If Modest Is Hottest, It’s Not Modest

I know what you are thinking.  Another article on modesty?  Well, stuff your preconceptions in a sack and read on, because I’m about to blow your mind.  [1] About 18 months ago I read an article in the New York Times about a scientific formula to predict celebrity breakups. [2] Here are the factors that correlated in their prediction model:

  • Age at time of marriage.  The younger they are (based on the spouses’ combined age), the more often they break up. [3]
  • Marital history. [4] 
  • Length of courtship.  The shorter the courtship or more “whirlwind” the romance, the more likely the couple would eventually split. [5]
  • Relative fame of husband and wife.  This one was tricky to gauge as celebrity careers are usually in a state of ascent or descent.  Apparently, the amount of fame was less of a predictor than the quality of the fame.  As a result, this measure was replaced with:
    • NYT/Tabloid ratio.  The statisticians normalized the news coverage (or “fame”) by comparing the ratio of “legitimate” news coverage (New York Times) to “sensationalistic” news coverage (tabloids). [6]
  • Sex symbol factor. This was determined by googling the wife’s name and looking at the first five images returned and counting how many were scantily clad or naked. [7]   The less clothing, the higher the risk of divorce. Interestingly, this was not similarly true for husbands.  [8] At least one expert theorized that this was because women initiate 70% of breakups, so their behavior is more predictive.  [9] Also, female celebrities who choose to portray themselves as sex symbols have a higher rate of narcissism, and narcissists (of both sexes) feel entitled to have sex with anyone they choose. [10]  One psychologist cited that narcissistic female celebrities were often caught between feelings of grandiosity and feelings of worthlessness, creating a situation in which they required sexual attention to maintain self esteem. [11]

So, is modesty valuable because its inverse correlates with female narcissism and infidelity?  Even if it correlates, is it really possible to reverse engineer narcissism through modesty guidelines?  Can infidelity-prone women stay on the straight and narrow if they simply cover up? [12]  Of course, this doesn’t mean that accidentally immodest women are narcissists or prone to infidelity.  The celebrity breakup is predicted by female narcissism (perhaps coupled with the opportunity that comes with fame).  [13] 

On the other hand, maybe it is possible to reverse engineer fidelity, to create a sort of mental chastity belt, a cold shower for the mind. [14]

An interesting study was published on the effect clothing has, not on people around us, but on the wearer’s own mental state.  The effect was called enclothed cognition. [15]  The study involved participants doing detail-oriented work.  To evaluate the impact of clothing, some did the work in their regular clothes while others were told to don a lab coat.  Those in lab coats made half as many errors as their plain clothes counterparts.  The study further evaluated the effect of seeing a lab coat, then performing the work in one’s own regular clothes (no improvement in results).  Another group was instructed to wear the lab coat, but it was referred to as a painter’s coat (there was also no benefit from this).  The only benefit occurred when the person identified the coat as a lab coat (symbolic of meticulous research techniques) and when the person then wore the symbolic clothing; like Superman taking off his glasses and putting on a red cape, this transformed the test subjects into more careful researchers. [16]

Which brings us back to modesty.  The research on enclothed cognition suggests that modest clothing would only curb immoral behavior if the wearer believed the modest clothing to be symbolic of moral behavior.  Ergo, when the person wears it, s/he feels magically more moral.  [17]  Does this mean that the slogan “modest is hottest” reduces or eliminates the symbolic benefit (the cognition) of modest clothing?  [18]  Does enclothed cognition explain how garments are a protection to the wearer? Does it explain how wearing a white shirt keeps the priesthood focused on performing their duty?  [19]

  • Does female immodesty that is not related to narcissism correlate with infidelity?
  • Do modesty guidelines create an attitude of virtue and fidelity?  Do garments?  Is that their primary protection and function?
  • Are slogans like “modest is hottest” helpful in making modesty seem cool?  Or does it undermine the effectiveness of modesty by associating it with narcissism?



[1] OK, probably not, but read on anyway.

[2] Believe it or not, it was more complex than celebrity + celebrity = future divorce.

[3] This doesn’t necessarily imply causation as it’s possible that celebrities who are prone to divorce are also prone to marrying young (vs. the other way around, those flibbertigibbets), but a big age gap gives the relationship a steadying influence, even if it is kind of gross.

[4] Caveat emptor all who marry Liz Taylor!  Even you, Richard Burton.

