This is a more considered response to the Feminist Fashion Bloggers‘ monthly topic of fashion and sexuality than Wednesday’s rather brief post managed to be. Thanks to the commenters on that post for helping me to clarify my thinking, both those who pointed out that if one is well-endowed it’s almost impossible to avoid showing at least some cleavage unless one only wears high-necked tops (which are quite hard to find, certainly in non-casual styles) and the person who said that she thought any amount of cleavage was totally inappropriate for the office because it would be distracting to male colleagues, which did give me pause for thought (although if that commenter is reading I would like to make it clear that it didn’t take me a couple of days to approve your comment because I disagreed with you, it ended up in spam by mistake).
I have a lot of problems with the term ‘modesty’ when applied to dress; it comes with a lot of religious and cultural baggage about how women should ensure they don’t lead men into temptation by dressing provocatively which I fundamentally disagree with. Men are adults, and they should be responsible for controlling their own impulses just as much as women are responsible for controlling theirs. (Franca has a couple of interesting posts on the subject, if anyone wants to read more.) And if asked, I would have vehemently denied that my preference for tops with sleeves, moderately high necklines, and never going bare-legged when wearing skirts above the knee had nothing to do with that kind of residual Victorian-values attitude. I’d have said it was just personal preference, and maybe partly to do with not wanting to be chilly (there is a certain amount of truth to that, although in fact I am someone who feels the heat more than the cold; but for the last few years I did work in an incredibly cold building).
The trouble with the ‘personal preference’ argument is that none of us exist in a vacuum. Yes, of course in a perfect world we could all make completely free choices, but as it it we’re influenced by a whole lot of cultural baggage we may not even be aware of. And actually, deep down, I know that while I’m happy with my figure, I still haven’t completely made my peace with the actual physical nature of my body; the blotches and visible veins and stubble on my legs, the pudginess of my upper arms, and, particularly, the rather generous proportions of my bust. I’ve never been comfortable with my breasts. I developed very early, and was wearing a B-cup bra in my last year of junior school; a succession of hormonal contraceptives seems to have caused them to keep growing until I’m now wearing a GG and determined never to change pill brands again. And big breasts are problematic in our society, because breasts are so sexualised (I live in the land of the Page 3 girl, and if I was the kind of person to seek explanations for my current issues in my childhood I might wonder just what effect the old copies of the Sun we had to protect the desks in my junior school when we were painting had on my developing psyche), and it’s not easy for me to accept them as just an ordinary part of me. Instead,they seem to symbolise an overt sexuality which really, really isn’t me; I’m quite a private person and would prefer to keep the sexual aspects of myself between me and my other half.
When working through the tangle of my own mind it often helps to try to think of how it would seem to me if I was another person. Do I think that other large-breasted women at work are dressing too sexily and look unprofessional when they show a small amount of cleavage? No, of course I don’t. So would they think that of me if I did? Almost certainly not. Should I allow a culture which views women as primarily sex objects affect my relationship with my own body to the extent that I feel I have to make extreme efforts to cover myself up if I don’t want to be viewed as a sex object rather than an accountant, a manager, a friend, a colleague, a knitter, and above all a person? No I bloody well shouldn’t.
Obviously, I’m not going to stop wearing shawls, because I love my shawls. But it it’s too warm to have a shawl on I’m not going to fret. And I’m damn well going to make a Sorbetto and hopefully wear it to work if the weather is hot, even if it is – shock horror! – sleeveless.