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:
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.
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.