[5] Seems like a no-brainer, especially since most celebs aren’t leaping into marriage to avoid breaking the law of chastity like some people I could name.

[6] Since tabloids are more gossip-oriented, coverage from those sources correlates with salacious rumors, drug use, infidelity, rehab, public arguing, drunken racist rants, forgetting to wear underwear to the Oscars, hitting bellboys with a telephone, eating refried beans straight out of the can, or visible cellulite at the beach.  Drivel drives divorce.

[7] Apparently, this is scientific research.

[8] Because nobody wants to look at that.

[9] One word:  Skyler.  Also, sounds like “one researcher” is still bitter over a breakup.

[10] Newt Gingrich *cough, cough* [8]

[11] I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille.

[12]  Or will that just give them one more article of clothing to remove in the infidelity process?

[13] Contrast this exhibitionism with your garden variety so-called immodesty of church-going LDS women that is often the result of gaining a few pounds, and you can easily see the difference.

[14] Or libidinal brain freeze, if you will.

[15] Which seems like something Daffy Duck should say.

[16] But sadly, not into superheroes.

[17] Similar to how marshmallow bits make Lucky Charms taste “magically delicious.”

[18] Of course “Modest is less narcissistic and statistically less likely to divorce” is not nearly as catchy.

[19] And yet still not being able to recite those sacrament prayers right on the first try.  Enclothed cognition will only get you so far I guess.


  1. Is anyone else having difficulty publishing this post on Facebook?

  2. Ignacio M. Garcia says:

    I don’t know that this enters into the conversation but I do feel better and seem to do bettter in my priesthood duty when I wear a white shirt. I also feel better able to function when I wear the full boy scout uniform intead of shirt and shorts. I think it has to do with respect for the role I am playing. When I’m clean shaved and showered I feel better in doing things that require order and respect. I think other people can do otherwise although in all honesty it is rare and far inbetween. To do good work in anything we need to prepare and put on the “appropriate armor”. There will always be those who are the exception but usually most of us need to look and feel appropriate to do a good job. Of course, there is where the argument comes in. People have different thoughts on what is appropriate, although my sense is more people think the same–though they say they don’t–they just don’t like to be told how to dress or act to perform their duty. Finally, I admit that I like a sense of uniformity that binds people together but doesn’t destroy their individuality.

  3. Wheatwoman says:

    I am really sick of modesty posts, but this one was genuinely thought-provoking. Trying to share on FB…

  4. Interesting! So the modest but fashionable well taylored LDS uniform plus I’ll add the SAHM status and perhaps a DH with a high status calling is capable of sublimating narssism and potential promiscuity into a future Relief Society president?

  5. Jeannine L. says:

    I thought the footnotes on this post were much better than most of the other ones I read on here. I especially liked how you had a footnote on a footnote.

    I didn’t even know you could do that.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    So it turns out garments really are magic underwear. I knew it!

    Based on the number of footnotes I hereby declare this the most scholarly post ever published at BCC. After a brief viewing period it will thereafter only be available on JSTOR.

  7. This was precisely my modesty rant (that there’s no such thing as “modestly sexy”), but you have provided scholarly support for it. I thank you. I shall rant on.

  8. All other things in the post aside, the title is correct and profound – and it applies to modesty in all areas, not just the tunnel-visioned way we apply it to clothing.

  9. Isn’t the slogan “Modest is hottest” designed to convey the idea that modesty and other Christ-like attributes are more desirable to us than sex appeal? I’d love to see a catchier phrase with the same connotation.

  10. Maybe somebody should expound upon two of the five items listed above and their possible correlation to divorce in the church, namely age at time of marriage and duration of courtship.

  11. I wonder how much “enclothed cognition” adds to the equation after some time has passed. That is, if I don the lab coat for a living, and wear it everyday for years except on Wednesdays, does my productivity go down on Wednesdays just because I’m not wearing a lab coat? My guess based on my own experience would be no, but maybe the study accounted for this.

  12. Question 1 – I have no clue.
    Questions 2 – Modesty guidelines probably help a little. There is something to the notion of “out of sight, out of mind.” Garments are there to remind of us temple covenants, one of which relates to chastity. Again, they do help to keep portions of the body out of sight (though I’ve seen a fair amount of cleavage even with garments properly worn.)
    Question 3 – slogans come and go. Don’t think it’s particularly helpful or hurtful. Going a bit further, I have noticed that often when women are discussing modesty and the wearing of bikinis, that at some point some women will say “I want to wear a bikini because I’ve worked hard for this body and am proud of it.” Is that narcism?

