by Delphine Burns
You’re scrolling down your Facebook newsfeed and something catches your eye. A bold, dogmatic heading confronts you, causing you to stop and click. You read it once, then again, whether you find it inspirational or problematic. Taking a moment to assess the words, you form an opinion. If it’s a strong opinion, perhaps you save the media or repost it. If not, you continue scrolling down the page, perusing other posts.
Recently, a post Upworthy made on Facebook snatched my attention. It had the words “modest is hottest” with two neat lines drawn diagonally through them. I clicked on it, wondering what the angle was. It went on to say “if we are teaching girls that the primary objective of dressing modestly is to protect males from having sexual thoughts about them, we are teaching that they are responsible for others’ thoughts and that they are primarily sexual objects in need of covering. Those are lies. We complicate it even more by saying modest is “hottest,” which again teaches a girl to dress modestly for the benefit and approval of others rather than for herself.” (www.upworthy.com)
This interested me, because for years I went to school with a group of girls who had shirts with the same assertion on them. “Modest is hottest” was scrawled across the front of these shirts in big, obnoxious letters. For years, the shirts made sense to me. Naively, I thought they encouraged the type of modesty associated with humility and unpretentiousness. However, I learned later they were shirts distributed by a Christian Youth Group preaching that girls should be virginal, pure and modest in a very different sense of the word.
I didn’t come across the phrase “modest is hottest” again until stumbling upon this Facebook blurb. Presently, the connotation of modesty is so different, and I now see the issues plainly that I have with these shirts, and with this slogan in general.
Modesty shouldn’t be about what you wear, what type of makeup you apply, or how many people you choose to be sexually involved with. Modesty should be more about how you treat others and yourself in regard to arrogance and selfishness. It’s a little unreasonable to associate a character trait such as modesty with promiscuity or external portrayal of one’s self.
This makes me think of the extremely misguided argument that women who are sexually expressive and uninhibited are not respecting themselves. Respect is another word that, like modesty, has been twisted by society to be associated with a whole different set of ideals and ethics than it ever had been before. Respect isn’t about what you do or with whom sexually; it’s about how you perceive yourself and others, and how you treat them accordingly.
Skewed perceptions of these words cause society to believe that individuals lack modesty and respect when they are sexually unreserved, or dress in unconventional manners. This is not the case. It is the case that society can’t distinguish what is and isn’t relevant to assessing human qualities anymore. We’re still a society that views pleasure as incredibly “sinful,” causing us to believe that if we are open about what is pleasurable to us, we lack basic valuable qualities and attributes.
The next concept intertwined into the whole problem with this slogan is basically the only one addressed in this blurb by Upworthy. This issue stems from the notion that females operate under the concept of the “male gaze.” This essentially means that women’s actions are commonly affected by how she thinks a man will perceive it, or even whether it will be pleasing to a man. Society needs to depart from this obsolete bullshit and recognize that many women do, and should, center their actions on themselves, not men. This blurb appropriately addresses the problems with this concept that women are dressing “modestly” to attract men, or that women are dressing “provocatively” to attract men. What if women simply prefer one style to the other? What if dressing this way is pleasing to her? The “modest is hottest” slogan disempowers women and is just infinitely problematic from a feminist perspective.
For many reasons, this slogan is ignorant. While on the surface it may seem innocent and even viable, it’s pretty sexist and misleading. The evolution of word connotations is partially to blame, but so is the detrimental concept of the “male gaze.” Slogans like this need to be abolished so that we can be reminded that respect is not aesthetic, shallow, or chauvinistic.