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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Why I'm Happy With "The Cleavage Situation"


(most photos courtesy of Cleavage: The Beautiful Divide photo pool on Flickr; see also all Flickr photos tagged with "cleavage")

Since it’s the height of summer, I’ve been seeing a lot of cleavage. From tank tops to dresses to bikinis, boobs are everywhere. Personally, I like the view, but I’ve been dismayed to read so many anti-cleavage thoughts lately. I stumbled upon this one at Mommy Life:

I've been so dismayed this year by the cleavage situation. I breathed a sigh of relief when short skirts were replaced by longer, fuller skirts this year. But my goodness! I can't believe how American women and girls have been brainwashed into exposing themselves above the waist.

The way women’s dressing choices is characterized here (“women and girls have been brainwashed”) points to a very basic flaw in her argument. Skin may be in, and may be pushed in ads, but to say that we’re “brainwashed” is a truly disturbing way of putting it. Just because I make different choices than you do, I’m suddenly a dupe of some marketing scheme? In a word: no. Perhaps women have come to understand that their skin is their own, and that instead of feeling like they need to feel ashamed of the parts that make them womanly, they can revel in them. Body image issues are so widespread, and I’m not immune to them, so wearing cleavage-bearing tops is one way I feel good about myself. For me, it’s like putting on lipstick; a little boost that helps enhance my outlook. It’s not that I can’t have a good day dressing in a turtleneck (well, in August that might apply), but I feel my best when my breasts are front and center.



For me, when I wear cleavage-baring outfits, which is almost every day, I do so because it makes me feel good. My breasts are one of the few parts of my body I don’t have at least occasional qualms about. When I wear a certain bra and revealing shirt or dress, I feel better about myself. I buy necklaces to nestle right above or in my cleavage, and often, no matter what I’m wearing on the bottom, my breasts are the main visual attraction.

Yes, I know people are going to look at them, and I don’t mind. It would be foolish and a falsehood to say, “Let us wear super low-cut tops, but look away, and pretend you don’t notice.” But it would also be foolish and false to assume that women don’t court that attention to some degree. Not all women, but some. I know plenty of other women who regularly wear cleavage-baring outfits, to the point that when their breasts aren’t visible, we wonder what’s wrong. This isn’t necessarily designed to turn on everyone we see, but for as varied reasons as the choice to wear a certain pair of jeans over another. Maybe it’s hot out, maybe you like the way it looks, maybe you want to get that little boost that comes from showing some skin. We can recognize that dressing in a sexy way may mean people look at us, but looking is one thing; touching another.

Hayley Dimarco’s latest book Sexy Girls: How Hot Is Too Hot? takes the cleavage-hating (and -baiting) a step farther, where on the back cover she declares, “If It’s Not on the Menu, Keep It Covered Up!” This is a theme for the author of Dateable and The Technical Virgin, and centers around the premise that boys and men are constantly checking out women (I’ll give her that, for straight guys, this is probably true) and thinking lewd thoughts about them.



Where I can’t go is to therefore attempt to control what women should and shouldn’t wear. The fact of the matter is, guys can fantasize about us when we’re wearing sweatpants. Haven’t you ever wondered why, even looking your rattiest, you still may get sexually harassed? Or about why your guy may get turned on to see you in one of his shirts?

By assuming that women only dress for men’s pleasure or to garner their attention, or, that by getting their attention, we must therefore cater to it, she falls into the trap of reinforcing the male gaze and privileging it. I’m not suggesting teenage girls wear the most revealing clothes possible, but part of figuring out your personal comfort level and fashion style is trial and error. There may be positives and negatives to showing some cleavage, but telling young women that they’re causing men to sin in their minds because they happen to have breasts and be proud of them, is demeaning to both men and women. It assumes that guys can’t keep their thoughts to themselves, and can’t think any farther than what you see is what you get. In fact, the very opposite may be true; the most demure-looking girl may be the one putting out, and the one dressed as dirty as can be may be a virgin. True, people make assumptions based on first impressions, but we all know the old saying about what we do when we assume: make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” People may assume hundreds of things about my personality, values, age, religion, and sexuality from a five-second glimpse of me, and only a small fraction of that can I control. Why should I pander to the countless strangers I will encounter throughout my day, changing my dress, to suit them? That would be putting their interests ahead of mine, discounting my desire to feel at my best when I get dressed in the morning.



At the same time, I do realize that people are looking, and contrary to the belief that this puts my breasts “on the menu,” in a way, I see it as the opposite. When I’m dressed in a revealing way and someone starts hitting on me, I tend to discount their attentions, or, at least, take them less seriously. I know that in all likelihood they’re drawn to that aspect of my appearance, and that’s okay, I’m not saying they shouldn’t be, but I’m aware of it and it influences how I respond. In a sense, perhaps, it’s a way of warding off the superficial. I can flirt or talk to people and not expect anything more, because in my head I’ve already armed myself with the knowledge that they’re there mostly to look. In the same way, by nature of being a sex columnist and putting so much of my raw feelings and adventures out there, I will attract certain people to me who can’t see beyond that, who form assumptions about who I am and what I want, based on that, I also know that when some people see the cleavage, they also may make similar assumptions. Knowing the likelihood of these assumptions gives me power, and helps me automatically rule those people out.