  13. “I want to wear a bikini because I’ve worked hard for this body and am proud of it.” Is that narcism? Sure it’s narcism but in a fairly benign self focused way, it is conscious and honest which is much, much healthier than the self emptiness of narcissistic personality disorder that is nearly always seeking attention often at the expense of others.

  14. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We need to focus a little less on modesty and a little more on being Christ-like. I think your article proves that point. Marriages aren’t failing because of modesty, they’re failing because people are failing to consider other people’s feelings. I feel like as we teach our youth we should focus a little less on slut-shaming and a little more on fostering better people skills.

  15. Another study was done that made for a better argument regarding modesty. Basically, women and men were asked to take a math testing wearing a sweater. Then both groups took the same test wearing a swimsuit. The scores results taken from when they wore swimsuits were then compared to their scores taken when they wore sweaters. The scores for the women were drastically lower when they were wearing the swimsuits than when wearing the sweaters. The men’s scores stayed the same. Mind you, the scores were not compared to the other gender or to the other participants, only to their previous scores. Women, for whatever reason cannot do their best when dressed in less. And I think that adage should replace the mixed/confusing/undermining message of “modest is hottest”. I don’t think this particular study speaks to moral or ethical components. But it at the very least gives us a better argument than “you’ll be hotter if you dress modestly”.

  16. elder: I think that’s an interesting question, and I agree that some sort of divorce prediction model for Mormon marriages would be interesting. However, I’d be cautious in applying the celebrity model to regular people because there are several key differences to note:
    – Age at time of marriage and length of courtship. If you’re a Mormon, you marry young to avoid fornicating. Since I would generously peg the percentage of celebrities who are virgins when they marry in the low single digits (probably lower), motives for marrying young and fast differ. One similarity is that people who marry younger are less likely to have good judgment in partner selection, but that may be the extent of commonality. Celebrities who marry young may do it for a variety of reasons that Joe and Jane Q Sample don’t.
    – Marital history. This one probably holds true across all marriages. Actually, I used to visit teach a woman who had been married 4 times, and her current husband was also her first husband. She wasn’t immodest, but she did have Liz Taylor hair.
    – Relative fame of husband or wife and nature of the fame. I’m not sure anyone has ever done a study on number of FB friends and how that correlates with divorce, but that’s one possible parallel. Perhaps it could also be related to the types of pictures people post on FB. Its tough to interpret though because studies consistently show that wives are more social than husbands, and being social doesn’t necessarily equate to narcissism. I would simply say that if you are thinking of marrying a partner who is narcissistic, be aware that they may be tempted to be unfaithful and may feel they are entitled to other partners.

    Based on the enclothed cognition study, I have a hard time believing that generic modesty is a strong deterrent to infidelity, but garment-wearing probably is. While you may not be thinking about it when you dress out of habit every day, you would certainly have to think about “setting aside covenants” to undress for infidelity. The other thing I thought was interesting is that male behavior and perception was not relevant to divorce when it came to female modesty. It was all about the wearer’s state of mind. You could wear a bikini (as I do) because it’s comfortable and convenient and be modest (thinking “I don’t care who sees me”), or you could wear a one piece because it’s flirty and cute and shows off your curves while hiding your flaws and be immodest (thinking “look at me!”).

    When we try to ascribe motives to others about what they wear, we often get it wrong. Serial killers know this very well which is why they often wear a uniform to lure victims into trusting them. Ted Bundy used to wear a cast or use crutches so that people would assume he was weak and helpless. There are certainly “modestly” dressed narcissists, and humble women whose clothes are tight or who show cleavage. Assuming that their dress indicates their willingness to knock boots is about as accurate as most mind-reading.

  17. “Assuming that their dress indicates their willingness to knock boots is about as accurate as most mind-reading.”


    Some of the most interested girls I knew growing up in central Utah dressed in such a way that everyone who didn’t know them very well assumed they were not interested. On the other hand, I have a daughter who is very stylish and who is proportioned in such a way that she would have to dress to fit into the FLDS in order for some people to view her clothing choices as modest. Thus, some people assume she is more willing than others when, in fact, she absolutely isn’t. Fortunately, she has no problem telling people to mind their own business or get lost, if necessary.

