Monday, January 30, 2012

Why are we so ashamed of our cleavage?

A couple of weeks ago I posted the picture above on our Facebook page because I love clever advertising and of course every busty girl has some experience of this situation. I was surprised that a lot of the Twitter and Facebook comments criticized that the girl in the picture has 'Too Much Cleavage'.

When you consider that a large proportion of bra sales rely on bras that add volume and cleavage to smaller boobs, why do we frown upon naturally 'cleavaged' boobs? The strength of feeling that this image evoked really got me thinking about the social and aesthetic sides to the question; What is too much cleavage?

What is Cleavage?
Cleavage is a relatively modern term deriving from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning split or gap. It was actually Hollywood who came up with the term to define the area of visible 'divide' between the breasts of their actresses. During a time when appearing moral was very important Hollywood devised a code by which they could measure how much cleavage it was appropriate to see on film. You'll maybe remember a wonderful scene from the The Aviator when Howard Hughes is defending Jane Russell's cleavage to the Hollywood Censors.

Cleavage is a partly mythical creature as it doesn't exist all the time. Just as your lap disappears when you stand up, cleavage evaporates as soon as you take off your bra. Because cleavage generally only happen when we're dressed, Fashion has a huge part to play in the story.

Cleavage Through The Ages
Fashion has treated the exposure or concealment of cleavage (this is called decolletage - the cleavage visible in a neckline) very differently over the ages. During large parts of the 15th to 19th centuries cleavage was seen as a sign of affluence and status so dresses were designed to enhance and display cleavage. It was far more risque to see a woman's legs than her decolletage.
Giuliano Bugiardini (1475-1554) Portrait of a Woman 1525
Fast forward to the 20th Century and the 30s and 40s were spent keeping boobs well and truly under wraps. Pre and post World War Two societies were used to practicality and thriftiness so underwear in the US and the UK was function first, style second. Modesty included keeping cleavage to an absolute minimum (hence the Hollywood Code of Cleavage!)

During the 50s and 60s women's liberation saw a huge backlash to restrictive undergarments so cleavage went out of the window along with the burning bra. Women didn't want restrictive girdles and agonizingly rigid figures, they wanted choice and diversity, in more ways than one.

The Canadians Bring Back Cleavage!
Our current perception of cleavage has only been shaped in very recent history. In 1961 Canadian company Wonderbra unveiled a little something called "The Push Up Bra". By the late 70s this bra was underpinning a resurgence in cleavage. In the early 90s Wonderbra repositioned their 30 year old bra with cleavage written all over it.

In 1994 the iconic Eva Herzigova print ad "Hello Boys" graced every magazine, billboard and bus siding. Bras were no longer the 1940s functional or the 1960s restriction but a 1990s liberation of sexual expression. Boobs were sexy.

Pammy and Breast Implants
The increasing desire to have cleavage brought about the sharpest every increase in demand for breast augmentation. Medical associations across the world were divided on the safety of using silicone and the long term effects of breast implants. The US Medical Association even went as far as to suggest that being small breasted was actually a medical condition for which breast implants were the medical solution.

The international success of Baywatch brought about the breast implant poster girl, Pamela Anderson. Her gravity defying orbs made her one of the most written about women in the US and UK during the latter part of the 90s.

The Cleavage Backlash
By the mid 2000s the cleavage pendulum was starting to swing very much the other way (if only mostly with women). I don't think there was one single factor that started this but I know for myself that an insane amount of boob exposure made it increasingly difficult to be a big busted woman. Pammy herself became a caricature of herself.

We began to see a number of breast implants gone wild (I'll never forget my disbelief the first time I saw this image, I couldn't understand why someone would do this to themselves) which made big boobs seem ludicrous - indeed I think these extreme implants are insane. The prolific spread of the Internet meant that boobs could be seen, watched, downloaded and screen-saved at the touch of a button - men were suddenly very used to having 'instant' access to boobs and cleavage. It felt like boobs were public property, well mine aren't.

Have women made us ashamed of our cleavage?
As a busty woman I am used to staring and comments. I have always felt that it's part human nature - we're always interested in that which is different - and part bad manners which is why I keep the "are you having a stroke or don't you know it's rude to stare" line handy. 

I think part of why being a busty woman today is difficult is the parade of boob first, personality later women on Reality TV. The prolific "look at me, I'm famous for nothing" personality has been manufactured for quick ratings and often includes breasts being referred to as assets or property which perpetuates the idea that big breasts equal vacuous women. Women have fought for centuries to be given equal rights and to be taken seriously so I really hate that a huge proportion of Reality TV relies on watching women defining their lives by their breasts/plastic surgery/shopping and tiny dogs. We are so much more.

I refuse to be pigeon-holed by the stereotypes that society forms around me. I love my cleavage, it is a part of me that is soft and evokes images of Marilyn Monroe in a flawless LBD (well in my head anyway!) I love that Mr Butterfly loves me as much in a turtleneck as he does in a plunging V neck and so do I, so I will continue to mix it up and bring out my rather fabulous decolletage when I want to.

