Cleavage Goes To Work

Victor1558 via Compfight cc

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:

Avoid cleavage.

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.

Image Victor1558 via Compfight cc

_ _ _

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.

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72 Responses to “Cleavage Goes To Work”

  1. Jen

    The whole thing really brings it back down to victim blaming and the idea that all men are incapable of controlling themselves. All of which is ridiculous.

    This reminds me of when I was 17 and working at a grocery store. Part of my uniform was a high necked collar shirt that buttoned all the way to the top. No cleavage at all. One day I replaced my old saggy bra with a new one. A half an hour into my shift, my supervisor came over and told me several customers had complained about my boobs being a distraction and to fix whatever I did to them. I don’t think I’ve ever felt worse about myself. I got over it pretty quick though and got angry instead. I went to our union rep and complained. She was pissed but not surprised. She said it was likely that no one had complained and that it was just “Shelly being Shelly”. She told me not to worry about it and that she would tell her off.

    • Carolyn

      Good for you! I just can’t believe your manager thought asking you to make your boobs saggy was a reasonable request.

  2. Mae Wilson

    Hurrah! Thanks for making this point. It’s a very short trip from expecting women to dress ‘modestly’ to blaming them for men’s bad behavior.

  3. Tragic Sandwich

    Honestly, I think the thing I’ve heard that is even stupider is this, regarding shoes: No toe cleavage.


    Now, I personally don’t feel comfortable showing cleavage at work, but then I don’t feel comfortable showing it most of the time. But that’s how I choose to dress, not some world-wide law I think everyone else should follow.

  4. Susan

    HI Nadine,
    I find your post very interesting and provocative, and I respectfully disagree with your point of view. I disagree as I have a husband, 2 sons, and male friends with whom I have had conversations about cleavage who wish it would just go away and not be so in their faces all the time.

    All of these males report finding cleavage at work and at grad school uncomfortable, distracting, and unpleasant. I totally get what you are saying; when I once toured a mosque in Turkey, I was appalled and aghast at the stance that “the women have to worship elsewhere so they won’t distract the men.” Men and women are responsible for controlling their urges, of course, and I get that. The question is really how does one want to be perceived and noticed.

    My husband and his friend both have stated that they feel overly responsible for not looking at, noticing, or being near the cleavage. When side to side with cleavage and a spread sheet, or at a face to face meeting, normal motions and eye behavior can be very close to “looking at the cleavage.” My husband–an enlightened, liberal, and really nice guy–says that it has become an added to burden to work with cleavage.

    And, despite your protectiveness of women with large breasts, crew necks, scoop necks, and v necks can be purchased that have reasonable necklines, and structured bras solve a lot of problems.

    Some women may want to “feel free to be me,” but I think that like good grooming, professional dress, bad breath, or flip flops, we all make choices as to the reactions we bring out in others. Cleavage at work is not a good choice for those who take their work and themselves seriously.

    Lots of cleavage all the time is so overdone. Save it for non-workplace activities.


    • A.B.

      What would you say to large-busted women like myself who cannot avoid cleavage? You assume that structured bras and modest necklines will solve the problem but it won’t always. I should not have to police my body to stop others from feeling uncomfortable about what I have naturally.

      • dustwindbun

        THANK YOU. I could go braless and have cleavage (close-set 34G). I can have cleavage in a t-shirt. I don’t wave it around, but I also don’t like being told that my body is unacceptable to be in a workplace. I’m wearing a loose-fitting high v-neck shirt, loose pants, and a jacket today in my super-casual office. My smaller-busted colleague is wearing tighter-but-appropriate pants and a tunic with a deep scoop neck that shows all of her above-bustline chest. I look almost provocative in my cartoon t-shirt, and she just looks cute and summery.
        The existence of my body does not mean that I have to constantly be apologizing for it. I think people need to be more clear here about the difference between “lots” of cleavage and “unavoidable because I have a body” cleavage. Otherwise we’re just going to get angry at each other here 🙂

      • Jo

        I know that I tend to wear scoop necks and V-necked shirts because anything higher adds about 10 pounds to my frame, visually, as do baggier tops. I just “jut out” in front a certain amount.

        I don’t dress provocatively, nor do I show inches and inches of cleavage, but I don’t wear “modest” necklines. No one has ever told me I was dressing too provocatively, though.

    • Rivkasaurus

      Spot on!! Especially this sentence: “Men and women are responsible for controlling their urges, of course, and I get that. The question is really how does one want to be perceived and noticed.”

