By JUDITH WARNER
The New York Times
July 28, 2007
The Washington Post’s penetrating exposé of Hillary Clinton’s “surreptitious” show of cleavage on the Senate floor last week (“To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres is a provocation”) sent me trawling on the Internet, digging through sites like eBay and Hijabs-R-Us, desperate to buy a burqa.
I’d come upon the article on a very bad day, one in which I’d made the fatal error of wearing a sundress that had shrunk at the dry cleaners. Zipping up the top required a fair amount of exhaling and spousal assistance and a certain compression of body parts. All of which meant that, when I dropped my eyes down from the computer screen where I was reading the piece and turned them in the direction of my ever-contemplatable navel, I was confronted by an unmistakable bit of, well, “provocative” décolleté.
It wasn’t — I ran to check in the mirror — discernable from head-on or from the side. In fact, you pretty much had to be looking straight down to see it. Still, I didn’t want to take any chances. I did not want to run the risk, as Clinton had, according to The Post’s Robin Givhan, of giving passers-by the impression that they were “catching a man with his fly unzipped.” (“Just look away!”)
I have a hard enough time making friends around the office.
And so, I spent the rest of the 90-degree day buttoned up in a warm jacket. Grumbling and muttering all the way.
You see, I’d always thought that, when you reached a certain age or a certain stage in life, you sort of bought your way out of the sexual rat race. You could be a “person of cleavage,” to borrow a Pulitzer-worthy phrase from Ruth Marcus, a Post columnist, but you could nonetheless make it through your day without having to give the matter much thought.
After all, isn’t every woman past a certain age, at a certain weight and after a certain amount of breast-feeding, a “person of cleavage?” And aren’t you allowed, at a certain time of life, to escape from the world of at least my youth, where you couldn’t walk down the street licking an ice cream cone without inviting a stream of leering commentary?
I always thought that middle age afforded some kind of protection from prying eyes and personal remarks. I thought this was the silver lining to growing up and growing older. Clearly, I was wrong.
Funny that it took another woman to drive that point home to me. Funny, too, that when I looked closely at the photo that accompanied Givhan’s article, I couldn’t see anything vaguely resembling cleavage. I guess you had to have just the right angle.
Givhan is a fashion writer, which means she spends a great deal of time in the company of professional anorexics, sunken-chested young women whose attempts at cleavage are gerry-rigged for the cameras. These are women whose images are tightly controlled, for whom every millimeter of flesh shown or unshown is a matter of careful planning and styling and aesthetic hand-wringing.
Normal women are different. Normal women — real women, dare I say? — women who have other, more important things on their minds than their looks, women who have other people on their minds than themselves, the kinds of women, in other words, whom you’d probably want to have running the country, aren’t likely to be so “perfect” in appearance. Their flesh (minus the knife) will bulge or sag; their clothes will pull and shift, showing this or that lunch stain, this or that wrinkle, this or that unbidden bit of skin. It’s a mark of how stunted we are as a society that, no matter what their age, accomplishments or stature, we still expect these women to maintain a level of image control worthy of a professional beauty.
The difference between a real female commander in chief and a woman who plays one on TV will one day prove to be that the former is not always shot at a flattering angle. She will have bad shirt days and the occasional run in a stocking.
At least, I hope she’ll be the kind of woman who would permit that to happen. I hope, at the very least, that predatory eyes won’t force her to spend a chunk of precious work time every day being packaged into an impenetrable, invulnerable suit of professionally styled armor.
But I wouldn’t count on it.