Friday, September 13, 2013

"Modest is Hottest" - Let's put that phrase to rest

"'Modest is hottest' is the stupidest phrase ever, guys," I posted on twitter.  "Quit it." 


One of the stories on Good Morning America today featured a father who wanted to teach his teenaged daughter a lesson.  The daughter had evidently taken to wearing short shorts, so her dad decided that he would go out in public wearing a pair of Daisy Dukes himself.  It worked.  And I won't lie, I thought the story was hilarious. At the end of the segment, the father gave his personal motto: "Modest is hottest."

"'Modest is hottest,'" one of the anchors repeated.  "I like that.  I may have to steal that." They talked about the phrase as if it were something new.  It's not.  Christians have been using that phrase for years. I heard it in church groups from sixth grade up until I moved away. I heard it from my classmates in college. Actually, most of the people I've heard say "modest is hottest" are people I respect and admire. As finals week began this past school year, I received an email that went like this:

Ladies ~

Although it is getting warmer outside – “modesty” is still the “cool” way to dress. Please maintain consideration for male faculty and classmates and keep your clothing appropriate during the next week with finals.

No, it wasn't a joke.  My RD sent that email.  Last time I checked, an RD is responsible for things like funneling maintenance requests to the right people, hosting res hall meetings, making sure the residents don't destroy the apartments, and other such things.  I really don't believe that the phrase "keep tabs on the clothing habits of your residents" appears anywhere in the job description of a Resident Director.

"But isn't that good advice?" You may be thinking.  "Shouldn't we try to dress modestly?" Well, yes, it is good advice.  To a certain extent.  There are several reasons why I can't stand that "modest is hottest" phrase, though, and I mentioned it on twitter this morning after seeing the GMA story.  I'm sure the sentiment seemed strange coming from me.  I'm very careful about the way I dress on a daily basis, to the point where I'm about two steps away from dressing like a nun and my own mother has told me to lighten up.  Two of my friends asked me what I meant when I said that I don't like the phrase.  I started to respond before realizing that I have a lot of things to say about the topic.  It would take too long to type out on a phone.  I waited until I had time to sit down at a computer, and I figured that if I was going to take the time to work on a response I might as well use my blog.  So here I am.

The first question I got was this: "Do you mean the concept or the phrase itself?" The answer is both. Let's take a minute to talk about each one.

The Phrase Itself 

1) It makes us sound ridiculous. 

I have a tendency to think about words and word choices a lot, which is part of the reason why "modest is hottest" sounds silly to me.  Generally, if we're talking about appearances, the word "hot" is used to mean "sexual".  The whole point of the modesty movement among Christians is to save our sexuality for appropriate contexts, right?  That's why we're advocating modesty here, and that's why it seems like good advice.  It doesn't make sense to me, then, that we'd describe modesty as "hot" in the first place. It's basically saying that "modesty is the most sexual", which probably wasn't the point that this phrase was meant to make.  Am I over thinking?  Well, yes, it's what I do.  Still, the fact remains that we've made a phrase mean the exact opposite of what it says just because we like our platitudes to rhyme or sound catchy.  Which brings me to the next point: 

2) You can't solve the world's problems with one-liners. 

You know, church signs are great.  They serve a nice purpose when the words on them wish us a happy Easter or tell us what time the service starts.  But then you'll have those signs.  The ones that stand there, out in the open for the whole world to see, thinking that they're clever but failing dismally. You've seen them.  

  • "Prevent truth decay," one said, because apparently evangelism uses puns now. 

  • "We're not only Christians, but we are Christians only," said another that wasn't too concerned about being welcoming.  

  • "Who will play for Coach Jesus?" Said a nice guilt-inducer during football season. 

  • "50 Shades of Grace" says one that's trying too hard to be relevant. 

  • "IPod? IPad? Try iPray...God is listening!" Says a...ugh.  I can't.  I just can't.  Who thought that this was a good idea? 

Those first three are examples of church signs that I've driven past.  The last two come from a website that provides suggestions for what to put on church signs.  Yes, I am absolutely serious about that last statement.  

