March 6, 2008

Cornell, Cleavage and Pop Culture

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In honor of Women’s Awareness Month, a pair of intrepid female reporters at The Sun chose to take on two big topics in one bra: cleavage.

Spotted in Libe Café: a blonde be-Ugg-ed sister cleaving big time, distracting the docile, all-business evening coffee crowd from, well, everything. On such a sloshy, wintry Tuesday, this girl’s chest was ostensibly on its milky way to exposing a bit of her caramel-colored niblets — and even in a sea of turtleneck-clad breasts that would make Joshua Hartnett proud, all eyes seemed to be fixated on the single plunging neckline.

Memo to girlfriend: there is an appropriate time and place to open up the valley to tourists. We don’t know exactly what that time and place is, but judging by the crowd’s reaction — this was not it. Let’s address the “time” part first: didn’t your mother ever tell you to cover it up when it’s 27 degrees outside? Cold neck, meet scarf; cold chest, meet a sensibly cut top.
We’re certain nobody is going to argue with us on the winter neck-warmth issue (except maybe that one tall dude who wore shorts throughout February), but what about the whole “appropriate place” matter? In what situation or setting is it “appropriate” — i.e., socially acceptable — to allow our boobs to look like they’re making a run for the border?

In our culture, a modest amount of cleavage is an expression of femininity; emphasizing our up-top ladyparts is considered sexy when it’s done right and it undoubtedly gets attention from both sexes. Fair enough; a tiny glimpse of the parts of a woman’s body that clothing leaves to the imagination is compelling and draws the eye in.

And whether intentional or not, when a woman makes the decision to expose her cleavage, she’s sending a boldfaced message. In the many pairs of eyes that happen to land upon that particular woman’s half-bare chest, stylish sexuality and seriousness may be considered mutually exclusive. Showing a bit of extra skin in a situation where the traditional goal is to nab the attention of the opposite sex — a nighttime non-academic setting, for example — seems perfectly suitable and generally acceptable. But in the midst of things to be taken seriously, like politics or (in Libe Café Girl’s case) higher learning, a lady showing off a vivid V seems out of place.

Alright, people: in the name of Dan Savage, Victoria’s Secret and all things good and holy, how did we (as a generation and a culture) get permission to pass judgment on a woman based on how much shelf she — accidentally or intentionally — chooses to show on a given day? At what point did the visibility of the space between a woman’s breasts become a factor in whether or not someone will “take her seriously”?
It’s not quite an original observation that Western culture has a somewhat of a love/hate relationship with breasts — babies need them, many men love them; there is even an entire industry — or three — that have the curved twins to thank for their existence: bras, breast implants and Bloussant (that magic pill that’s supposed to make them bigger, but doesn’t).

And yet, sometimes pulling the neckline down and hiking the the curved twins up has drastic — and sometimes negative — consequences.

Our Libe Café girl caught our attention so swiftly and easily that we were inspired to don our own winter Wonderbras to test the climate of breast acceptance within our fine institution. The two of us chose a day to noticeably “cleave out,” so to speak. We deployed the curved ladies with such gusto and confidence that we anticipated a couple of sidelong glances — but our peers reacted as though we’d inadvertently committed to our respective shirts without doing the “test” (you know, the arm-waving, bending-over, doing the Soulja Boy dance test of making sure the top was keeping the girls where no one could see ’em). “Whoa, pull up your shirt,” and “careful, you’ve got boobage” were our greatest hits.

Yup, most people thought we were unaware of our necklines and seemed to believe they were bestowing some everyday kindness upon us, kind of like alerting us to a tag sticking out of the back of our shirt or a blob of smudged mascara on our cheek. While we got some major elevator eyes, which said far more than any awkwardly-spewed expression could, the other comments had us, admittedly, feeling self-conscious and exposed.

Our thoughts wandered back to Libe Girl and what might have been going through her pretty little head as she picked out her top that day. Why would anyone cleave out at Cornell? Maybe it’s fashion. See, we’re not sure about you, but everything we pick up at Forever 21 these days is either some sort of flowy garment that could be employed as a shirt while moonlighting as a potato-sack-like dress — or something in which our cups may runneth over. Picking out modest-but-trendy clothing can be particularly tough for women with larger breasts: what may be a nondescript low-cut shirt on a woman rocking A-cups may make someone’s D-sized breasts look like they’re trying to liberate themselves. The recent ubiquity of the high-necked mumu seems like a deliberate way to restrict admission to the boob show, but there’s a reason our mothers never wore those styles beyond her pregnant months. Not. Sexy.

Outside of Cornell, the cleave climate isn’t much different. Remember Janet Jackson’s peek-a-boob scandal from the 2004 Superbowl’s half time show? Or the debate over whether Lindsay Lo’s are fake (we say: they’re real, and they’re spectacular). Keira Knightley’s drawn-on cleave for Pirates caused such a sensation that it started a whole cleavage makeup trend (don’t try it at home; you’ll look like you got stabbed in the chest with something rusty. Trust us). There are even “Cleavage Watch[es]” online that not only document significant changes in celebrity breast sizes, but closely monitor how much of a lady’s ladies come up for air on a given day. We’re surprised a 24/7 boob cam has not surfaced as a fixture on Perez yet.

And the cleavage controversy doesn’t end with Hollywood. Remember that whole ordeal with Hillary’s cleavage this summer? Good lord, people. Political attitudes aside, we find the uproar not only ridiculous considering the minimal amount of the tit-split showing; but that it was the only thing news networks could talk about for a week. In fact, if you Google cleavage, Hillary still pops out everywhere (pun intended).

Political cleavage controversies extend far beyond the current Presidential race; Theresa May (the Conservative Party’s Leader of the House of Commons across the pond) also received unnecessary amounts of flack for “showing” her rack — and yet, if you look closely at the photos, you’ll see next to nothing.
We don’t want to delve into anything Freudian, so at the risk of sounding redundant, we’ll say it again: cleavage is visually appealing. Breasts slope downwards, and the V that peeks from a shirt’s neckline directs the eyes down South. Psychologically, we are drawn to the mystery and the mystique of something more, something hidden from view — the appeal lies in the inaccessibility.

Many cultures, however, don’t find breasts sexually stimulating whatsoever. According to Carolyn Latteier in Breasts: The Women’s Perspective on an American Obsession, when anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler “told women in Mali that American [males] think breasts are sexually arousing, they were horrified … ‘You mean men act like babies,’ they shrieked, collapsing in laughter.”

When we thought about it, we couldn’t help but laugh too — after all, the teaser-shots of the remaining non-exposed lady parts aren’t traditionally thought to be sexy. Consider a woman’s buttocks and vagina, the two other femme spots shielded by layers of fabric: most of us can probably agree that camel toes and crack-cleaves don’t quite have the same sexually enticing effects as the ol’ breast cleavage.

There’s no simple answer as to why we’re so obsessed with the breast over here, and we don’t quite understand why cleave is so sexually-charged while buttcracks and too-tight crotches on our pants are less alluring. What we do know, however, is that the still-present double standard associated with showing generous décolletage tells us that women have a ways to go before the day we can avoid being stigmatized for the clothing we do (or don’t) wear.

Until the day that comes, however, we say: rock on, boobies. We support you.