Saturday, July 30, 2011

Modest is not Hottest

Over the last few years I've frequently heard the slogan that "Modest is Hottest". More recently I've heard it used along with a quote by Emma Watson the actor who played Hermoine Granger in the Harry Potter movies. While I certainly support the advocacy for modesty I believe that the "Modest is Hottest" slogan and the comments by Emma Watson are honorable but misguided. Before proceeding with my explanation on why I think they are misguided I want to emphasize that my intent is not to attack Ms. Watson nor those who recite the "Modest is Hottest" slogan, but I want to share an observation on how ingrained societal values may interfere with our efforts to promote modesty.

Here is the pertinent part of the interview with Ms. Watson:

‘I find this whole thing about being 18 and everyone expecting me to be this object… I find the whole concept of being ‘sexy’ embarrassing and confusing. If I do a photo-shoot people desperately want to change me – dye my hair blonder, pluck my eyebrows, give me a fringe. Then there’s the choice of clothes. I know everyone wants a picture of me in a mini-skirt. But that’s not me. I feel uncomfortable. I’d never go out in a mini-skirt. It’s nothing to do with protecting the Hermione image. I wouldn’t do that. 
‘Personally, I don’t actually think it’s even that sexy. What’s sexy about saying, “I’m here with my boobs out and a short skirt… have a look at everything I’ve got”? My idea of sexy is that less is more. The less you reveal the more people can wonder.’

In this quote Ms. Watson makes an argument for modesty and the justification for modesty is that being modest is more sexy than being immodest, a similar sentiment is contained within the "Modest is Hottest" slogan. I'm aware of two definitions of the word "hottest" as it is used in this context. The first would be claiming that modesty is the most popular.  It is obvious that this interpretation is simply inaccurate.  The second definition would be the claim that modesty is more sexy.

The concern that I have with Ms. Watson's comments and the "Modest is Hottest" slogan is that both seem to be promoting modesty as a way to achieve greater sexiness. Both seem to recognize the negative effects of immodesty on girls and society but they ignore an underlying driver for immodesty which is a desire to be sexy. Women are constantly bombarded with messages saying that they must be sexy and a woman's value in society is largely based on their ability to arouse men's sexual desires. We are taught that a sexy women are valuable, loved and powerful. We as a society have so deeply accepted the role of a woman as a sex object that even when trying to promote modesty we do so by arguing for modesty as a means to achieve the goal of being even more sexually attractive. I do not believe that the purpose of modesty is to be sexy in fact I think the purpose of modesty is to not be sexy. This is not to say that a modest woman can not and will not be attractive*, but her attractiveness, personality, intelligence and kindness will be allowed to show because those around her will not be distracted or repeled by her immodest exposure. When we argue for modesty as a way to achieve greater sexiness any gains in modesty will be shallow and short lived. Furthermore we only re-enforce the incorrect and damaging view that a women's worth is defined by their sexual appeal.

When arguing for modesty we should not just argue for better behavior. We should instead expect better behavior by instilling in women a greater understanding of the true value of women and womanhood. As society learns to truly value women and not just their bodies then there will be no need for immodest clothing as immodesty will impart no perceived value nor power.

The interview with Ms. Watson is found here. Warning many of the pictures of Ms. Watson in the interview portray her in immodest clothing.

* A couple of notes. First I am not claiming that a woman should never be sexy, nor that a modest woman will not ever be sexually attractive. I'm arguing against the overt predominent sexuality promoted by immodest clothing. Secondly note that I am distinguishing between being attractive and sexy, unfortunately society unnecessarily conflates these two attributes.


Emily said...

The thing that bugged me about the interview was her saying something about other people wanting to see her in a miniskirt -- as if she didn't want to do it, then there were all these pictures of her in a miniskirt!

I also think it will be pretty funny when she does show some serious skin in a film and people go up in arms about it after this modesty quote/picture that's been passed around. If you read the whole article she never said she won't go nude -- if it fits her part, she'll do it.

I do think she's darling and she's got some good ideas, but I feel she's just not completely there on the modesty thing and I don't think people realized that.

michelle said...

I agree that the goal of women in general (modest or immodest) should not be sexiness.

I do think some of the slogans for clothes lines have been a little bit tongue in cheek, but I do think ultimately it just perpetuates the women as objects approach. I also believe that if that approach is going to end, women have to be the ones to stand up and say something.

Something, for example, like NO when asked to be photoed in a miniskirt. I think Emma Watson has a good start, but I think she needs to follow through on what she says. Imagine if a few high-profile women did this.

Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

I agree... society wants to conflate attractive and sexy, and it's a bad combination. Teaching modesty as *not* just a clothing topic is harder than laying out a list of do/don't maxims for wardrobing; true modesty and virtuous character are concepts that transcend gender, and are so much more valuable to absorb!

Trying to get away from the modest=clothing paradigm is SO hard, particularly with such twee slogans as "Modest is hottest."

Kalani Kelly said...

The pictures from that article weren't taken with the article...these are pictures gathered over time. If you look at the pictures you will notice that for an actress her age she is fairly conservative...scarcely any cleaveage to be seen. It's not like we can judge her based on some EFY ehad shoulders knees and toes when she hasn't grown up in that environment at all. Perhaps we can make it an intersting study in what others think of as modest.

I'm glad she voiced the pressure on a young actress to break from this how we do it? not with maturity and depth but with clothes? Interesting.