    As a collective culture, we really need to get a better handle on what modesty and personal responsibility really mean – and how they intersect, especially with regard to men.

  18. Angela C, I wasn’t aware that I or any other Mormon married early to avoid fornicating.

    Really? That as the reason for getting married sooner rather than later was never the motivating factor.

    That logic seems to presume that we only get married to the first woman or man who accepts us because we’re worried that we’re going to screw up. Rather than falling in love and seeking out the mate to whom we are attracted. I came back from my mission and fell in love with a number of women but after spending enough time with them and even after being engaged to more than one, I found myself reconsidering. The drive to getting married was the expectation that this is what you do once you return from a mission. It’s the next cultural step.

    I eventually married in my late 20’s when the right girl came along. I definitely do not subscribe to the notion that early marriage is to avoid mistakes.

  19. OD: Let’s put it another way. Mormons care about being chaste and Hollywood actors typically do not. Therefore, assumptions related to why we would marry young vs. why they would marry young are different (and the celebrity model wouldn’t fit Mormons equally for that reason). Both groups care about finding someone they are attracted to and want to be with. But most Hollywood actors don’t see marriage as a precursor to a sexual relationship, whereas observant Mormons do. I never implied all Mormons marry young, just that a committed sexual relationship that isn’t marriage is not an option for observant Mormons.

  20. Angela, explained that way I perfectly agree. But your original wording didn’t convey that understanding at all. Thanks!

  21. I do think one big reason many Mormons marry in their teens or early twenties is because of natural biological urges. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, as long as they’re mature enough in other areas.

    I do have quite a bit of anecdotal information regarding LDS divorces, especially among younger people (fortunately I myself am still happily married). I do think a lot of divorces occur because of unrealistic expectations. Many occur because of abuse in the relationship, whether emotional, physical, or otherwise. Many occur because, quite frankly, the couple was not as mature as they should have been when they got married. Many happen after the girl gets pregnant and the couple feels that they have to get married. Combine two or more of the above factors, and divorce becomes even more likely.

    My advice to young couples: make sure you’re not getting married for the physical aspect of it. The younger you are, the more you need to worry about your intentions here. And don’t get married to someone just because one of you is pregnant. All too often, that’s a recipe for disaster.

  22. wideopenspaces says:

    Julare, I think the conclusion you make-” Women, for whatever reason cannot do their best when dressed in less” based on that experiment alone is a bit far reaching. How do you extrapolate the results of such a ridiculous experiment to anything else? Taking a test in a bathing suit is WAY different than taking a test in a pair of shorts and a tank top. Had it been a swimming test, I bet women do lots better when wearing a swim suit instead of a business suit. So it’s much more about wearing the appropriate attire for the appropriate situation rather than the amount of clothing being worn.

  23. One factor in divorce of early marriage is also that mental illness often hits in the mid-20s. If you marry young, your partner may develop a mental illness that makes it impossible for them to function in the marriage. If you wait until after age 30 to marry, you will be mostly past that risk.

    I only say this because this was a factor for two of my friends who were divorced, which is a non-trivial percent of our friends who divorced. (And yes, it’s a hellish choice because they wouldn’t divorce someone who lost a leg or some other physical ailment….been through all that discussion, please don’t judge.)

  24. Naismith: That’s a very interesting point. I am not inclined to judge as I too am aware of several similar situations, not all of which ended in divorce, but definitely presenting a much more difficult marital situation than anticipated.

  25. The challenge about marriage trends is that anecdotal is just that. Anecdotal and hard to extrapolate out to wider trends in Mormon marriage. I know tons of people who were married at 19, 20, 21 and remain happily so 10, 15, 20, 25, even 50 years later. Would I encourage my children to marry then? Totally depends on the individual and the potential partner and the current circumstances of the couple.

  26. Ignacio,

    When you say that wearing a white shirt improved your experience, could it be because you knew you dressed within the bounds of community approval?

  27. SSHottie aka Wonder Woman says:

    I think modest is hottest and you can look cute and even sexy but still be modest. I have done it all my life and will keep doing it. BTW I get compliments on my clothes all the time. I also am a well known girl that is liked by many boys. They have told me thank you for being modest and not so revealing because it makes them feel more comfortable and they aren’t tempted to think things about me. So like I said Modest is Hottest. Try it.

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