Here's the point: did any of those statements change your life in any way? Did any of them truly make you think?  No? Exactly.  Once, in a history class, my professor mention something about depression.  I don't remember what the context was.  What I do remember is that one kid who shouted "We live in a Prozac nation!" The end.  No follow-up.  This kid might have sparked a discussion, given examples, talked about why so many people suffer from depression or why he thinks anti-depressants are over-prescribed in this country.  But no.  Instead, he gave us a one-liner: a simple, catchy, quick moralistic statement that managed to isolate people who actually do suffer from depression.  One-liners don't work.  They're often made with good intentions, but they don't encourage conversation.  They don't open up pathways to problem-solving.  They are smug by nature. They are a simple declaration of "I am right, here is a clever statement to prove it, and that's the end of that." 

That's exactly what "modest is hottest" is.  It's a one-liner attempting to summarize an entire belief.  It just won't work. 

The Concept 

1) It shames women.  This is perhaps the saddest thing about the origin of the phrase "modest is hottest", because I know that the intention is the exact opposite of shame.  I can't speak for everyone who uses the phrase, but the people I know who say it mean to communicate love.  The intended message is simple: "You are important.  You are worth so much more than your sexuality alone. Please don't put so much focus on your sexuality.  Allow people the chance to notice your spirit and personality." I get that.  I applaud that message.  But the "modest is hottest" movement has warped the original intent and turned it into a device for shame.  Have you noticed, for example, that we only speak about modesty to women and girls? Men rarely, if ever, have to listen to lectures about how to dress appropriately to avoid "tempting others".  Do you think that the RDs for the male res halls sent out any emails like the one copied above?  I'd be willing to bet money that they didn't.  Recently, a blog post titled "FYI (if you're a teenage girl)" gained popularity.  The post was written by a mom of teenaged sons, a mom who very clearly cares about her kids and has taken the admirable step of being proactive in monitoring what they see online.  The post gets problematic for me when she talks about her "no second chance" policy.  If a girl posts an immodest picture, she's kicked off the boys' friend list and will not be re-added.  And that's it.  If those girls read this post, they can see in no uncertain terms that they have done something bad, they should be ashamed, and that they have no way to make up for it. Originally, this post also showed photos of these teenaged boys in their swim trunks, posing at the beach.  The blogger made the wise decision to replace those photos with other ones, but think about this: why is it okay for men to pose in swimsuits, and why is it not okay for women?  And by the way, I'm not advocating for anybody, male or female, to dress scantily in public.  I definitely believe in the importance of dressing appropriately. I'm just pointing out that there is a double standard here.  When women see the Christian community advocating this kind of modesty for women but not for men, we begin to think that there is something inherently more evil, more scandalous, about ourselves that we need hide. Ultimately, what women hear from "modest is hottest" is not "you are loved" but "your body is shameful, cover yourself up".  

Here's where this gets even more problematic. The attitude behind the phrase encourages rape culture. Oh, it's absolutely unintentional. Don't think I don't realize that. This may sound far-fetched to you, but hear me out. The point of saying (or emailing) a "modest is hottest" message to a group of women is to prevent men from being tempted.  Cover yourself up or the men around you might accidentally sin because of you.  So if you dress the wrong way, if you're not covered up enough to be deemed appropriately modest, and a man does happen to fall into temptation, it is entirely your fault.  We occasionally tell men to have respect for women, but generally we just tell women to cover up.  And that causes some completely horrifying implications. 

2) It insults men. Added to the above implication is the underlying assumption that men can't be held responsible for their thoughts and actions. There were three or four times in my high school education (it was a small Christian school) in which the girls and boys were separated after chapel.  The girls stayed with a female teacher inside while the boys went outside to talk to one of the male teachers. I have no idea what the guys talked about. Who knows, maybe they were being told to dress modestly, too. (I doubt it, but it could have happened.) What I do know is that we girls got the "modesty talk". We were told things like "make sure your skirts are long enough". That in itself is good advice when it doesn't come with a double standard, but it was never just about the length of the skirts. (And personally, I'm more concerned with the fact that child slaves are making a lot of those skirts than about the length of them. You never hear a speech about that.) We were always told that men are visual creatures, that they are driven by what they see. The youth pastor at the church I went to reinforced that idea. And I'm not questioning the validity of that statement. I'm not a guy, so I wouldn't know. But all of the emphasis was on men being visually-driven. Nobody in the "modest is hottest" movement ever acknowledges the fact that so many men are intelligent enough to be held accountable for their actions. The talks that I remember getting in the all-female groups at church or school made all men sound like they were driven by sex and sex alone. Just like we devalue women with this thinking, we devalue everything about men - their personalities, their intelligence, their goals, and all other important aspects -- and we reduce them to non-thinking animals that can't be expected to control themselves. And that's not correct or fair. 