    • Trystan (the CorpGoth)

      I know plenty of men who work with women & are not uncomfortable or distracted by women’s breasts. I’ve worked with men (even been their manager), & my husband & very close male friends have worked with women their whole lives without suffering from cleavage exposure or feeling like the need to avert their eyes & not get aroused is a terrible strain or horrible stress in their workdays.

      I strongly agree with the previous poster who said that it sounds like blaming the victim to say women are responsible for men’s feelings of arousal & thus women have to cover up every suggestion of breasts & cleavage in order for men to get their work done if a woman is in view. Sure, dress professionally, nobody is saying not to. But just as a man is allowed to wear clothing that fits his figure, so is a woman. And if that indicates she has breasts & even allows a little line of cleavage (esp. when a woman’s size/shape make it next to impossible to hide), well, that’s equality.

    • Sarah

      Actually, my 42 DDD girls do show cleavage in a crew-neck shirt, when I am bending over, which I need to do at work. Unfortunately I live in Baltimore where it’s incredibly hot and humid 7 months of the year, so turtlenecks are out. What’s next? Should I have to wear a haz-mat suit or sweat in a turtleneck all summer to keep people from seeing my cleavage? I also wear a very expensive, professionally fitted bra. I avoid deep V-necks and anything low cut, but these boobs make a mockery of a scoop neck. I can’t even wear blouses buttoned to my neck because they gap open over my boobs. I’m just trying to point out that it can be a little bit more complicated than, “Oh, wear a crew neck.” I’ve had this rack for going on 20 years and believe me, I would like to have less cleavage, but it is what it is.

    • Heather

      Well and respectfully said. As a professional, I agree with the concept of avoiding cleavage in the workplace in order to be taken seriously. And, having a household of men (husband and grown sons), I can tell you that unless you don’t especially care about your professional reputation, you probably don’t want to show cleavage. While women may not think a line and bit of extra skin is a big deal, many men would tell you differently. Just a thought–maybe we could consider what problems that we could avert instead of focusing on a relatively minor (in most cases) limitation.

    • Rhonda

      This is precisely why I don’t like it when men roll up their shirt sleeves at work. I am very attracted to muscular forearms, and it’s just uncomfortable and a burden to have to be around them when I’m trying to concentrate. I end up feeling overly responsible for where my eyes go, which is totally unfair.

      Why do their forearms have to be in my face like that? I wish my company would just make a rule that men have to keep their sleeves rolled down, then they couldn’t choose to bring that reaction out in me.

      • Ignorant Awareness

        Lol ohmygosh, I thought it was just me who found male forearms attractive! Wait… I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not? If so, just ignore the fact that I’ve mentioned my weakness for male forearms on the internet lol… *sheepish blush*…

        • Rhonda

          Ha 🙂 I really do, but I was also being sarcastic because in no way do I think my attraction should mean that guys with great forearms should have to keep their sleeves rolled down. It’s not like I’m unable to work because of it; I just appreciate it and move on.

    • Susan

      I think something that needs to be said here is about how difficult it can be to find a simple top that works with a larger chest. In a sense, this can be about resources. Women with a larger chest must invest more time and money for the most part in some sort of creative solutions. Some people have more resources, some unfortunately have less. Must those with less be shamed for this? How is the woman’s responsibility to stop men from looking? It seems totally crazy and messed up to me.

      The fashion industry certainly doesn’t help any one of us out with this. Women are shamed when they shop, then shamed by men, and other women who politely demand than they figure these things out somehow, when the battle is a steep uphill one, filled with shame for their bodies.

      • Amy

        I have to agree. It is much more expensive to find tops that fit my larger bust, and there really aren’t that many resources to help. I find it nearly impossible to find basic tees that both look nice and don’t show tons of cleavage or gap in the neckline or stretch of the breasts etc. Any shirt the fits my breasts is too large in both my waist and my neckline neckline and vice verse. I have no desire to show cleavage at work or anywhere else but I do want to wear clothes that fit.

