I remember the first time I heard the words chirped by an eager female college student as we discussed the topic of modesty. Her enthusiasm was mixed with perk and reprimand, producing a tone that landed somewhere between Emily Post and a cheerleader.
To be honest, my initial reaction to "modest is hottest" was amusement. I thought the rhyme was clever and lighthearted, a harmless way to promote the virtue described in 1 Timothy 2:9 and 1 Peter 3:3-4. No harm no foul.
Since then, I've heard this mantra of the pure proclaimed many times by young women, Christian artists (including, most famously, CCM singer Rebecca St. James), and Christian leaders. In conversations the phrase always elicits chuckles, but my response has changed over time. I still wholly affirm modesty as a biblical practice for men and women, but now I hesitate to embrace the "modest is hottest" banner. Those three words carry a lot of baggage.
The Christian rhetoric of modesty, rather than offering believers an alternative to the sexual objectification of women, often continues the objectification, just in a different form.
As the Christian stance typically goes, women are to cover their bodies as a mark of spiritual integrity. Too much skin is seen as a distraction that garners inappropriate attention, causes our brothers to stumble, and overshadows our character. Consequently, the female body is perceived as both a temptation and a distraction to the Christian community. The female body is beautiful, but in a dangerous way.
This particular approach to modesty is effective because it is rooted in shame, and shame is a powerful motivator. That's the first red flag. Additionally concerning about this approach is that it perpetuates the objectification of women in a pietistic form. It treats women's bodies not as glorious reflections of the image of God, but as sources of temptation that must be hidden. It is the other side of the same objectifying coin: one side exploits the female body, while the other side seems to be ashamed of it. Both sides reduce the female body to a sexual object.
Of course, this language isn't new. Consider how profoundly the female identity has been negatively linked to her body throughout church history. For several decades now, feminist theologians have critiqued the mind-body dualism by which Christians have equated men with the mind and women with the carnal body. Citing Eve as the original "gateway for the Devil," thinkers such as Tertullian have peppered Christian tradition with hostility toward the wiles of femininity. Origen likened women to animals in their sexual lust. According to author Jane Billinghurst, "Early Christian men who had to greet women during church services by shaking their hands were advised to first wrap their hands in robes so as to shield their flesh against their seductive touch."
In response to this aspect of the Christian tradition, Rosemary Radford Ruether and other feminist theologians have over the past 50 years rightly challenged the mind-body dualism by which women were thought to be "modeled after the rejected part of the psyche," and are "shallow, fickle-minded, irrational, carnal-minded, lacking all the true properties of knowing and willing and doing."
All this negative talk about the female body may have created a vacuum for the "modest is hottest" approach to fill. Perhaps the phrase's originator hoped to provide a more positive spin on modesty. I sympathize with that. However, "modest is hottest" also perpetuates (and complicates) this objectification of women by equating purity with sexual desire. The word "hot" is fraught with sexual undertones. It continues a tradition in which women are primarily objects of desire, but it does so in an acceptable Christian way.
Making modesty sexy is not the solution we need. Instead, the church needs to overhaul its theology of the female body. Women continue to be associated with their bodies in ways that men are not. And, as a result of this unique association, women's identities are also uniquely tied to their bodies in a manner that men's identities are not.
How do we discuss modesty in a manner that celebrates the female body without objectifying women, and still exhorts women to purity? The first solution is to dispense with body-shaming language. Shame is great at behavior modification, even when the shaming is not overt. But shame-based language is not the rhetoric of Jesus. It is the rhetoric of his Enemy.
Second, we must affirm the value of the female body. The value or meaning of a woman's body is not the reason for modesty. Women's bodies are not inherently distracting or tempting. On the contrary, women's bodies glorify God. Dare I say that a woman's breasts, hips, bottom, and lips all proclaim the glory of the Lord! Each womanly part honors Him. He created the female body, and it is good.
Finally, language about modesty should focus not on hiding the female body but on understanding the body's created role. Immodesty is not the improper exposure of the body per se, but the improper orientation of the body. Men and women are urged to pursue a modesty by which our glory is minimized and God's is maximized. The body, the spirit and the mind all have a created role that is inherently God-centered. When we make ourselves central instead of God, we display the height of immodesty.
That is not to say that godly women will not attract godly men with their modesty. They might. But that is not the purpose of modesty. If "modest is hottest" encapsulates the message we communicate to young women about modesty, then we have missed the mark. "Modest is hottest" is foundationally human-centered, whereas biblical modesty is first and foremost centered on God.