“Corporate cleavage doesn’t work in our neckline of the woods,” reads one Monster article.
“Perhaps you’ve seen the TV commercial for Cami Secret, a bra attachment that converts low-cut tops into office-appropriate attire," the article continues. "Other than dashing the hopes of millions of male co-workers across Canada, it heavily suggests there’s a market of women that don’t realize their chests are totally distracting and undermining their credibility as serious businesswomen… As much as I dislike mixing fear mongering with commercialism, in this case educating women who don’t know the difference between office clothes and club gear could be considered a public service.”
The writer says that it’s simply “human nature” for female colleagues to resent women who expose cleavage at the office, “either for salaciously snagging all the attention, or setting back the Women's Lib movement by about 50 years,” and for male colleagues to react to cleavage “like a deer stuck in headlights or a slow-motion train wreck, which is perhaps more allegorical of your career.”
She urges women to spare their offices their breasts, and perhaps their bosses will spare them their jobs.
For a lot of women, myself included, however, sparing everyone my breasts is easier said than done. In fact, part of me doesn’t want to spare anyone because all of me feels strongly that it’s about time we stop asking women to quit being distractions, and start telling the distracted to quit assuming control over women’s bodies. And I’d argue that telling each other what to wear sets the women’s movement back far more than a V-cut neckline ever could — as does resenting one another rather than coming together for a common cause.
Alas, I’m readily aware that cleavage can, in fact, hurt one’s career — whether or not that’s justifiable to me — and so I aim to dress accordingly. In a study carried out for entrepreneur and Dragons' Den star Peter Jones, which surveyed 3,000 managers and workers, 20 percent of managers admitted to firing an employee for dressing inappropriately. Why? Perhaps because a gamut of research shows employees are actually offended by cleavage, see-through clothes, shorts and flip-flops on men and women. And even more research suggests that women who show their cleavage at the workplace leave men “confused and teased.”
While I agree that men and women alike should dress the part of their jobs and that the clothing I wear on the weekends is not the clothing I’d wear to my office, my fashion choices, especially in the workplace, are never attempts to offend, confuse, or tease. Rather, I base my outfit decisions solely on comfort and confidence — which dress will I feel confident in to crush this meeting, or which blouse makes me feel like a boss? When I’m comfortable and confident, I do my best work; and I’m also certain that unwanted attention does not make me feel comfortable, so I often shy away from some outfit choices anyway.
But the fact is that I couldn’t cover up DDD-cups with a potato sack if I tried. I’d go so far as to bet that most women with large breasts would agree that finding “appropriate” clothes for work is certainly no easy feat, as a woman with smaller breasts could wear the same dress and no one would think twice about it.
For years, however, I’ve been asked why I “wear my boobs out.” The answer to that is simple: I don’t wear my boobs; in fact, they’re physically attached to my body whether I like it or not — and, frankly, I don’t see a reason to dislike it. But I’ve been accused of being distractive and I’ve been both consciously and inadvertently slut-shamed by women, including my own friends.
In the second grade, I stepped out into the backyard and up onto the deck of the above-ground pool where my mother was floating on a raft. I asked her about something random — something of which I have no recollection. I just wanted her to notice that I was wearing a bra that my older sister had given me, and I wanted her to ask me about it because I was too embarrassed to call attention to it first. I wore bras before any of my friends, because I developed breasts before anyone in my class.
By middle school I was wearing matching outfits with my friends, but I’d be sent home for violating the dress code. In high school I remember wearing a turquoise turtleneck, which, in retrospect, was indisputably an ugly sweater — but in no way did it reveal any skin. Nonetheless, someone had complained and I was taken to the vice principal’s office where there was a box of XXXL T-shirts waiting for me to drape over my head for the remainder of the day instead. I was mortified. Especially because I loved school; I graduated with the top of my class with scholarships and a perfect grade point average. I was close with all of my teachers, who I got to know well when I spent hours in their offices after school working on developing my essays and taking SAT prep courses. I was accepted into every college to which I’d applied. I was a good student… with some big boobs.
Flash forward to my first job interview in New York City; I borrowed my mother’s very high-necked peplum black dress. I’d agonized over what to wear for a week. I even took off my nail polish for this interview, afraid it was “too much.” But the man interviewing me told me I looked “naughty.” He said he’d consider me for the position but, more likely, he wanted to keep me around as an unpaid intern. He said my smile alone had driven him crazy, that he’d “jump out the window” if I kept looking at him with “those eyes” the way I did, because I was “killing him” in that dress anyway. But he wanted to “help” me.
“Those eyes” were fighting back tears. I declined the internship, and I carried my briefcase full of my resume and writing clips out the door, regretful that I couldn’t find the words to call this grown man out without being unprofessional — not that he himself seemed to be concerned about that.
In one of my first “adult” jobs, I attended a company happy hour. It was my first week on the job and I wore a black blazer over a gray shift dress; it was a casual office, but I finally had an excuse to wear my favorite blazers every day, so I typically opted to dress up over donning jeans. While introducing myself to a crowd of coworkers at the happy hour, one man to my left put his arm around my shoulders and squeezed my opposite breast like he was squeezing a clown nose. "Honk, honk," he laughed. “It’s OK; I’m gay.” He grabbed my boob instead of shaking my hand, and I shared the elevator with him almost every morning thereafter.
I'm not sure why I've let these experiences affect me so much, but I've carried them with me throughout my career. I guess it's because I’ve always been inundated with unsolicited opinions about my body.
And those opinions are seldom consistent, which makes it all the more difficult to comply with society’s expectations, if I did, indeed, want to. In fact, the way we speak about women’s bodies is quite contradicting. Some studies show that women who expose cleavage at the office are actually considered better bosses and appear stronger than those who don’t. One study, published in the Journal of Social Psychology, found women who loosen their top few buttons are perceived more forceful, especially to female colleagues. By contrast, bosses who button up are considered less powerful and mature, undermining their influence on staff. The outcome even surprised the researchers at the University of Wisconsin, who had expected that a camisole would boost a woman's image.
So my issue is this: We can study women’s office attire a million different ways, and we can argue about what’s appropriate clothing for work a million different times. Every time, I’m sure, we’ll come to a million different conclusions about who finds what appropriate and who finds who powerful or a distraction or a tease or however else we choose to label women in the workplace.
But perhaps we need to shift our attention away from how to fix women’s cleavage problem and focus instead on how to fix society’s obsession problem — the obsession with objectifying women’s bodies, accusing women of exploiting their own sexuality to move up the corporate ladder, and deliberately disregarding women’s intellect and stripping them of their credentials because they’ve been reduced to nothing more than clothing hangars.
Boobs are not the problem. They're just boobs.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.