All of this to say that I think we should retire the old cliche. So yes, do consider what other people see when you get dressed in the morning, but that applies to both sexes. Do make it a point to respect everybody, and again, that applies to both sexes. And remember to consider the deeper implications of the words we use so often, even if it does seem like good advice. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Childhood Cancer Awareness

Truly, I am grateful for the invention of penicillin.  I was grateful for it last week when it got rid of the strep throat illness that I woke up with one morning.  I’ll be grateful again on Saturday.  I’m less grateful right now since the strep is gone but I still have two more pills to take and the stupid things make me nauseated.  I’ve got things to do.  I don’t have time to keep my eyes closed all day because a crooked stack of books on the shelf  gave me motion sickness.  Seriously.    

But I only had to deal with medicines making me sick for a total of ten days.  After ten days I go right back to feeling fine.  I’ll throw away the prescription bottle and forget all about those pills.  A lot of people aren’t so lucky, and a lot of those people are children.  Imagine being a small child on medicine, medicine that requires regular trips to the hospital.  Your life may depend on it, but it’s also making you sick.  Children receiving chemotherapy or other forms of cancer treatment have major obstacles preventing them from just enjoying childhood.  

Childhood cancer research is ridiculously underfunded, too.  And you'd have a hard time finding out about any awareness campaign without digging for it.  Today I walked into a grocery store and found support for two different campaigns to fight breast cancer.  And yes, breast cancer needs to be fought.  But so does pediatric cancer, and in spite of the efforts of organizations such as Alex's Lemonade Stand  and CureSearch, the public just does not get to hear enough about how to help.  One of my former professors has a son who is basically a superhero.  He battled cancer as a very young child and is currently in remission.  This professor has been posting a lot about pediatric cancer awareness on facebook, and I had to ask her what organizations support childhood cancer.  Out of the list she gave me, I'd heard of one.  One.  And that's not for lack of effort on the part of the organizations, either.  

September is childhood cancer awareness month.  Take a moment to click on some of those links above to see how you can help.  

If you'd like to help an orphan with cancer, please turn your attention to Mark in Latin America.  He's currently battling Leukemia without a family to support him.  

Sunday, August 25, 2013


“Fifteen hundred people went into the sea when the Titanic sank from under us.  There were twenty boats floating nearby, and only one came back.  One.  Six were saved from the water, myself included.  Six.  Out of fifteen hundred.  Afterward the seven-hundred people in the boats had nothing to do but wait – wait to die, wait to live, wait for an absolution that would never come.”

A good sad movie should leave you with something.  A sense of hope.  A catharsis.  “Titanic”, the movie based off of the actual ship, doesn’t provide that for me, though I know it does for others.  I don’t cry when I watch the movie.  I just sit there with a hollow sense of depression and a Celine Dion song stuck in my head.  So much hopelessness and futility permeates those final scenes as water fills the boat, as people wait to drown, as people scream for help in the freezing ocean while those who steer the lifeboats paddle away and refuse to turn around.  The lifeboat pilots had an excuse.  Surely, as one character reasoned, if they had turned around the boats would have been swarmed by desperate people.  The boats would have gone under.

Oh, but wouldn’t it have been worth it to try?  To attempt to save even just one more life?  To release even one more person from the cruelty of the freezing water?  Would you be able to live with yourself knowing that you paddled to safety and ignored the dying?  Would it not be better to die than to live like that? 

