Ladies: your cleavage is causing too much trouble

Because I can’t resist a good shit storm, I’m here to weigh in on that Bettina Arndt article. Yes, the one about cleavages, and ‘beta men’ (whoever those men are…).

After reading, then re-reading, then doing a tequila shot or two and taking some time out on my fainting couch, and then re-reading again, I finally got some of the points that Bettina is attempting to make. They are:

  • Women feel that they can dress how they like
  • But then women get offended when the ‘wrong sorts’ of men take a look
  • Hence, men are confused and don’t know where to look

Aside from the fact that the visual images this entire article conjures up are absurdly fabulous (A ENTIRE WORLD OF CLEAVAGES, PEOPLE! And poor men not knowing where to look, those poor, lost, sensitive souls!) it fails to mention some obvious facts. And those facts are:

  • Women do not actually feel that they can always dress how they like – sure , they technically have a right to, but just like men, they are restricted by environmental factors (office wear, night clubbing wear, religious wear, etc). Sometimes, women and men both break these rules, and when they do, someone usually tells them.
  • Men have a thing called ‘judgement’ (women have it, too!). They can recognise that just because a woman who wears a low-cut top, she is not ‘asking for’ anything. Nor is she ‘biologically sexually harassing’ men.

Just a side note, I ‘get’ that cleavage thing. See, look:

Man cleavage. But just because I see it,  I wouldn’t take this a green light to cat call a guy.

There are a few individual paragraphs in Arndt’s article that I want to address:

Rob Tiller is a Perth psychotherapist and men’s advocate who has run more than 200 men’s workshops on communication skills, sex and intimacy. He believes many men are confused about what’s going on.

”In one of my workshops, I remember a guy describing women flaunting their bodies as a form of ‘biological sexual harassment’ towards men, to which most of the group gave a collective nod,” Tiller says. ”The self-assured, cocky blokes seem to see bare flesh as a green light and often express a ‘bring-it-on’ attitude but others find it difficult to handle. I think it’s a real catch-22 for most men. We really do want to be respectful but that’s not always easy with a neon pink G-string staring up at us.”

Actually, yes. Yes, it is still easy to have basic respect for another human being. I’m sure that men can resist slapping a girl on the arse, or leering at her, or calling her any number of names, just because she’s wearing a pink G-string. Where is the line drawn? If a man is presumably challenged by being respectful towards a woman because of her attire, is he therefore not responsible for his actions?

..Plenty of other women know exactly what they are doing, as they make clear in internet discussions of this issue.

”I luv my 36DDs and show them off. I like to see men drool.”

”It’s so funny when some men get caught cos they have that ‘Am I in trouble?’ look on their face!”

”It is a tease thing … men are so weak.

”We have such power over them.”

I doubt that a reasonable person would say that women have “such power” over men in general. Specifically, in terms of cleavage, it’s possible that a certain group of men may be somewhat fixated by a woman’s breasts. But in terms of practically everything else – important things, like the pay gap, and representation of women in parliament, and sexual harassment in the workplace – I don’t think we hold any particular power. Just because we can capture a man’s gaze with our breasts, it doesn’t mean that he’ll necessarily be any more inclined to want to give us a raise, or hire us, or even listen to us – he might be too fixated on those same breasts. And to be honest, I think you’re playing the game a little wrong if you’re using your body for any of these purposes.

Finally, the bit that bugs me about this the most? The idea that men can’t control themselves. The idea that I should somehow be concerned because a man has a hard on over my cleavage? Not going to happen.

Last time I checked, the males in my life weren’t Neanderthals. And, as one commenter on the Jezebel article said, “As a “beta” male, I also am highly offended by all the nice cars I am not allowed to drive. I constantly see nice cars sitting unused in parking lots, yet if I were to borrow one of these cars suddenly I’m the bad guy.”

Just to be clear, a person’s clothes do not give another person permission to sexually harass them. I do not see a shirtless guy running past me and immediately think, “Gee, I’m going to cat call him/grab his arse/etc”. Sure, I might glance at his chest – but I do not blatantly ogle.

In an entirely unscientific poll, I asked my boyfriend the following questions:

“Do you feel victimised by women putting their cleavage out? As in, do you feel that you’re forced to look at it, or that sometimes there’s too much cleavage, and that you don’t have anywhere else to look?”

And he said, “Kinda. To be honest, there are times where I find my focus drawn to it then I realise and think O NO DONT LOOK. Then I’m worried that they saw me looking when i didn’t mean to!”

Then I asked whether he had the self-control to look away, and he said “Yes.”

Finally, I posed this situation to him: “A really hot babe has her cleavage out, but you know that the cleavage isn’t intended to attract you. it’s to attract some hot footy player or something. Do you get angry because her cleavage is out, but if you did chat to her or even look at her cleavage, she’d get upset?”