    • Ignorant Awareness

      As a Muslim, I can tell you that the attitude the mosque in Turkey had is NOT representative of all of us. If anything, the genders need to be separated because men can be JUST as much of a distraction to us women. For example, men are told to lower their gaze and dress modestly FIRST (but people latch onto the whole ‘women in burqas’ thing), & it’s just as possible for a woman to be distracted if a man is praying in front of them (we kneel & put our heads on the floor, meaning the butt is up in the air in full view for whoever is behind)…

      Anyway, long story short- I don’t want people to get the wrong idea about Islam perpetuating the ‘victim blaming’ culture (that has already been mentioned in these comments). The religion itself works for equality within the genders- it’s just the people who mess it up, by mixing it with culture xD

  5. Clare

    I can tell you don’t have kids, because in my house – boobs are food. I’m a nursing mother. I try to dress modestly (hose, dresses, etc) but when my baby is hungry, I gotta whip the boobs out. Last night it was at the pizza parlor. Wrap dresses are super helpful for that but can sometimes gape right in the middle. So a cheap tank top serves as modesty as well. Old Navy sells them for $3.50 currently.

    But a good bra can often make the difference between sharp and sleazy.

    I think tightness is more distracting than cleavage.

  6. Melanie

    I work in a pretty conservative legal office. It is one thing to show the tops of your breasts or a crease between them. For us, “inappropriate cleavage” is when your shirt shows more of your breasts (as in scoop neck shirt that scoops closer to the nipple than the top of the breast) or is obviously meant to be SEXY. A little cleave is ok. The grand canon or anything that allows you to see down to your navel or your nipples when standing at the front of your cube is not.

  7. Mia

    Amen to this, a thousand times – thank you for this post. This common “advice” has always annoyed me. I’m a 34F and trust me, there is no way to disguise that, nor should I have to try. I occasionally get an online review that comments on my clothing and body (I’m a college professor, so this reflects the average maturity level of 19 yr. olds) but so does every single one of my female colleagues, regardless of her age, size, and style. Bottom line: if someone dresses in a way that is both attractive and professional, it is not their responsibility to prevent anyone else from being distracted by the fact that they have boobs.

  8. Aging fashionista

    Gotta put in a few words here. This is a nuanced issue, I agree. I am a heterosexual 58 year old woman who loves style and fashion, and I myself find cleavage in the workplace distracting. Agree with the comments re:slippery slope etc but bottom line to me is, if you dont want to draw attention to your body and your sexuality, dont dress in a waythat daws attention to those parts your body.

  9. Jennifer

    “People don’t wake up and decide which boobs they’re going to wear to work that day.”
    Ha, yes! I am of the cleave-easily group; in fact, it is quite challenging for me NOT to show cleavage! I am 5’1″ with narrow shoulders and a 34HH cup size, so unless I dress like a nun, cleavage will be had. But it’s not like I can get up and put on my A cups for the office!

  10. scarlet

    I have large, high-set breasts so I am familiar with all the challenges that go along with dressing modestly and professionally. I still feel it is worth it to choose work clothes that show minimal cleavage, if any. I am very concerned that I will be judged as unintelligent or just unaware if my breasts are too prominent. It’s not exactly my fault if someone chooses to focus on them, but I do want to convey that I’m not inviting them to and to convey that firmly. At the same time, I try to choose clothes that have sex appeal, if subtle, because I do find it easier to hold attention when I am found attractive. So, close-fitting but not tight. A scooped neckline but not one low enough to actually show bare breasts tissue. Heels, but lower ones. Full makeup applied with restraint. Long but styled hair. It can be exhausting to navigate! I often wish my professional dress could be as straightforward as it seems for men.

  11. Anna

    What Susan said.

    When did cleavage become desirable and even in some cases obligatory? (This is an honest question; I really want to know).

  12. Anna

    Further to the comment I just posted): where do we draw the line between freedom of self-expression and freedom to annoy other people?

  13. Sonia

    Oh, how I WISH I could wake-up and decide which boobs to wear that day! I have cleavage that cleaves easily, and I choose to do what I can to minimize what shows.

    I certainly don’t assume that anyone is distracted by my 43-year old, not-so-perky-anymore bosom, but I’m sure as hell not going to give anyone — man or woman — any reason not to take me seriously in the workplace.

    All corporate men come to work every day covered from neck to toe, and I find that the most successful women in my organization do the same. I choose to follow their lead.

    • Sarah

      I guess what it may come down to is whether or not you think some visible cleavage detracts from your ability to be taken seriously in the workplace. I personally do not feel that it does, but I am extremely confidant in my work abilities and don’t worry that a little bit of cleavage is going to make the men and/or women in my office think I can’t do my job properly. I work in a casual office though, and it’s hard for me, when reading through all of these replies, to get a visual on acceptable vs. unacceptable. I personally feel like a diagram would be really accurate in this discussion!!

  14. ClaraT

    Susan’s comment was spot-on.

