Once upon a time, our beloved Sally did a couple of posts about her interpretation of “sexy secretary” style. I remember reading both entries and the ensuing discussion in the comments sections with great interest. I considered jumping in but I was a brand spanking new reader at the time. I was still feeling shy and it seemed that Sally’s readers had covered all the relevant perspectives in a thoughtful, intelligent way.
Recently, I was poking around the site, looking for advice on pencil skirts (Me + pencil skirts = hot mess!) The sexy secretary entries popped up in my search string, so I decided to give them a re-read. That’s when I realized I did have something to add to the discussion. So rather than comment on a post from 2010, I figured I’d pipe up in a post of my very own.
(Aside: I understand that “dressing for the job” means vastly different things depending on the type of job you have and where that job happens. But for the purposes of this post, I’m mostly thinking about corporate, office-y type situations.)
In the original posts, Sally and her readers shared what I thought were some pretty sensible guidelines for staying professional when executing a cute corporate look. Avoid halter tops. Don’t show your lingerie. No see-through clothing. All sound advice in my book. But there was one suggestion – a suggestion I’ve heard and read many times before and since – that gave me pause:
Here’s the thing. Some people, like me, don’t … cleave easily. I have to deploy specific push up bras in conjunction with a very low cut neckline to get my ladypillows together. Cleavage is something I can only achieve through deliberate clothing choices, and it’s true those choices would not be appropriate in a traditional office setting.
That having been said, breasts come in all manner of shapes and sizes. Some are just larger, higher or closer set than others. Some people will have visible cleavage even in a garment with a relatively modest neckline. I can understand why someone with ample cleavage might choose to conceal it. But it feels unfair to automatically label their style as provocative or unprofessional if they don’t.
Unlike visible thongs and transparent blouses, breasts aren’t clothes. People don’t wake up and decide which boobs they’re going to wear to work that day. I support office dress codes in concept; however, I’m not comfortable with the notion that the application should vary based on people’s body size and shape. If I can wear v-neck sweater to work, I think my well-endowed colleague should be able to as well.
But what about the effect of cleavage on co-workers? How do you avoid creating a distraction?
Human beings get distracted all day long and that includes our working hours. We get distracted by noises, stray thoughts, the Internet. Heck, I’ve been distracted from writing this article five times already. (Curse you, Survivor: Fans vs. Favourites!)
We also get distracted from work by our basic biological impulses: our appetites, fatigue, our need to socialize … and our sex drives.
People get turned on by other people. People get turned on by bodies, particularly the parts that are typically concealed. Cleavage is a pretty clear indicator that there are breasts in the vicinity. Boobs are body parts most of us don’t see on the regular. Boobs are body parts many of us associate with sex. And I don’t dispute the notion that a small display of bosom might give a colleague a tingly thrill.
But compelling as cleavage might be, I find it interesting that we assume responsibility lies with its owner. I have never once heard of a person being admonished because their especially delicious smelling lunch was distracting the staff. In fact, I’m fairly certain that if an employee complained that the aroma of said food was so tantalizing as to affect their productivity, they’d be told to get it over and get back to work.
But that’s not what happens with cleavage. When the cause of the distraction is related to sex instead of food, the responsibility suddenly shifts. People – often women – are held responsible for other people’s reactions to their bodies, particularly if those reactions are sexual. I have a hard time with that. I don’t feel it should be incumbent on someone with an abundant decolletage to wear high tight collars, if no one else has to. Will that little line peeping through create a brief sexy diversion for a co-worker? It might. But if said co-worker is professional, I think it’s reasonable to expect them to ignore that distraction and continue with the job at hand.
Dress codes can be super helpful in a professional environment. But it does make me uncomfortable when it feels like those guidelines aren’t only talking about what sort of clothes one should and should not wear, but what type of body one should or should not have.
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Already Pretty contributor Nadine Thornhill is a sex educator and blogger at Adorkable Undies. She is also a burlesque performer, poet and playwright, living in Ottawa, Ontario – Canada’s national capital. Her writing tends toward subjects such as clitorises, feminism, vibrators, body image, gender politics and non-monogamy. She is a passionately committed Scrabble player and lifelong klutz, having sustained 16 concussions to date.