Why 'Modest Is Hottest' Is Problematic
Two weeks ago, Christian music artist Matthew West released a song and video titled "Modest Is Hottest" and shared it on his social media accounts. In it, West sings to his teen daughters about how he prefers them to cover their bodies from the world because it somehow makes them both godly and hot (insert puke emoji). It took less than a week for him to remove the video from all platforms and issue the following statement:
"I'm blessed to be the father of two amazing daughters. I wrote a song poking fun at myself for being an over-protective dad, and my family thought it was funny. The song was created as satire, and I realize that some people did not receive it as it was intended. I've taken the feedback to heart. The last thing I want is to distract from the real reason why I make music: to spread a message of hope and love to the world. Proud #girldad"
I have to admit, a part of me is glad that this song was released because it sparked a much-needed conversation about the damaging effects of purity culture.
One Twitter user wrote, "I hope you genuinely have prayed on this and truly taken it to heart. May God touch your heart and help you understand how toxic this is, even if it is a 'joke.' god bless you and your family."
Another wrote, "Your song perpetuated purity culture and the idea that as women/humans, our bodies need to be hidden away in order to "protect" men. Do better. My body is holy, good, and not to be policed by fragile male egos."
Another stated, "It's not a joke to the many women who purity culture has caused immense pain and trauma to."
Purity culture is a subculture of evangelicalism that teaches young women and children that their virginity and overall sexual purity define their value and worth.
Girls as young as 12-years-old (and even younger, in some cases) are taught that they must maintain a specific standard of purity to find a godly husband and healthy marriage. Girls are encouraged to "pledge" their virginity to their husbands before god, church, and their family before they are even old enough to date. I remember taking multi-week Sunday school courses, going to weekend retreats, and being given a library of books to read on the topic of "remaining pure" all before I turned fifteen.
Those rooted in their support for teaching purity will try to boil the message down to this beautiful concept of anointed love between a married man and his wife. But they fail to mention the most toxic bits contained within those teachings. Bits that instill deep-rooted shame and guilt in some women for the rest of their lives. Bits the church tries to bury and hide from the outside world but quickly dig back up when it's time to brainwash their female congregation.
They teach that every time you have sex (or sexual activity) before marriage, you give parts of yourself away to that person you'll never be able to get back. You're essentially a chewed piece of gum, and a godly man isn't looking for used goods.
This gave me severe anxiety about finding a husband, and I wasn't even old enough to drive a car. I was terrified of having my first kiss because what if it wasn't with my husband? Would whoever I kissed steal a part of me I would never be able to get back? Would I lose myself to them entirely? Would I miss out on the opportunity to find a good husband if I had already given everything away to other guys? I had this idea that there were a limited number of good men out there, but they wouldn't want me if I couldn't remain physically and even emotionally pure.
What about victims of sexual abuse? What happens when they're told how worthless they'll be to a potential spouse if they aren't pure, but someone else takes away their ability to choose?
You can't force-feed girls this idea that a woman's worth lies in her sexual purity and not expect abuse victims to carry the weight of that shame.
One user on Twitter wrote, "I was raped and assaulted as a child multiple times by men at the church. But I'd been raised to believe it was my responsibility to keep men's thoughts pure, and I never reported it because I thought I had done something wrong, and I deserved it. I was SIX. I still live with guilt."
I was also taught that modest dress and behavior would protect me from men who wished to harm me,
but the first time I recall being fearful of sexual assault was on church grounds in my most modest attire.
I was talking to one of the older boys in the youth group when he playfully grabbed my purse and took off in an attempt to have me chase him. I went after him, following as he exited the side door of the building in a secluded outdoor area behind the church. He teased me with the purse for a few moments before pinning me up against the wall with his body. He was a 16-year-old athlete, and I was a developing 13-year-old girl. My body froze in fear.
I playfully told him to stop because I was much too afraid to use any acerbity in my voice. I was taught to be friendly, not assertive. But he didn't stop. He pressed his pelvis up against mine. At that moment, I was afraid of two things: One, what he might do next. And two, that someone might catch us.
Although I never consented to have his body against mine, and I wanted nothing more than to be out of the situation, I was more terrified of an adult walking by and seeing me in such a lascivious position.
I was the one being assaulted, but all I could think about was how much trouble I would be in if we were caught.
I managed to muster up a more confident "stop!" before shoving his chest with my hands and grabbing my purse before briskly walking away.
I didn't tell any adults in my family or at my church about this. I was too ashamed. I kept tracing my steps, shifting the blame off of him and onto myself thinking it was probably my fault for being too flirtatious. I felt violated and confused. I saw him every week at church and pretended nothing happened.
I was dressed for church when this happened. But it didn't stop him from coming on to me. I know so many women, including myself, who have experienced sexual assault and blamed themselves because they were dressed a certain way or put themselves in a position that allowed it to happen.
When the church insists that women can control the actions of men by how they dress, it gives men an excuse for their destructive behaviors.
It is the age-old story of Eve, who tempts Adam into taking a bite of the forbidden fruit, resulting in the collapse of all humanity. Adam couldn't help himself in the presence of a beautiful woman. She was responsible not only for her actions but also for his.
The concept of modesty applies solely to women, as men are not taught to hide their bodies in the same way. I couldn't wear spaghetti straps because my shoulders were much too scandalous. Shorts showed too much of my legs, so it was better to wear long dresses and skirts. My chest should be covered because men might get the slightest glimpse of my teenage cleavage and spin out of control.
The church loves to blame "the world" for sexualizing children, but I've never felt so sexualized as when I was a teenage girl in the church pews.
I was made to believe that I was a walking sexual object, a trap for sin. If I was not careful to hide behind modest clothing, I might cause "my brother to stumble," just as Eve did to Adam in Eden. But modest dress didn't protect me from the church boys.
Modesty is taught for two reasons alone: to maintain an image of godliness and guard men's thoughts and sinful actions.
First of all, is god so small that he would be offended by a woman's body that he created? Remember that the story of creation places Eve in the garden completely naked. And even after she felt led to to "cover" herself, wasn't her covering a mere pile of twigs and leaves? Was Eve careful to make sure every inch of her shoulders was covered by ground debris? I doubt it.
Secondly, women are not responsible for the thoughts and actions of men. By perpetuating this belief, the church places women in positions to be victimized and then blamed for things they cannot control.
Men will continue abusing and assaulting women so long as the church continues shifting the blame.
Churches need to shift their focus away from shaming women into hiding to protect their male counterparts and teach men that they alone hold responsibility for their thoughts and actions. Churches should be teaching women they are valuable despite what they do with their bodies (or what is done to them). Their sexuality is their own and doesn't belong to the church, mentors, or even their future spouses. Their bodies are not commodities to be locked away until the perfect buyer comes along. That their value is so much deeper than their sexuality, their bodies are beautiful and worthy of being celebrated. No matter what they wear, they are worthy of true love and respect.
By teaching them this, the church can instill absolute confidence in their female congregation and ensure no woman lives with unnecessary guilt or shame regarding her sexuality. Perhaps they can even prevent instances of sexual abuse and assault if men don't think they'll get a free pass because of the dress or behavior of a woman.
The Gospel message is supposed to be rooted in love and freedom, not subjugation and control.
These manufactured rules about modesty and purity culture are not biblical. It's time for the church to get back to its message of love and hope and stop spending its energy controlling the bodies of young girls and women with outdated, unbiblical, and ineffective patriarchal standards.
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Other notable posts:
"The Surprising Truth About Same-Sex Relations In The Bible