    There’s no hiding the size of your chest, especially if you are well-endowed. However, the more bare skin there is, the more people notice (whether they are ‘looking’ or not). Since I want people to notice my work, not my chest, I cover up my cleavage.

  15. Rivkasaurus

    I agree with some ideas in this post, but only to a certain extent. As we all know, life isn’t fair. We weren’t all allotted with the same resources, such as money, intelligence, and social skills. So the fact that one woman may need a higher neckline to look professional at work shouldn’t come as a surprise. I’m not saying that men aren’t responsible for controlling themselves, but the fact remains that revealing too much cleavage may come off as unprofessional and distracting at work. A man is responsible for controlling his impulses, but this doesn’t mean that a woman is not responsible for making intelligent decisions about her appearance. A woman can’t always control how she is perceived, no matter what she wears, but dressing in certain ways at work will pretty much guarantee negative perceptions. This concept doesn’t exclusively pertain to women; men are also responsible for dressing appropriately. Skin tight pants, for example, would be unprofessional.
    I personally don’t show cleavage at all because of my religious beliefs, so honestly this isn’t really an issue for me. But I can tell you that pretty much all of the women at my office, no matter how busty they are, never show cleavage at work. I can only think of two that do, and they never look quite as professional to me.

    • Sarah

      Unless I wear a turtleneck, I will have cleavage showing because I have breasts that go up to my collarbone. I also run very warm, and wearing turtlenecks in anything but 30 degree weather makes me get close to fainting.

      Just for perspective.

      • Rivkasaurus

        Well there are obviously going to be exceptions. There’s a difference between showing a bit of cleavage because you can’t avoid it and wearing something too low cut for work. Just a matter of common sense.

        • Litenarata

          The problem is that YOU don’t know why a woman is showing cleavage, and you are judging all women who show it negatively, regardless of the reason.

          Which means, it’s YOUR problem, not the woman with the big boobs. Unless you expect all big boobed women to walk around with an informative sticker saying, “My cleavage is showing because my boobs are too big and wearing turtlenecks in 90 degree weather isn’t acceptable, so please don’t judge me”.

          • Rivkasaurus

            All I’m saying is that I think each each woman should use common sense and understand what is appropriate for her body type when it comes to looking professional at work. Regardless of my personal modesty standards, I don’t judge anyone for his or her clothing choices.

    • Thursday

      “A man is responsible for controlling his impulses, but this doesn’t mean that a woman is not responsible for making intelligent decisions about her appearance.”

      I’m afraid this argument still seems to be guardedly planted in the “She was asking for it” camp of women’s dress. I understand your point, that an easy way to stave off undesirable consequences is to make choices that are safe, that neutralise women’s bodies. But really, a pair of boobs should not be cause for any woman to be taken less seriously at work, or be cause for anyone to think she is not good at her job. A woman going out for a drink at the bar should just lock those babies up and she’ll reduce her risk of being assaulted, yeah?

      Personally, I think plunging necklines are better avoided in professional environments, and choose conservative necklines myself, because that’s my personal style. But I won’t judge a coworker for a more deeper neckline than my own. I’m not even likely to notice, and the point is, it shouldn’t matter. Some of us have to risk the less “safe” options until our bodies just aren’t part of the equation any more.

  16. Lynn

    I have to agree with Sonia. The men I work with are covered from head to toe and really have no choice about it (tank tops/shorts in the office?). Women have so many more clothing choices, but even large breasts can be nicely covered in an office setting. I work both in an office and teach, and in neither place do I want my body to be the focal point. Dates with my husband are quite a different issue!

  17. Carolyn

    I personally have no problem with cleavage. That being said, I work in a male dominated field where I am most likely the only woman they will see at work all day, plus I am 20+ years younger than most of the them. I keep my cleavage fairly under wraps because I don’t want to lead them to believe I am trying to use my body to get ahead. Yes, I am a young, attractive engineer, but more importantly, I am a smart, confident, creative engineer and I want that part of me to shine at work.

  18. Pelicanlake71

    I noticed that nobody here has brought up moobs (man-boobs). I have seen more male nipples due to thin or tight-fitting shirts, or lack of undershirts, than I have ever seen female nipples or cleavage in the office. While we’re at it, we could bring up tight pants (swingin’ to the left, there, are ya, boys?) or body hair or any number of other personal grooming or style habits or body shapes, etc. I just don’t feel that I, or anyone else, need to go around policing or even caring about how everyone else looks. And I certainly don’t feel it’s the “responsibility” of someone to “reign in” their own body shape just to make someone else feel better about themselves.