I’ve learned the hard way never to date anyone I meet because they read my writing. It’s just destined to fail, because they’re drawn to a single side of me without knowing the rest. They may want to know the rest, but it’s too imbalanced and unnatural for me. I can appreciate their interest and am grateful people are touched by my words, but I have to keep in mind that, on a very basic level, that’s work. It’s the same with the cleavage; I would never want to date someone who insisted I wear cleavagey outfits all the time, one who was so invested in my boobs that they felt like they owned them. I think part of the problem is the idea that women dress, first and foremost, to impress men, and perhaps secondarily, other women. Dress for yourself! Dress in whatever way makes you happiest and most comfortable, and you will exude all the qualities about yourself you want others to absorb. I can let it slide if people see me and automatically think, “slutty dresser = slut” because I know what I’m about. Caring too much about other’s opinions will have us bending over backward to please the anonymous masses, and always failing. Trying to control the opinions of everyone who will look at you in a given day is a Sisyphean task if I ever heard one, and puts the power of the gaze solely in their eyes, not yours.



Cleavage shouldn’t be mandatory, but neither covering it all up, day in and out. At a wedding I attended this summer, I worried that my dress might reveal too much boob. “Don’t worry, we’re a cleavage-friendly family,” the bride told me, which was later proved true with some of her own busty attire. If she’d said otherwise, I’d have changed, but I was glad I could be myself and still be accepted into the (forgive me) bosom of this special occasion.

To castigate cleavage leads us right back into assuming that breasts, in and of themselves, are dirty and private. It’s the same attitude that finds flaws in talking about (and even showing!) breast-feeding. Let’s face it: yes, breasts are sexual, and sexualized. But many of us like it that way. You don’t have to be a Girl Gone Wild to appreciate the power of a good rack. You don’t even have to be a straight guy, either. One of my most popular columns was called “Meet the Boobiesexuals,” and looked at straight women and gay men who are sexually attracted to women’s breasts, but don’t want to actually sleep with women. This phenomenon continues to fascinate me, not only because it shows how our rigid boxes for sexual orientation cannot contain people’s wonderfully exuberant sexual desires, but also that breasts have widespread erotic appeal.



I appreciate that settings like churches and schools, like the Texas school district that recently banned cleavage, might want to control how much flesh gets bared in their environments. But in the everyday adult world, we’re big girls, and we can decide how we want to dress and what messages we want to send. You may not like those messages or not agree with our choices, but I may not love what you’ve chosen to wear either. To all but call women who wear revealing outfits sluts simply based on what they’re wearing is sexist and degrading. It also puts forth the idea that if we wear the “right” clothing, we are safe from men’s wicked fantasies and comes dangerously close to suggesting that women are “asking for it” if they dress in a certain fashion.

There’s a line between offering suggestions and positive affirmations and fostering a split between the cleaved and not. Every man and woman should be able to choose their clothing options. I’m not saying that if you go out in a super low-cut top, you shouldn’t expect to be ogled; you should. I’m saying that a) some women like that and b) ogle all you want, my boobs are still mine; they are not “on the menu.” (On the occasions when they are, it’s explicitly clear to the potential diner.)



And if I ever learn to play the electric guitar and rock out, my first choice for a band name is “The Cleavage Situation.” I hope it isn’t already taken, but if it is, consider me groupie #1.

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4 Comments:

At August 25, 2007, Anonymous bitemycookie said...

i thought i was the only one who took self-cleavage portraits. in good company, i am.

 
At February 06, 2008, Blogger Neel said...

I was very impressed with your post. Because I am a man, I never realized there was a "Cleavage Situation." I agree with you completely and thanks for the great writing! It was informative and educational on my end.

 
At April 25, 2008, Anonymous BradyDale said...

It's great to see a realistic view of "the cleavage situation" by a thinking woman. It's a helluva a situation for guys. I wrote about this whole issue once in an old issue of Moxie Magazine after GQ Magazine did an issue devoted to breasts.

When I'm talking to a woman whose breasts look great and are on display, I know they feel like I'm not listening if they catch me looking at their breasts, and I guess I have gotten pretty good at not doing it... the truth is, though, I probably have to devote about 25% of my brainpower on maintaining eye contact, so I'm not listening as well either way.

 
At July 14, 2008, Anonymous Frank said...

Very interesting and frank article, has a little changed my relation to surrounding people.

 

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