More than six people could have been saved if only those lifeboats had turned around.  But the lifeboats just kept moving slowly in the other direction because the people inside counted their own lives, their own safety, as more important than everyone else’s. 

The one boat that turned around got there too late. 

Fifteen thousand people.  Six were rescued.  Six. 

Do you know where I’m about to go from here?

The Titanic is gone.  But there are so many people who are still waiting for a lifeboat.  You and I have managed to paddle to safety, to a world of comfort, plenty of food, of warmth, and of opportunity.  But we’re steadily rowing our lifeboats away from the people who are trapped and screaming for us to help them because we count our own safety and comfort as more important than theirs. 

The world had one hundred and forty three million orphans.  At least.  We have the lifeboats.  They have nothing to do but wait, just like those left in the ocean.  They’re waiting to live or to die.  We can do something.  If only eight percent of the Christians in the world chose to help just one child, the crisis would be over.  The children wouldn’t sink.  They wouldn’t be left to die.  But we’re all still rowing away and hoping that somebody else turns around.  Somebody else can risk being pulled into the water.  And as a result, only a few are rescued. 

The full weight of the Titanic tragedy hits during the scene when two men row a single lifeboat back out into the ocean.  “Is there anybody alive out there?”  One calls repeatedly, his voice echoing across the icy water.  “Is there anybody alive out there?” 

“These are all dead,” replies the other.  “We came too late.”

We came too late. 

Please.  Don’t be too late.  They’re calling for help.

Turn your boat around. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Les Miserables: "And the Righteous Hurry Past"

This post contains many, many, many spoilers for Les Miserables.  If you haven't seen the musical, watched the movie, or read the amazing novel by Victor Hugo, go do one of those things immediately, and then read this post.  You'll thank me later.  :) 

I fell in love with Les Miserables when I was fourteen years old and my mom gave me one of the cast albums for Christmas.  At the time I knew absolutely nothing about the show, and my mom only knew that it had won a bunch of awards.  I sat down with my pink CD player and headphones on Christmas day, and I listened to the entire album from start to finish.  It was beautiful.  I was confused about some of the finer points of the story, but I still loved it.  Since then, I've seen the show live twice, and I've watched the 25th Anniversary Concert DVD more times than I can count.

It's gotten much more attention now, though, since the release of the movie.  There are pros and cons to this movie, but overall I enjoyed it.  The thing that really bothers me, though, is the reaction that I've seen from several Christians.  Some love it, some hate it, but the most common response to the movie is:

"I thought it was good, but I wish there weren't so many inappropriate parts in it".

A lot of Christians have advised their friends to get the DVD so they can watch Les Miserables but fast forward past "Lovely Ladies", a song about prostitution.  The ClearPlay DVD player will automatically filter out all of those undesirable parts for you.  Yes, that thing actually exists.  Not only will it skip past "Lovely Ladies", it will also get rid of the profanities, blood, and violence.  Let me remind you that this musical is the story of a revolution.  Violence is sort of an integral part.

You'd miss all but 20 minutes of the film. 

So what is it that makes Les Miserables "inappropriate"?  Let's go back to the "Lovely Ladies" example.   The scene begins as Fantine, hoping to sell a necklace to earn money for her child, tentatively walks down a dark street.  Prostitutes in low-cut dresses sing loudly about all the different men they sleep with.  Customers make innuendos about male and female anatomy.  The audience hears solicitations, arguments, and jokes about STDs.  The song makes a lot of people uncomfortable.  It makes me uncomfortable.  I often skip past that song when I'm listening to one of the cast recordings.  But I don't look away when I'm watching the musical.  I'd be missing the point if I did.

See, the vast majority of Christians in developed nations lead easy lives.  Generally speaking, we have beds to sleep in, food to eat, and clothes to wear.  We get dressed up to go to church on Sundays.  We sing our songs.  We stay comfortable.  We have the luxury of protecting ourselves from what we think is inappropriate.  We filter out the sex and profanity.  And up to a certain point, that's fine.  It gets problematic, though, when we whitewash our religion and refuse to acknowledge that such things exist.