  19. Anna

    THANK YOU SO MUCH!!! I am a well-endowed graduate student, and this is something I struggle with regularly. Of course, I avoide necklines which are low enough to display my bra, or things of that nature, in work settings, but the only way to cover them up entirely would be to wear turtlenecks (and, because of a heavy bustling AND a short, short torso, this makes me look like my boobs are sitting down around my navel, not a look I like to cultivate). It’s a fine line to walk, and I appreciate this making overt of a struggle which can have long-reaching professional implications.

  20. Jenn G

    As a large busted (34 F/G), short woman (5’4″) who is a high school teacher – I don’t hide my boobs, but rather I do wear properly fitted shirts, dresses, and blouses – and yes – my boobs are always noticeable – but not in the “look down my shirt” way… I can tell you that it is easy to control the amount of cleavage I show on a daily basis! It’s called adjustable strapped tank tops, and modesty panels. High enough to cover – but not make me look like a prude all day long. I really don’t like sharing my boobs with anyone except my husband (and the 7 babies I had fed with them).

    And to be honest about the teens? Well, they tend to laugh behind teachers’ backs – not matter how young/sexy they are – when they wear things that are too revealing –

    and it’s impossible to teach sometimes when the teen girls are wearing super low-cut tops…the boys (and some girls) sort of sit there and drool all hour at them…rather than listen to my great math lecture!

  21. Mar

    I personally would find it distracting and uncomfortable if male colleagues (in a conservative corporate setting) started showing up to work with several shirt buttons unbuttoned, baring their chests. So far, none do, instead they are completely buttoned up, wearing also full length trousers. Why are we so concerned with women’s “right” to show up to the same workplace and expose skin?

    • dustwindbun

      Under normal business casual rules, my male colleagues are allowed to wear polo shirts that aren’t buttoned up to the top. In the same shirt, I would be showing cleavage unless I buttoned it to the top, because these damn things on my chest crease almost up to my neck no matter what I do. Why am I asking for special rights when I want to wear the same shirt – say, a branded company polo that everyone gets one of – in the same way as my male colleagues?

  22. Virginia

    Slippery slope indeed! I can pass along a tip from a co-worker. She was very well endowed, and could not avoid cleavage. In order to minimize the skin area, she frequently wore multi-strand necklaces. Not only did it pull together her overall look, but it subtly covered the cleavage area.

    • dustwindbun

      Yes, this. I often wear a scarf over my unavoidable cleavage. It doesn’t necessarily cover it up, but it does signal “this cleavage is not intended to be decorative”. I figure, I work with well-mannered men who would never be so rude as to stare, but it’s polite in return to demonstrate that I am not asking to be looked at, and to break up the line so that inadvertent stareage is more easily disrupted with minimal embarassment. I know what it’s like when your mind wanders and your eyes just kind of stick on something – it doesn’t matter what it is. The scarf, or the big necklace, is a nice visual reminder that hey, keep moving.

  23. Olivia

    Excellent post. I’ve worked in the corporate world for many years and find that women with all sizes of breast often show a little cleavage, and if it’s distracting to anyone I’ve never noticed. The vast majority of men are able to conduct themselves professionally, and the ones who are creeps are just gonna be creeps no matter what a woman wears. I wear an H cup and many shirts that aren’t really cut low still show a bit (maybe 1-1.5 inches) of cleavage simply because of anatomy or because of movement of the shirt. Smaller breasted women may not understand that finding a shirt that is both flattering (because even at work I want to feel good in what I wear) and doesn’t show cleavage is not always easy. But you know what? I can’t recall a time I’ve been leered at in professional dress. I have, however, been cat called wearing a high crew neck t-shirt while I was working at a movie theater

  24. Gillian

    I think it’s important to differentiate between well endowed women boasting enviable but unavoidable cleavage no matter what they wear vs. ladies making an effort to showcase their cleavage. As a small-busted lady I would never show cleavage at work because it would be an obvious intentional display. I don’t think anything of it when larger-busted ladies show show cleavage just by wearing a typical top.

    But I have to agree with all the ladies pointing out that our male colleagues aren’t showing skin at work. It isn’t our right to show cleavage at work. I would stand up for any woman going topless anywhere that men can also go topless. When our male coworkers can’t show any leg, foot, chest, or wear sleeveless tops, I don’t think we can complain that we’re being held to a higher standard at work. If anything we’re getting away with a lot. I’d hate to wear a buttoned up shirt, tie, and slacks all summer long.

