Where do you stand on cleavages? Not that I’m suggesting you should – that would be wrong, not to mention very painful – but you know what I mean. It’s a topic that I’ve been mulling over for some time, but have been reluctant to write about, as I fear my views will be found anti-feminist and will generally get up people’s noses (enough with the assaults on body parts!).
But last week’s University Challenge has finally compelled me to articulate my case.
Katharine Perry, who led the team from Pembroke College, Oxford, has very large breasts and wore a very low-cut top. She was also an engaging and solicitous captain, and looked delighted when she got a right answer and gracious when she didn’t, which is more than can be said of most contestants.
But for me her appearance on the programme prompted a host of questions. Did she not think that dressing like this would, at the very least, give rise to a Twitter storm? (It did, with no shortage of comments of the ‘Look at the nauks on that’ variety.) Did she realise it and not care? Did the producers have any concerns about this? Was she given any advice/warning, but decided to go her own way? Did they deliberately not give her any such advice, thinking, perhaps quite rightly, that she was entitled to wear what she pleased and not have to trim her choices to ward off offensive and immature men on Twitter? Whatever did or didn’t go on behind the scenes, Perry looks like a woman whose radiant serenity would lift her above unpleasantness of any sort.
But inevitably, this got me thinking about other occasions when fleshy fissures have hit the headlines. Remember the uproar when Jacqui Smith first appeared in the House of Commons as Home Secretary? She understandably claimed that her sudden elevation to One of the Great Offices of State meant that the finer details of her wardrobe were not uppermost in her mind at the time, and to a degree she was the victim of the fact that the television cameras in the Commons are positioned above the honourable members, giving a view very different from when you look at yourself full on in the mirror.
Yet Theresa May on occasion wears clothes that reveal her cleavage and must surely be aware by now that they do. I’m sure the feminist view is that she’s entitled to wear what she wants, and the problem is with our sexist society. Well, I’m sorry, people, but in this context I beg to differ.
Accentuating your primary or secondary sexual characteristics in the workplace is simply not on, and that goes for all genders and none. It would be just as unacceptable for Michael Gove to rock up to PMQs in budgie-smuggling trousers, or Jeremy Hunt to appear before a Select Committee displaying dark, curling chest hair. (Apologies if I have left you with images you would rather not have seen.) People are there to work – and these people are there to work on our behalf and we are paying them for it.
I find Professor Catherine Hakim’s assertion that women should use their ‘erotic capital’ to get ahead in the workplace appalling. She claims it’s a way of levelling the playing field with men, but it’s hardly supportive of those in the sisterhood who are not deemed to have any erotic capital, or of those who are experienced and competent, but whose erotic capital is judged to be a thing of the past.
Once again, we must look to Angela Merkel for guidance on appropriate professional dress: smart plain clothes that just let you get on with the job. (Couldn’t you come and be our PM for a while, Ange, once Germany has finished with you?)