Modest is hottest. It’s a phrase that was coined a few years ago to convince Christian women that dressing modestly is sexy and attractive. Because that’s what women care about, right? The male gaze. Knowing that they’re considered pretty and desirable despite ankle-length pants and neck-high collars.
I hate this phrase and everything it communicates. Hate it, hate it, hate it.
It’s not because I like to walk around in short dresses and cleavage-baring shirts. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a skirt in my closet, let alone one that falls above the knee. I love pants, and I’d rather not spend my day constantly adjusting a low-cut shirt to ensure that my “girls” are properly concealed. But every time someone says, “Modest is hottest,” my shoulders go up around my ears. A friend said it on Facebook last summer, and I responded with, “True. I wore jeans outside the other day and nearly had a heat stroke.” (Perhaps not my finest moment.)
“Modest is hottest” is a phrase that needs to disappear. Immediately. It needs to be completely erased from the Christian lexicon—because it plays right into the secular objectification and hyper-sexualization of women.
Let me explain.
Growing up as a woman in a fundamentalist evangelical community meant that I was often the target of modesty teachings. Men were visual, I was told, and a spaghetti strap, a too-short hemline or a too-thin shirt might cause them to look at me in a sexual way. Never mind that I was in elementary school. Never mind that I lived in Florida with 100+ degree summers and 90 percent humidity. Never mind that my body was about as flat and unexciting as a porch plank. Someone might still try to sexualize my body.
Except that my church had already sexualized my body by teaching these things.
As young as 6, 8, and 10 years old, my friends and I were viewed by our parents and leaders as potential objects of lust and temptation. The fact that a teen or grown adult man could become sexually aroused by our uncovered knees and shoulders was viewed as normal. While we were told this was sinful, it was never suggested that this would be an out-and-out perversion. Men were simply weak and fallible in this way, and it was our job to keep them from sinful thoughts. So we were taught to dress carefully, with a mind toward our brothers’ (and fathers’ and pastors’) mental purity. We were told that our outward modesty reflected our respect and inner worth.
And then as we grew into teens, the script changed a bit. We were told that good Christian boys and men wanted modest girls. Now we were dressing modestly to attract men. Women who let it all hang out were loose and dirty. They had no mystery. Men might look at them and lust, but what they were really seeking was a pure woman all wrapped up like a present under the Christmas tree. We had to stay wrapped or the surprise would be spoiled, our inner worth compromised.
Thus, modesty became eroticized, virginity fetishized, our bodies both infantilized and hyper-sexualized. Worse, our bodies became disposable. Our bodies were simply vessels for the gift of purity, and our value was determined by how many fingerprints were on the box. If someone “unwrapped” you before your wedding day, you became a cup of spit, a licked candy bar, a white sheet rolled in the mud. Consumed. Polluted. Spent.
No doubt, the secular world objectifies women all the time. Women’s bodies are used to peddle all manner of items: clothes, cars, jewelry, perfume, cheeseburgers—even men’s suits. The media tells even professional women that their value is in their beauty and size. Newscasters spend more time talking about the outfits worn by female politicians than their policies, and Miss America gives away college scholarships based on how good their applicants look in a swimsuit. Once the beauty is spent, the value is lost.
But at least a woman can remain beautiful into her golden years. At least there are cosmetic procedures that can restore what was lost to age, childbirth and accident.
In conservative Christianity, not even the blood of Jesus restores sexual purity. Not even the Holy Spirit erases a woman’s forbidden encounters with men. It is a loss that must be grieved, forgiven, and resented.
And yet, somehow, these Christians claim they value women more than the secular world does.
– They don’t see how the sexualization of prepubescent bodies results in the perpetration and normalization of child sexual abuse.
– They don’t see how the sexualization of modesty places women in an impossible double bind where they are dressing to simultaneously attract and deflect the lustful male gaze.
– They don’t see how the fetishization of virginity blinds everyone to the imago Dei expressed in women’s bodies and renders them disposable.
Sayings like “modest is hottest” show that the Church’s focus is in the wrong place. They show that our minds have not yet been transformed by the gospel. They show that we’re still thinking and operating from a secular worldview that objectifies women and ties their value to physical things. It says a lot about our doctrine when conservative Christians make up the largest percentage of porn viewers in the country. Don’t come telling me that’s merely a matter of “spiritual warfare.” It’s because of this right here. We’ve got our eyes on the wrong thing.
“The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” ~ 1 Samuel 16:7b
Church, a woman is not valuable because she wears the “right” clothes. She is not valuable because she “saved herself” for marriage. She is not valuable because she is married, bears children, or is nurturing. She is valuable because she is a person, an image bearer of our Holy, Almighty God.
We need to learn to look as the Lord looks. I promise, if we got our eyes off of hemlines and onto hearts, we’d resolve a great deal of dysfunction in our faith.