The Bodice Politic

If a powerful woman flashes decolletage, Americans will talk


On the beach, in the boudoir, at a birthday bash, we're used to it.

But on a cooking show? At a speaking engagement? On the campaign trail?

Cleavage -- once hidden, covered or, at best, barely hinted at -- has been popping out in the most unexpected places lately.

Famously conservative dresser Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton showed hers on the Senate floor recently. Billionaire book-writer (of children's books, no less) J.K. Rowling often reveals hers in promotional pictures and magazine shots. And Giada de Laurentiis, host of the Food Network's Everyday Italian, bares enough cleavage to have some viewers tuning out.

"I'm sorry, but I don't want a side order of boobs with my food," says Kim Mitchell, 34, of Philadelphia, who is annoyed by de Laurentiis' low-cut sweaters in the kitchen.

Indeed, the recent display of decolletage has sparked a bit of a debate, particularly among women: Is cleavage making a comeback? And if so, when is it appropriate to show it off?

Lois Joy Johnson, beauty and fashion director of More magazine (a magazine for women over 40), remains somewhat in the old-fashioned camp when it comes to women revealing too much of their breasts in public, particularly if they're professional or serious.

"There's a difference between having a firm, healthy body that is glorious and being sexual," says Johnson. "And I think the difference comes when you start talking about showing more than a shadow, the shadow being when you get to the very top of your breasts."

A shadow, Johnson says, is a "suggestion" of sexuality, not a full-frontal viewing.

"And that has always been a very classy thing -- button-down shirts, unbuttoned to just where your bra starts, cashmere sweaters with no real skin showing -- that's a suggestive thing," Johnson says.

The discussion about decolletage is as unnecessary as it is long-standing, says Nili Sachs, psychotherapist and author of Booby-Trapped, How to Feel Normal in a Breast-Obsessed World.

"What is the big deal about cleavage? Women have always had cleavage," Sachs says. "Give us a break already."

Sachs has spent years studying women's attitudes about their breasts, here and in other countries, and says Americans are, by far, the most obsessed with them.

"If you compare it to other cultures, it's a no-brainer," Sachs says. "It's a normal, natural thing. The American culture is so conservative."

We're also a little bit schizophrenic, she says.

"On one hand we have a culture that is so obsessed with breasts, we buy high school graduation gifts -- sweet 16 gifts -- of breast implants for our daughters," Sachs says. "Then, when we see cleavage, we say, 'Ohmigod, look at the cleavage!'"

Case in point: The brouhaha over Sen. Clinton's slight show-of-cleavage recently. Speaking last month to members of Congress about higher education costs, Clinton wore a pink blazer and a black top with a V-neck.

The top showed the tiniest bit of a cleft created when breasts come together; on Pamela Anderson, it would have been considered positively Puritanical.

But on Clinton, the hint of breasts suggested something else: that the Senator-who-would-be-President wants the world to know she is, indeed, a woman.

If that is true, Clinton is not the only woman of a certain age ready to flaunt her femininity -- even in the business world.

When Debra Dinnocenzo, who just turned 53, launched a new Web site for her Pittsburgh-based consulting and training company, she opted for photos that showed a little cleavage. The two photos on, that show the author, speaker and mother of a 14-year-old, in low-cut dresses or tops, made Dinnocenzo feel like she looked "less closed-off."

"I think many of us in the 50-ish age group are still recovering from the era of early entrants into the business world, where we felt we had to blend in and look and act like serious business people, which meant look and act like men," says Dinnocenzo. "I believe we feel more confident and safer now in expressing our feminine aspects, including our looks. ...Of course, we still have to work hard, be incredibly competent and get the job done. But we can do that handily, even with a little cleavage."

Jennifer Kalita, of Silver Spring, isn't a baby boomer, but was raised by one..

These days, the small business consultant and mother of two small children thinks it's all right to be serious and sexy.

"When I'm at meetings, I do like to dress like a woman," says Kalita, 34. "I'm very prone to the deep 'V.'"

"And after having two children," she says, with a laugh. "God gave me a little more to work with."

Still, Kalita says she often considers when getting dressed whether she looks too much like "a bimbo."

"I think there's a fine line between being sexy and powerful and being sleazy," she says.

That's the line that cooking-show-lover Mitchell thinks many of the Food Network's most popular hotties cross.

"I've noticed that women's tops are showing more cleavage," says Mitchell, who blogged about it on a foodie message board recently. "And Food Network hosts are some of the worst offenders. Giada ... Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee are showing [it] all."

Mitchell finds the exposure, er, distasteful.

"Why are they flashing us?" she says.

But just as many women say more power to Giada, Rachael, Sen. Clinton, et al.

"If you've got it, flaunt it," says Carol Bloom Stevens, 54, of Bedford, New York. "It's no longer a sign of being cheap or a bimbo. The idea is to use whatever you got. If it's your best asset, show it off."

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