Original request (received 8/17/14 – sorry to be a bit of a slacker!): “What are your thoughts on “Modest is hottest”?” My initial reaction, honestly, is that, if it weren’t for the sexism and judgment, the slant rhyme would be kind of clever. Of course, because this phrase is mostly entirely applied to (religious) women, it’s not clever or cute, but frustrating and shallow. It’s yet one more way women are judged by appearance and it reinforces the idea that women are valued only by their sex appeal: we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. If we don’t cover up, we’re sluts; if we do cover up, we’re sexy, according to the modest-is-hottest logic. Either way, it reinforces the idea that women exist for physical and sexual consumption of others. Women are never free from sexualization and objectification, even if we do hide the bodies that “cause” men to stumble.
The emphasis is not on a woman’s choice of dress for *herself* but about what will be most appealing to gawking others. The idea that “modest is hottest” comes from the purity-culture notion that women’s value comes from their ability to be sexually pleasing to a man. What you’re saying in “modest is hottest” is that you, as a woman should want to be “hottest” because what love and not being alone are really about are competing in the marketplace where others get to judge you as worthy or not based on physicality and sexuality alone. Never mind what you want for yourself, your desire should be to do whatever you can to be attractive to others, not to mention that “hottest” is a comparison word. So, rather than work towards healthy connection, you should also want to compete with your friends and be better than them because we don’t struggle enough with comparing ourselves to others (and never measuring up).
Full disclosure: I generally make a concerted effort to dress “modestly” (the definition, of course, varies: I don’t only wear full-length skirts, I don’t have long hair that covers my shoulders and I do wear strapless dresses for special occasions and bikinis) but it’s a choice I made based on what feels comfortable to me. Other women are, in my opinion, completely free to make a different choice and not be judged for it. One of the main reasons I make the modest choice is because I’m so sick of being catcalled, elevated-eyed, whistled at and otherwise verbally harassed for simply walking while female outside my own home. I’d actually rather be judged as “prude” (which is what other subcultures call modesty) than once again, be sized up sexually. But “modest is hottest” basically means that there is no end to the sexual measuring stick as a woman’s only worth…and no way of measuring up, either.
Mostly, I think the phrase is an oxymoron. A damaging, dehumanizing contradiction that – and I say this as a Christian – needs to stop. Modesty, as I mentioned, used to largely be about *stopping* unwanted sexual attention, which of course came from a misplaced sense of blame that a woman is responsible for a man’s impulse control (which, in my opinion, is as demeaning to men as it is to women). But now, even modesty is about sex. And really, in the mindset that others get to judge women’s worth by their physical appeal or sexual prowess, nobody wins. Both women and men are worth far more than the apparatus of sexual control so deeply imbedded into our relationships with one another (which is what we were really made for); “modest is hottest” is a small but not unarmed contributor to this damaged and diseased system.