I've always thought the modest is hottest thing mean that we ourselves...our personalities, our minds...we are more attractive than our bodies. When we dress modestly it frees the person to be attracted to all of us and get to know our whole self instead of stopping skin deep.

Amanda D said...

I agree with everything you said. However, I also think that being modest is so much more than clothes. It's the way we talk, act, live and dress.

I also think that as members of the LDS church we tend to think that everyone should dress as though they are endowed. When I was a teenager, I wore sleeveless shirts and short shorts, but I wasn't immodest. The shorts wouldn't cover my garments now, but they weren't so short (or tight) that I was revealing too much.

Amanda said...

I agree with Kalani.

Emily said...

I totally agree, Amanda. I've kind of struggled with the extreme modesty lately (endowed look), particularly for little girls - shorts to knees, always sleeves. In HS I wore mid-thigh or longer shorts and I had 2 sleeveless tops in my wardrobe. I knew I couldn't wear them later and that was fine. Sometimes I wonder if we're going too far, but then I wonder maybe it's just an obedience thing. Or maybe times have changed enough since I was a kid, that it is time to raise the bar? I haven't let my daughters wear sleeveless, but I do let them have not-knee-length shorts. So don't know. It's kind of a tough one there; I totally get ya.

Jamie said...

So about the endowed modesty look...I personally think it's just a good habit. Why make it so that you have to change your wardrobe when you get endowed? My little kids can wear shorter shorts (heck, I think their chubby legs are cute) but the older my daughters get, the more I encourage longer shorts. I want it to be an easy transition for them when they got to the temple. Also, I'd rather err on the side of caution in this over sexualized society.

Unknown said...

While I agree that in a perfect world, we wouldn't conflate modesty with sexuality and we would be able to move totally beyond objectifying women in the media, I do believe the slogan "modest is hottest" has good marketing value.

Here's why:

0. It's a move toward modesty.

1. It's short and sweet.

2. It's memorable.

3. It makes a lasting impression.

4. Adolescent LDS girls don't necessarily equate the term "hot" with "sexually attractive". They seem to use term to mean "cute".*

I think "modest is hottest" is a good "Terrestrial" stepping stone that will ultimately get us to the "Celestial" solution we want.

Ultimately, I agree that it's inferior, since it does herald back to the world of sexual objectification we disdain, but I do believe it's an effective step in the right direction.

* I realize your piece isn't limited to LDS adolescent girls, but they are probably the primary target audience for this slogan.

michelle said...

" It's not like we can judge her [Emma Watson] based on some EFY ehad shoulders knees and toes when she hasn't grown up in that environment at all"

I think the point is, though, that she isn't living by what is comfortable to HER, what her standards are. Yes, she may be conservative compared to others, but in my view, if she brought up the miniskirts and such, it'd be a lot more powerful if she actually said no to wearing them. Imagine what could happen if a few high-profile women were to actually do this. I'm sure she's not the only one who realizes her body is being used and sexified to make money.

Scroll down in this post to watch the video and read the thoughts of a famous musician in Europe did along these lines.

Cheryl said...

Thank you for this insightful posting, Emily.

On the one hand, one could argue that Ms. Watson's modesty talk is simply part of a sophisticated PR strategy--making her more attractive and appealing because she is unwilling to uncover as much skin. On the other hand, it is true that wearing a mini-skirt as part of an otherwise OK outfit is not seen as immodest by any of the world's standards.

I suppose time will tell whether her comments about modesty actually come from the heart. (If she does appear nude at some point in some film, the decision will be made in my mind!)


Anonymous said...

I really like this, for the most part. The only part I take issue with is the comment, "in fact, I think the purpose of modesty is to not be sexy." Ironically, this is still defining modesty by sexuality, the premise of which I believe is flawed.

Kami said...

Good point! And good comments. Thanks for sharing.

Evan said...

@All, Thanks all for the comments. A few commented about her immodest pictures. I want to stress that I didn't mention the immodest pictures to portray Ms. Watson as a hypocrite, but simply to warn those that the article contains pictures that may not be in line with their standards. I do not think Ms. Watson is a hypocrite and I take her at her word, nor do I expect LDS standard of dress from her. My main point was showing how society's views of women can affect discussions of modesty.

@icnebavo, Thanks for the comment. You are right. My lame attempt to define modesty reflects my part in a culture that is infatuated with sex. I also neglected to define what modesty *is* instead I defined what it *isn't*. Perhaps a better definition of modesty would be "a manner of personal presentation that frames and accentuates ones positive attributes and character".

Kimberly said...

" Perhaps a better definition of modesty would be "a manner of personal presentation that frames and accentuates ones positive attributes and character"."

I LOVE this. That's exactly what modesty means and I don't think I've ever heard it presented better.

Marina said...

"We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may."

Do we? DO we???

In my experience, modesty had been used as a weapon to beat those who do not conform EXACTLY to LDS standards. BOTH of my daughters have been 'stoned' but the pious self righteous 'modest' Young Women, and others, who whisper behind hands, berating and isolting those who are different from them. And what of the Primary song that says 'if you don't walk like most people do, some people walk away from you. But I won't"???
We need to be ebcouraging love and tolerance for EVERYONE, not nitpicking like the Pharisees.
'Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof', I cannot support the slogan 'Modest is hottest' as it most often used as vehicle for abuse.