I would love to know your thoughts on the evocative and mysterious creature that is cleavage xx


  1. What a wonderful post! I've been thinking a lot about assumptions that we deal with as large breasted women so this post we really timely for me. :)

  2. Glad it was of interest June. I was just so surprised as the anti-cleavage feelings to the Post-It ad and it made me realize we're still not comfortable with being 'too busty'. So interesting. Hope things are good for you in Brazil! xx

  3. Wow, this is such a fascinating post. Cleavage has so many tentacles!

    When I was in high school and college, I NEVER revealed my cleavage. I wanted to minimize my chest as much as possible and later, distance myself from women who I believed (at the time) showed "too much". I wanted to be taken seriously in an academic environment and I trusted that concealing my G cups was the right way to go.

    Now, I love my cleavage because I work in a lingerie store and feel more comfortable with my body. I'm more at ease with myself and I finally feel like I've "grown into" my size.

    However, I still can get a little nervous when I'm on display because large breasts are so uniquely sexualized in our culture. I wish that bearing cleavage was seen in the same vein as displaying lean legs or toned arms. I want to look soft, feminine, and Joan/Marilyn-esque, but I fear I might end up translating as "slutty". Maybe that's the implant backlash taking effect on my psyche. It also largely depends on my mood. There are days when I don't feel up to dealing with the stares, the comments, or the somewhat "altered" treatment that often comes along with lower necklines.

    I'm also hugely inspired by pictures or films where women rock cleavage in a sophisticated, stylish sense. You look lovely in your fascinator. :)

    1. I know exactly what you mean Cece - I have underplayed my figure in order to be taken seriously academically until I realized that it was up to me to change the perceptions around me, not perpetuate them. I am busty and brainy - who knew!

      I think your comment about the mood you're in is very true. We don't live in a perfect and enlightened world where total strangers will see your cleavage as a beautiful sign of diversity rather than a drool-enducing ogle fest! Some days you can deal with it, other days you can't.

      I am so glad you have grown into your body, life is so much nicer when you're friends with your body rather than fighting it. xx

  4. It's interesting to think about this. I am realizing that I myself have categories of "good cleavage" and "bad cleavage" for myself (not for others; I am not offended by others' cleavage as I assume they are doing what they feel most comfortable with). I wonder where my categories came from, and why; I wouldn't want to persist in something based on shame. I may even do a post exploring this myself. Thanks for a great blog.

    1. It's such an innocuous thing really - cleavage doesn't do anything particularly offensive, and yet we have such mixed feelings over when it should be shown, how much and with whom. I would love to read your blog on it - the relationship and affecting forces are so unique to each woman.

  5. Ah...the Cleavage!
    Dear Claire, You wrote a great Article.
    But I was surprised, upset, after have reading what some people says:
    -Shame of having too much cleavage- "Boobs = Easy?"..."big breasts = STUPID" and so On ...Mamma mia! that is very Wrong!!
    Maybe some People dont know the matter, dont know History, dont know ART, dont know the BEAUTY OF Busty WOMEN! dont know that Busty WOMEN are the Most Meravigliose/Amazing PERSON!
    I guess Some people follow only the diktat of Mass-Media that say Busty Women are Out of Fashion.
    Being an Artist and being the Artist who Love celebrating Busty Women, I say:BUSTY WOMEN are Goddesses !
    Here in Italy/Europe, where lived the GODS...the ancient People thinked that Busty Women were Goddesses...
    to celebrate them they erected Huge Temples, see the picture feat the ruins of the ancestral Sicilian Temple devoted to "BUSTY Goddess Giunone"
    Nowdays in Italy a Busty Woman is so called "Una Donna Giunonica/Giunonica Woman" remembering the BUSTY Goddess GIUNONE!
    The Ancient People that lived here did Adored Statuette feat BUSTY Goddesses...see my page:
    just another example:have You ever heard of the ancestral statuette called "Venus of Willendorf" ? It feat a BUSTY Goddess with a Lot of Cleavage!
    After that Ancient times, the Greeks, the Roman People' Artists celebrated the Busty Women as Goddesses!
    and Nowdays...Aurè the Italian Artist celebrate the Busty Women as Goddesses!
    So I say: W Claire that LOVE her Cleavage and to show It !
    Aurè says, Busty Women remember: You're modern Goddesses so dont be ashamed to show Your Divine Cleavage!
    Ciao dall'Italia

    P.S: If You Like Please, show some Art of mine feat Divine Cleavage into your Facebook and Twitter page: for example Post this Painting titled "Flirting with the Busty Sicilian Goddess!"
    and Let's see the response of people about Busty ART...
    What about?...Thank You

  6. Nice umm... Fascinate. ;)
    I think there are other reasons than shame for not wanting to see cleavage. I'd like to see less in the professional business community for one. And in public, I'd prefer not to see so much as some women like to show. Less is more, in my opinion.
    Cleavage can be so in your face. I've often thought its a shame we can't see much about a man's package when he's dressed. Sigh. :)