    • dustwindbun

      Hmm. I think we also might need to differentiate between those of us talking about business casual environments and those of us talking about corporate business/”suit” environments. Very different rules, from my point of view.

  25. Rhonda

    After reading through the article and many of the comments I wonder are people getting the outline/curve of breasts confused with the dividing line between the breasts (cleavage).

    Asking someone with rather large breasts to camouflage them with ill-fitting bras or baggy clothing so that their breasts appear less noticeable is ridiculous and is impossible if the woman is to look professional and like her clothes belong to her.

    However, being a 34K and working in professional conservative environments, cleavage (showing the dividing line between my breasts) does not “just happen”. I know which tops I should avoid and I am sure any one with mirrors in their house also know which tops do and do not show this line. If I’m showing cleavage I’m on my own time.

  26. Ashe

    I can’t help but this of this article when reading this post:

    While I think some of the photographs are taken in a sexual manner, when I read the story I thought, “Here’s a woman with a beautiful, toned, and curvaceous body being penalized for how she looks.” In almost all of her images she is fashionable and professional; she looks polished, and is totally in line with a corporate dress code.

  27. Sheela

    This was super interesting, Nadine. Thanks for sharing this perspective, and for starting this good conversation.

    I’m a college music professor, heterosexual female and married, and *I’ve* been distracted by some of the clothing choices of my female students. During that period when every woman under 30 was wearing short shirts and low-riding pants, I got thonged an awful lot during piano lessons. Also, I’m super small on top so I gotta say, breasts have been a source of desire (of a sort) since I was 11, and I see a lot of enviable ones. HOWEVER! My envy/desire/distraction has zero impact on my attitude toward these women, how I interact with them, and how I grade them. My distraction is my problem, not theirs.

    I’m talking about college students, who can dress any damn way they want and sometimes *do* dress to goggle one’s eyes. I feel this way x10 about people’s reactions to women in the workplace who are dressing appropriately but happen to show a bit of cleavage (lucky ducks): be a grownup and deal.

  28. Max Rose

    another lady with a larger chest here. just because i can fill out a shirt or dress, doesn’t mean i do it for any kind of attention or to dress in a way, in any situation, that is ‘inappropriate.’ it’s not my responsibility to make someone else feel comfortable about my body or clothing choices.

    to those suggesting higher necklines (or turtlenecks, as some have interpreted that), higher necklines typically EMPHASIZE a larger chest (ESPECIALLY turtlenecks – which also make mine look saggy, too – shout out to another commenter, i suffer with you), so which is it? a higher neckline or a little cleave? because regardless, i’ll fill out whatever i wear, no matter the cut or neckline. even today, i’m wearing a looser fitting top, and my boyfriend told me it actually made my chest look bigger.

    thanks for writing about this, i feel like many men and women (even those with larger chests, at times) have a lot of troubling understanding this – and thus try to shame those of us who are more endowed into feeling insecure and forcing us to hide our bodies as if there is something wrong with us, not those that can’t handle another human form.

    and another shout out to the very first commenter who alluded to rape and slut shaming culture. i think there is definitely a connection.

  29. LK

    Actually there are some people who can choose what size boobs they have for the day. Its called a padded bra lol I know I can choose to be a B or C depending on what bra I choose but I still can’t get cleavage. However, these ladies with the larger size ranges cannot. But even with a small chest, I wouldn’t be allowed to wear a deep V t-shirt that exposed most of my chest area to the office. It wouldn’t be considered appropriate attire, cleavage or no cleavage. My bestie is a busty girl so I feel for the wardrobe issues. I’ve shopped with her many times and often we’ve had the issue of too much cleavage. So there is an amount of cleavage that is unavoidable, it seems. Although we solved almost all her cleavage discomfort with a panel insert that hooked to her bra.

  30. Jennifer

    I completely understand where you’re coming from, but I still think that cleavage should be minimized. If my dress code allowed shorts (at a more casual job), my bottom would still have to be covered by them. It’s not my fault for having a big bottom, but it’s still my responsibility to keep my shorts long enough to cover everything. I do think it would be reasonable to a workplace to have in the dress code a maximum of inches below the collarbone that a shirt can sit. This would be fair and reasonable for every worker.

