On Vanity: or the Tragedy of "Modest is Hottest"

One of my favorite days last Winter semester was the afternoon my students and I looked at the argument behind the phrase "modest is hottest".

We'd been talking all year about how words, phrases, graphics, commercials, lyrics, even colors can make an argument. And, how an argument, or rhetoric (how something is presented or explained), can change reality. I don't know what prompted the discussion this day—I think we were talking about cliches we sometimes say as Mormons—and how sometimes they don't actually match up with church doctrine. One of my students raised her hand and said: What about "modest is hottest"? 

A perfect example! I immediately wrote it on the board. Most of the students laughed—it's not a typical phrase to write on college class white board.

I acknowledged that the phrase is almost always used jokingly, but I challenged the students to see, even as a joke, the reality the phrase creates just by saying it out loud.

To examine the "reality" of this cliche, first we brainstormed words the students associated with "modesty".

In a cloud around the word on the board, I wrote the words they called out: simple, humble, humility, moderate, unselfish, unassuming.

Next, we recorded synonyms and words associated with "hottest": competitive, sexy, sexual attractiveness, flashy, center of attention, elite, exclusive.

I didn't have to say much about the two word clouds on the board and what they meant for the phrase. There was a general sense of horror in the room—not because "sexiness" is negative, but because modesty is so clearly supposed to be the direct opposite of vanity, competitiveness, and exclusivity. 

One student said, "It's just funny, what is the big deal?" A fair question—how can a simple, rhymed phrase be harmful? So, we talked about what the phrase reinforces about the doctrine of modesty in terms of our religion. Is modesty just about sexy fashion choices?  And, do we practice modesty in our religion to be exclusive or sexy or competitive?

And, if this phrase is almost exclusively used when talking to women—what does that teach women and men about the purpose of modesty? What beliefs about women does the phrase create?  Are these beliefs false doctrine? Are they blasphemous?

Modesty actually means simplicity and moderation. This can specifically include speech, behavior, and dress. It means freedom from boastfulness.

It means freedom from vanity! 

These are beautiful ideas because the underlying root of vanity and boastfulness is self-consciousness. Christ was not self-consciousness. He was modest. He loved God, himself, and others. This love lead to a kind of inclusivity that has the power to forgive and exalt every human being. So, I think modesty is a sacred doctrine. And, I think the practice of modesty in all its aspects promotes more love (for God, for ourselves, for other people).

Anyways, what do you think? Has living the doctrine of modesty ever helped you feel the love of God? Has it helped you love others more? Or yourself?

Will you join my campaign to eliminate "modest is hottest" from the spoken and unspoken language of mormon people everywhere?

Reading list:

What a Pope can teach us about Modesty
The phrase "Do you see this woman", is repeated too many times, but otherwise, it's a great essay.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for sharing Emily! You perfectly phrase what I've been unable to. Thanks for sharing your gifts of thinking and writing and caring with the world. Hope you are well!!


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