“Modest Is Hottest” and Girls’ Self-Confidence

By now, you’ve probably heard “modest is hottest” thrown around like a mantra. There are “modest is hottest” fashion shows and “modest is hottest” conferences for girls. It’s about time I weighed in.

Frankly, I’m conflicted. When I was a teen striving to dress modestly, I struggled with body image. I covered my body in baggy clothing. I felt unattractive, and that affected how I carried and viewed myself. So I like the idea that in many churches girls like I was are now being encouraged to think about fashion and dress in a way that makes them feel confident and good about themselves. That’s a good thing!

However, a person is generally described as “hot” if they are sexually attractive, and the whole point of modesty as it is taught in evangelical culture is to not be sexually attractive. The point is to make sure that guys around you do not think sexual thoughts about you. This is what is meant when purity culture promoters talk about girls covering up to “protect” the guys around them—it is to ensure that they will not “lead” guys to think sexual thoughts about them by the way they dress and the way they carry themselves.

Frankly, I’m not completely sure what is going on here. Taken at face value, “modest is hottest” seems to imply looking sexy while not showing skin—but then what in the world is the point of modesty? How in the world is a teenage girl to look “hot” and yet not be sexually attractive to the guys around her?

I should clarify that I now stand outside of evangelical culture with its modesty teachings. I no longer think that women (or teenage girls) need to cover up to “protect” male minds. I believe that each individual is responsible for their own thoughts, and that developing a healthy consent-based sexuality is more important than saying “no no no” until marriage and “yes yes yes” afterwards. I’d rather focus on people than on rules.

Now I have absolutely no problem with teenage girls in evangelical circles being encouraged to play around with fashion and dress in a way that makes them feel confident, attractive, and sexy. I think it’s great. But when evangelicals turn around and blast other teenage girls who do the same exact things, just with less yardage or different accessories, that is not okay. All teenage girls should be allowed to find a sense of style that allows them to feel confident and to express themselves. Treating teenage girls whose sense of style happens to involve short shorts or belly button piercings like they’re broken or temptresses undermines their confidence and tears them down at a time they need building up. That is not okay. 

Evangelicals often claim that teenage girls who dress “immodestly” have low self esteem or lack confidence. This is bullshit. Yes, sure, some of them may indeed have body image issues or low self esteem—but the same is true for many girls who dress “modestly” (my teenage self included). In other words, there isn’t a correlation, and dressing “modestly” is not a solution. Some teenage girls who dress “immodestly” have low self esteem; some teenage girls who dress “modestly” have low self esteem. In other words, “modesty” is not actually a solution to teenage girls’ self esteem problems or body image issues. What are some solutions? Encouraging them, listening to them, valuing their thoughts, trusting them, and giving them space to find themselves, to name a few.

So can we please stop arguing about how short those shorts are or whose bra strap is showing and start focusing on telling teenage girls that they have worth? Teenage girls need encouragement, not condemnation. If “modest is hottest” is helping teenage girls evangelical circles to find confidence and a sense of style that makes them feel good about themselves, that’s awesome, but modesty has nothing to do with it.

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