  31. Tasi

    My perspective is somewhat different as a transgender woman and previously senior male manager in the defense industry. I’m now a fashion writer for the transgender community. I’ve been responsible for policing the company dress code and yes, they are needed for some very obvious reasons. I would certainly agree with both Rivkasaurus and Scarlet. Case in point – office environment on a large Army post in the SW US. Rule, no tank tops or dresses with spaghetti straps – they tend to be revealing. The issue is not the cleavage per say, but inappropriate dress. Example is secretary wearing sun dress with spaghetti straps and when she leans over, well the view is pretty graphic. The complaints came not from the men (I wonder why :)) but from the women. Most of the women in the office were Latino and dressed conservatively if not stylishly. The offender then complained when she got stares. As a TG woman, I do get to chose my boob size (appropriate for body shape), but I likewise dress for the environment. There’s not an inherent right to dress as you wish in the workplace although I don’t agree with the situation in the link above where a well endowed woman was discriminated against because of her natural body shape. How you dress does effect your image and skills notwithstanding, you damage your image by not dressing appropriately

    • Nadine

      Hi Tasi,

      Your example of no tank tops/spaghetti strap are the sort of dress code rules that feel most fair to me. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to establish rules around specific types of clothing employees are expect to wear or avoid.

      Also, could you point me to some of your writing? I’d love to read more about your perspective on fashion.

  32. jenny

    The responsibility DOES lie with the owner. We have come so far from true modesty and decency in our culture it isn’t even funny. It is a woman’s responsibility to dress modestly at all times. Souls are at stake. Laugh if you want but Satan isn’t.

  33. Val

    i am grateful for your thoughts… as a woman with natural cleavage!! i do struggle to hide it at work etc. but it gets tiring. i completely agree with what you shared. thanks!

  34. alice

    I am very flat-chested so I obviously don’t have first hand experience with this issue. But some of the comments above baffle me a little and I’m having a hard time conceptualizing – can cleavage actually be visible even with a high neck crewcut or a high boatneck shirt? I’m wearing a high crewcut shirt this minute and unless cleavage begins directly below the neck in line with the collarbone, I just don’t see how it could be visible. And again, with boatneck shirts that cut directly across – how can cleavage still appear? I honestly do not mean to offend anyone or imply people are lying, I just can’t understand how this can be!

    • Sarah

      When I bend over in a crew-neck or boat-neck top, you can definitely see cleavage. I show more when I sit than when I stand. I have to do all three at work, so at some point, unless I am in a turtleneck, cleavage will be seen. Boat necks are actually way worse than crew necks because of the straight cut, it just folds open like an envelope when I bend over.

  35. Nancy BL Deol

    This exact scenario happened to me today. My lady boss whispered and pantomimed how I should be.

  36. Kari Serenity

    I think that minimizing cleavage is a good general rule, but like anything else it should be taken with a grain of salt. Obviously people with really big chests can’t just make them go away and shouldn’t have to wear nothing but turtlenecks. I think it’s ridiculous how women’s bodies can be viewed as “unprofessional” just by looking a certain way. At the same time, I’d like to think that most people have good intentions and that, for them, it is more about making everyone comfortable by wearing non-distracting clothing and less about shaming people for having a certain body type.

    I mean, there are business standards for men too. In conservative offices they’re expected to maintain their appearances by shaving, keeping their hair trimmed, and buttoning up their shirts… There are just some general rules, sometimes they’re unfair in terms of the amount of effort required for each person, but I don’t think they’re entirely unreasonable.

  37. tagatha

    I can sort of see where this ‘less cleavage’ is coming from… but at the same time, I’m thinking that if someone’s reaction is ‘OMG this arouses me’ maybe they should keep that knowledge to themselves and not broadcast it around the office.

  38. Sparr

    A guy who is more well endowed has to wear longer shorts. Body type certainly can influence dress code guidelines.

  39. Cass

    It’s not shaming anyone’s body type to decide that the exposure of certain parts is inappropriate for a professional setting even though every body is different. If an office has decided that exposed breast tissue is inappropriate outside of a restroom or nursing room, it’s not punishing or shaming women who have large or high or close-set breasts.

    Some men can lose a button on casual Friday, and others can’t because protruding chest hair is considered inappropriate for a professional office. Some men have to wear looser pants than others compared to their actual waist and hip size, because the outlining of certain objects which come in varied sizes is considered inappropriate. They’re not being shamed for having large genitals–they are dressing to the same *standard of formality* as everyone else, which says no outlines of genitals. It’s not just about arousal or “I don’t want to see that”. It’s about a professional standard of dress.