And he said, “I would find it unfair and rude if the case was that I wasn’t allowed to look but then some big beef cake next to me was. If it’s out there it’s either all or none”

Then I asked, “But you wouldn’t think that just because a woman is dressed in a provocative manner, she deserves to have a variety of comments thrown her way?”

And the answer: “Of course not.”

And that’s my point – no one should presume that just because a woman is dressed a certain way, she is ‘asking’ for anything. I know that all evidence may point to the contrary – but it’s a slippery slope to go from, “Oh, she’s dressed like she’s in for some fun” to “Well, she looks like she’s asking for it”.

And as for some men “being in a total state of confusion”? I understand the confusion, but it’s best if we all just remember that a woman’s (or a man’s) clothes do not give anyone permission to sexually harass them. Hope that clears up the confusion.

The Male Gaze, aka ‘What do I wear today?’

The male gaze. We’ve all been then, male or female. We’ve all eyeballed someone cute from across the room, or had a bit of a sly perv on the street. Females tend to cop it the most, but in this day and age, it’s becoming increasingly common for guys to receive their fair share of attention.

The male gaze, for those of us not studying arts (yes, all ten of you) is a theory introduced by Laura Mulvey. Basically, Mulvey was interested in films being shot from the male perspective, with females as ‘object’. So all those films with sexy girls and less-than-sexy guys? That’s the male gaze. Those movies with the chicks waltzing around as eye candy for 5 minutes without actually moving the plot forward? That’s the male gaze. Females as a pleasurable looking object, males as the observer.

Phew. Now you’ve absorbed all of that, have a cartoon. Go on. It’s on me, and it’s relevant:

Now, back to my, um….point. The male gaze extends into real life, too. Oh yes. It’s hard to shake off. Women in corporate environments across the globe are expected to dress ‘professionally’- professionally meaning high heels, possibly dresses/skirts, and stockings. Pants are sometimes okay, sometimes not. Heels are almost always a ‘must’. I’m not entirely sure why, as last time I checked heels didn’t actually contribute to anything except making women’s legs look longer. They certainly don’t assist her in getting her work done any more efficiently. Nor do skirts, or make up. And as for suits-men wear suits- women get ‘power suits’- because they’re empowered, geddit! Men can wear flat shoes, and the most that they seem to be asked in terms of appearance is to be clean shaven. And even this isn’t a demand.

And this ‘gazing’ extends right down to little ol’ me. I know I have a right to step out of the house looking as good or as a bad as I want. I get this. I understand this. BUT- I also understand the consequences of going out of the house looking like Cousin It from the Addams Family (which is exactly what I look like in the morning):

(That’s me in the middle, by the way.)

The consequences would probably be a lot of (weird) looks, quite a few comments, my professionalism being queried by my colleagues, my sanity being questioned by my house mates, and my general health being queried by every other by stander. And this is on a rough day. On a good day, I’ll get comments about my hair. Every woman has something she’s consistently complimented or targeted about. For me, it’s the hair. For other girls, it’s their eyes, or their lips, or their legs, or their height, or their weight. There’s always something to comment on. It’s very rarely how smart she is.

I absolutely resent the fact that I need to ‘pick’ my ‘outfit’ for the day. If I could, I’d wear the same thing day in, day out. But because I’m a female, this will be picked up and commented upon. In fact, any appearance change is commented upon- some good, some bad. But the fact that I can’t escape this relentless gaze is what frustrates me. I am looked at when I’m simply walking down the street- never mind what hell breaks loose when I walk past a building site. And let me assure you, in real life I am actually akin to Cousin It. I’m no Elle McPherson, and when I walk past a building site, I’m kind of grateful for that.

This ‘gaze’ has other effects, too. A study was done last year on the effect that a male stranger’s gaze had on women in a corporate environment. Observe, please:

Tamar Saguy is different. Leading a team of Israeli and US psychologists, she has shown that women become more silent if they think that men are focusing on their bodies. They showed that women who were asked to introduce themselves to an anonymous male partner spent far less time talking about themselves if they believed that their bodies were being checked out. Men had no such problem. Nor, for that matter, did women if they thought they were being inspected by another woman.

Saguy’s study is one of the first to provide evidence of the social harms of sexual objectification – the act of treating people as “de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities”. It targets women more often than men. It’s apparent in magazine covers showing a woman in a sexually enticing pose, in inappropriate comments about a colleague’s appearance, and in unsolicited looks at body parts. These looks were what Saguy focused on.

The gaze is everywhere. And not only does it objectify women (and, as a wider demographic, people in general) but it shuts them up. Women don’t talk as much if some strange male is staring at their breasts. The only other thing I wish this study had recorded was how many times women actually asked the men what the fuck they thought they were doing by blatantly eyeballing her breasts. Now that would have been interesting.

My point here? Cut everyone some slack. Eye candy is great and all, but we’re all just like books- you can’t judge us by our covers.