelry, perfume. My hair is short now, but I never had to cut my hair because I was a nun. I was worried about that because I had long hair when I first became a nun, but if you can keep it under the veil you can have your hair long.
Still, I don’t consider myself particularly feminine, at least not that classic Southern belle kind of feminine. I’ve always been very capable and strong, physically too, and I just couldn’t imagine acting like I wasn’t capable for any length of time. But as a nun, the first thing people see is that I am a woman. Having been mistaken for a boy on more than one occasion, it’s sort of nice to be seen as definitively female. Being a nun is a very traditional female role, and it’s an empowering role. People tend to think of nuns as being disempowered, but they’re not, not in my church. About the only thing I can’t do that a priest can is the actual mass, the different unctions, that sort of thing. But I can do sermons, I write homilies. I can counsel if someone asks me—it’s not as formal as it would be with a priest, but I don’t feel in any way limited as a nun. Women can be ordained in the Episcopal Church, but I was called to be a nun; I’m not called to be a priest. In college, a professor put the words “I am” on the board and had us finish that sentence three times as a way of defining ourselves. I don’t remember what I put then, but the answer now would be: I am a nun, I am a woman. I am an Anglican would probably be the third one.
On Wearing the Habit
The first time I put on the habit, it was like stepping into my own skin. It was wonderful. The order was probably the very first group I’ve ever felt comfortable with as quickly as I did; within two hours of meeting everybody I felt so comfortable. And it’s still comfortable to be with the order, and to wear the habit. When I put on the habit, it’s like putting on a hug. It almost feels like I’m physically being held by God at those times, more so than when I’m in my street clothes.
I used to joke that I became a nun so I didn’t have to make a choice about what to wear. And there are times when I’d really just rather live in the habit. One of the things I love when we get together as an order is that for four days, that’s all I wear. It’s interesting in those situations because someone will say “sister” and we all turn around! But it’s wonderful because we know each other’s personality more than we know each other’s looks. Depending on when each of us get up in the morning, there are some sisters I’ve never seen out of habit. So you have to look beyond the looks; you have to know the person. It’s a little different with the guys—they’re all wearing habits but they don’t cover their heads, and hair is such a distinctive feature on people. But even with them you get to know the person as opposed to the looks, and it’s a perfect example of how you can be friends with members of the opposite sex, even when you’re both heterosexual. Some of my best friends are brothers.
As a nun I represent my order, and I represent Christ, so there are things I can’t do. Like, I absolutely cannot smoke. It’s not officially written down, but when your mother [in the order] says no smoking… And we can drink, but we cannot get drunk. Our order meets twice a year, and before I moved and was closer to the order I’d fly up. We’d all go to one of the airport bars and you’d see six or seven of us, all nuns and priests, sitting around drinking. That was probably pretty funny to see—us stepping up to the bar and saying, “Can I have a vodka tonic?”
The habit has left me feeling not particularly self-conscious about my body. I’ve never hated my body or anything; I’ve been comfortable with myself for a fairly long time. But I’ve lost 80 pounds since 2009, mostly for health reasons, and it’s a nice feeling to look at old pictures of myself and see the difference. I suppose I feel more positive in that respect. If body image comes into play it’s more that I can say I look good, as opposed to just feeling comfortable. I tend to hide my body a lot, and you could say that maybe being in the habit does that as well, but it’s also like being the only pink bead in a bowl full of black beads. You stand out in a habit. So I don’t really think of it as hiding my body. When I started wearing the habit, I stopped being the fat lady. Instead I became the nun. It frees you up from a lot of society’s expectations; you’re exempt as a nun. You don’t have to be a part of a couple; you don’t have to be that certain societally defined form of sexually attractive. You can be by yourself—you’re expected to be by yourself, or with a group of nuns. So even though I stand out, I also feel less conspicuous. As a nun it’s not quite as uncomfortable to be alone.
Modesty is a Christian belief, in part because Christianity is about loving God and loving others as you love yourself. Being humble and not putting yourself first is probably the hardest thing a religion asks you to do. But at the same time, you have to value yourself before you can value others. So you dress in a way that shows you value your body, that your body is not out there for someone else to exploit. I see a lot of girls who dress in a way that looks a bit like they’re exploiting themselves. Sex is so much more intimate than whatever you’d wear to a bar. It’s so much more meaningful that I can’t imagine selling it that short, being that blasé about it. Your clothes are an advertisement of yourself: How do you value yourself? Are you modest? Are you for sale? The idea is that if you value yourself as a person, your clothes will reflect that. You’ll make yourself up because you want to feel good about yourself; you won’t wear makeup if you don’t really want to. And you’ll never make yourself up like a fool.
There might be some religious rules about not wearing makeup, keeping your head covered, not wearing jewelry—but that has more to do with showing off and being proud. In my case, I cover my head because it’s part of the habit, sure. But it also takes away from people looking at me as a sexual person. When I’m wearing my habit, I’m advertising that I’m a nun—I’m advertising that I’m not really supposed to be seen as a sexual person. I’m supposed to be seen as more of a religious person.
I consider myself married to God. I’m not wearing my wedding ring today; the ring has gotten too big, and my last ring guard fell off this morning and I can’t find it. Nuns in my order can be married, but your very first commitment is to God, before anything else. But I’ve never really thought about dressing for God, because God knows your heart. God knows me naked. He knows me naked physically and emotionally and spiritually. He knows all the dark secrets, even ones that I don’t want to know for myself, and the fact that he still loves me is important. When people say to take pride in yourself, what I take from that is that God created you individually as you are, and you’re a good person, and he loves you as you are. Does that mean you shouldn’t get better? I mean, God loved me when I was 265 pounds, and he doesn’t love me better now that I weigh less. My love for God helped me say, “God made something really good and I’m screwing it up”; I really wasn’t treating my body well. But when you’re talking about appearance, there’s not really any changes I would make for God. I dress in habit, okay. But living as he would want me to live—showing love to others, being humble, treating others with love and acceptance and patience even when it’s hard—I guess that’s how I dress for God.
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