I cried harder at the end of "Lovely Ladies" than I did during any other scene of Les Miserables.  Fantine has just lost her job.  She has no way to provide for her child.  She sells a necklace, her hair, and two of her teeth.  Finally, as a last desperate resort, she turns to prostitution just like the rest of the women on that street.  We see her leading a strange man into a shack:

"Come on, Captain,
you can wear your shoes. 
Don't it make a change 
to have a girl who can't refuse? 
Easy money, lying on a bed. 
Just as well, they never see 
the hate that's in your head. 
Don't they know they're making love to one already dead?" 

After the man sleeps with Fantine, he gets up, buttons his pants, tosses some money in her direction, and walks away without a word.  It's as if Fantine isn't even human.  To this man, she isn't.  As far as he's concerned, she doesn't have a name, a personality, or a dream.  She's an object that can be used for sex and then ignored.  And as he walks away, we see the horrible emotional damage, the illness, the feelings of worthlessness, and the degradation that Fantine is left with.  

It's far too easy for us to look away, to ignore, to say "That's inappropriate.  I don't want to see that." And then we miss the message.  Our Christian filters work automatically now.  They very quickly declare "sex in a musical is bad" without stopping to think about why it might need to be there.  We can turn away from Fantine's plight if it offends our sensibilities, but so many people can't turn away because they live that life every single day.  They have no choice.  Fantine didn't choose prostitution.  Cosette didn't choose to be an orphan.  Eponine didn't choose poverty and crime.   But they got stuck with it anyway.  Just like millions and millions of people who live real lives outside of the movie screen.  

We have the choice to look away.  Fantine never had that choice.  What would you do if you found yourself among a group of prostitutes in reality instead of on the movie screen?  Would you offer kindness?  Would you fight to end the degradation?  Or would you turn away, forget their humanity, and decide that this is "inappropriate"?

I'd hope not, because Jesus never did.  The religious leaders of his day turned from what they thought was inappropriate, but Jesus didn't look away from the suffering.  He was right in the middle of it.  He ate meals with tax collectors.  He sat down with a woman who'd slept several men.   

The important thing to remember about Les Miserables is that the sex, profanity, and violence isn't there just to show sex, profanity, and violence.  It's there to remind us that suffering exists, that terrible things happen, and that so many hurting and desperate people are ignored by those who have the luxury to do so.  Consider these lyrics:

And the righteous hurry past.
They don't here the little ones crying,
and the plague is coming on fast, 
ready to kill.  One day nearer to dying. 

So when you watch Les Miserables or any other art that highlights human suffering, are you one of the "righteous" that hurry past in order to avoid being offended? Or will you open your eyes?  Challenge yourself to pursue the second option.  It might just help you to notice the suffering beyond the silver screen. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Three Hundred Broken Promises

"Mommy and Daddy will be right back," I always tell them.  My mother volunteers in a church nursery every Sunday.  If I happen to be home I'll join her in taking care of "my babies" for an hour.  We have the one-year-olds this year.  A decent amount of those kids will just saunter into the room and go straight for the snacks.  But a few still cry when their parents leave the room.  "Mommy and Daddy will be right back," I say as I try to distract them with toy cars.  "They're going to big church and then they'll come get you.  It'll be just a little while.  I promise."

But what if they didn't come back?  What if I couldn't keep that promise?  What if those parents just left, promising that they'd be right back, and then never returned?  What would those babies think?

It's a horrible thought.  But that's exactly what happened to some three hundred children in Russia.  Three hundred orphans were introduced to their adoptive parents.  And then the parents left because Russia required several trips before mothers and fathers can bring their children home.  They promised they'd be right back.

And then Vladimir Putin decided that these orphans shouldn't come home.  He figured that Russia's orphans made better political pawns than family members, so he signed the bill declaring that Americans may no longer adopt Russian orphans.

The children wait.  I can't bear to think about what must be going through the minds of those three hundred who me their parents already.  Why won't they come back to get me? They must wonder.  Did they change their minds about me?  Was I bad?  

Mommy and Daddy promised that they'd be right back.

300 Broken Promises  is a facebook page dedicated to helping these children be reunited with their parents.  Please go like the page for updates and for simple ways that you can help these children come home.  No child should have to wait as an orphan.