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Modest is Hottest?

June 26, 2014

That title phrase has been banging around within the evangelical circle for some time now.  There are blogs, fashion shows and conferences for Christian girls focusing on the need to dress modestly using the “Modest is Hottest” slogan.  The phrase bothers me for three reasons.

  1.  Just because something rhymes does not make it true.  It is not automatic that if I snooze I lose.
  2. It only actually rhymes if I allow myself to mispronounce hottest.
  3. The phrase is inherently contradictory.

Actually, the first two points are just annoyances to my peculiar self and I have no right to expect you to share them.  It is the third point that really gets me.  By any accepted definition of “hot” in any culture it means sexually attractive or even hugely sexually attractive.  You are declared “hot”, and in these liberated times we have pretty much achieve gender equality in hotness, when others find you to be wildly sexually attractive.

In the meantime, in our culture and any others I know of, the whole point of modesty is to not be overly sexually attractive.  There have been attempts to solve this modesty/hotness dilemma by giving one or the other words a Christian, or if we really want to be powerful, a “biblical” definition.   We say things like “When a Christian says ‘hot’ he means the fullness of the character of the person he is attracted to.”  No he doesn’t.  The very term hot comes from the biological reference to “in heat” and it is never understood in any other way than sexual.  We don’t get to make up definitions just so we can coin phrases.

Or we might tell girls to dress in such a way as to “leave room for the imagination;” a phrase I lifted right from a modesty blog.  The implication of that challenge is that getting guys to imagine you naked is somehow a great way to express your modesty.  This stance requires us to dismiss the evidence that the rate of sexual abuse is higher in cultures with extreme modestly taboos.

We usually then go on to develop arbitrary standards of modesty defined by such things as the precise distance between the knee and the skirt, the breast and the neckline, and whatever.  These standards never survive even short trips to other cultures; leaving us horrified about their immodestly for showing a navel as they are shocked at ours for showing an ankle.

So what do we do, other than dropping the stupid phrase in the title?  It is surely natural, right and normal for parents to be concerned about the ethics and safety of their children.  It would be great if we express this concern equally for boys and girls, rather than use the excessive girl-centric tactics common to evangelicals.  But as usual I don’t have any declarative advice so I will limit myself to some thoughts.

–          We need to accept that specific arbitrary modesty standards are cultural and not biblical.  Corrie ten Boom once said that most Christians feel that God’s last word on modest dress was what was popular when they were young and she is right.

–          Understand that modesty is subjective and personal.  The phrase “a sex object” is bandied about a lot.  Well, the truth is that, for everyone except you, a few people who love you dearly, and God, you are an object.  Everyone who passes me on the street or in the store sees me objectively.  Happily, I have reached the age where nobody sees me as a sex object, if they ever did.  But you can’t try to be modest by the standards of others because you will always find someone sure you were wrong.  Of course, it can also be said that trying to be hot to others is equally self-defeating.

–          If modesty is subjective and something I must decide personally; and if dressing with God in mind is my goal, then two things happen.  First, I am free to pursue modesty without succumbing to arbitrary standards, be they from the evangelical purity culture or secular fashion magazines.  (Actually, an elderly man putting concern about my submitting to fashion magazines seems rather odd, doesn’t it?)  In any event, the second point is that, whatever we end up with, modesty becomes something that I want to live even when I am entirely alone.  Attire becomes part of, but only part of, the goal of modesty before God.

I know that telling you to dress is such a way that you are pleasing to God is not helpful.  Sorry.  I know too that tomorrow, as you are standing looking into the closet, it is not likely God will give you fashion advice.  But the desire to please God is surely a lot more fulfilling than a desire to meet someone else’s arbitrary standard; and it has the additional benefit that He is a lot more gracious than the modesty, and/or fashion, police.


From → Christianity

  1. It seems that many counter-cultural revolutions are started with near terminology. I suppose the key word would be “counter”. If it draws one closer to God, it is effective. If not, it is worthless. The evil heart can not be tamed by human devices alone.

  2. Well, I share your concerns, but I also can see one sense that the title “Modest is Hottest” makes sense. If the goal is to get young people to reject what the culture says is attractive and instead turn to God’s standards, this encourages them in that direction. We just studied the book of Ruth and it seems her virtue is what attracted Boaz. Given that it’s explained, I think this is reasonable slogan to encapsulate redefining what “attractive” means. I like it for that. The strained rhyme still bothers me.

  3. David Worley permalink

    I only have an issue with “This stance requires us to dismiss the evidence that the rate of sexual abuse is higher in cultures with extreme modestly taboos.” I’m curious what that evidence is. My expectation is that sexual abuse is likely the same across cultures. With the biggest issue of how to count and track those abuses to get an accurate gauge.

    • David, the statistics come from both the UN and from various human rights groups. As you know,my wife works for an organization that ministers to abused women. You are correct that it is hard to know EXACTLY any sexual abuse statistics. Also,to be sure, cultures with strong modesty taboos have other factors that play into the matter. In some sense however an excessive obsession with modesty is just the flip side of an excessive obsession with sex. My point is that modesty is more than a list of rules and restrictions on dress code. In the same way immodesty is not just a style of dress but an attitude.

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