    No one should be *shamed* for having large or high-set or close together breasts. No one should be shamed for the opposite. While many of the reasons given women (and the way in which advice is given) are inappropriate and sometimes changing, it does not mean having a standard for professional dress is also shaming. The fact that both groups are expected not to show cleavage is not different than the fact that men of varying physiques and levels of endowment or hirsuteness are held to the same standard of professional dress.

  40. Maria

    Totally agree with Cass. I am a 40D and I dress appropriately for work. That means no cleavage. I have to work at it, but not any harder than men who wear suits and ties in hot and humid weather.

  41. Eudoxia

    I meant to reply to this a couple of days ago – mostly I agree with the commenters more than with Nadine. I wonder, too, whether I’m the only person who thinks the comparison with food doesn’t work?

    “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.”

    In the office environments I’ve worked in, if I could smell my coworker’s lunch, then that *would* be something they were expected to deal with. Plenty of my colleagues eat at their desks, but generally foods which you can’t smell unless you’re the one eating them (cold sandwiches, cake, fruit, whatever). For more pungent foods, there’s the small break room on our floor, or the staff canteen on another floor – your lunch might be delicious, that doesn’t mean that everyone around wants to smell it for half an hour!

  42. Bette

    I work in construction, and the ladies on job sites who show cleave are not taken seriously. They are looked at as desperate for attention. I never show cleavage around the guys I work with because I want to be known for my work and not for my breasts. I’m a D cup; when I show cleavage everyone acts like I’m naked or something so I always feel uncomfortable. I don’t need my coworkers to think I am sexy. I’ve only ever shown cleavage at work when I had a crush on a coworker.

  43. Bernie

    This hits close to home. As a nursing mother newly returned to work I’m struggling with this one. I’ve always been well-endowed and now am even more so. To complicate matters I must pump twice a day and have the luxury of visiting my daughter over lunch to feed her. So I need clothes that are work appropriate but also allow easy access. I thought I was doing pretty well with my wrap shirts layered over bravado nursing tanks until two coworkers in a row indicated I should pull my shirt up. One did so nicely. The other was a snot about it. Of course, this also relates to the standing/sitting post because all of my outfits look fine when I view them standing in the mirror, it’s while sitting that I’m overflowing. And I work at a girls’ school, so what I wear matters as a role model for young women.
    Sigh. Summer is coming soon. Here’s to long days at the pool where no one will object to my cleavage.

  44. Shaye

    Look, my boobs are obvious, they’re THERE, and covering them to my neck isn’t going to make them less obvious or present. I have large breasts that are high-set, but they’re also wide-set. Lots of stuff looks fine until I cross my arms or bend over. (Yep, you can cleave in a crew neck if you cross your arms and your girls are big enough.) I do the best I can to dress appropriately, and don’t sweat it when I cleave anyway. It is unavoidable. They are just boobs; half the population has ’em.

    That’s not to say there aren’t inappropriate clothing choices for work. But the truth is, those choices are just as inappropriate for small-busted women; it’s just that people are less likely to notice, or care if they do. Fashion gives us a lot of options that need modification in order to be work-appropriate. That sweetheart neckline peplum top from Anthro that I wear a cami under or a scarf over is just as inappropriate for the small-busted gal who works there; one only has to be a couple inches taller to see her bra. She just gets away with it because she works in retail. But I fear if she worked in an office, she’d still get away with it, because her BODY is seen as appropriate, not her clothing. A lot of clothing choices are let slide on people with small busts. So what it comes down to is NOT the clothing, but the body of the person wearing it. And as the poster in the polo neck with the new bra demonstrated, there is often literally nothing large-breasted women can do to prevent our bodies from being policed. So that’s why I say, if you’ve got a problem with my boobs: get over it.

  45. Nisha

    Hi Nadine,

    I was sent your writing after I was told, and shared (after 2 years at the company, and by female bosses) that my attire was now inapropriate.

    After reading (and sending) your piece, and having days go by with nothing said, I was called into the office for a “talk”.

    I made her feel like she “wasn’t a feminist”. I don’t know how I ended up here, feeling like I was the asshole, after they made me think I could share my feelings.

    Your writing is right on,

  46. Goofy

    Recently my work place instituted a new dress code policy which is primarily discriminatory of women. Our Muslim owned firm has stated women cannot wear skirts above the ankle and must wear shirts/blouses buttoned to the neck. I fail to see how this dress code change effects the ability of women to perform their duties effectively.