Cleavage … The very word (let alone the image) goes right to the jugular, sending shivers straight to the minds and loins of men the world over, conjuring up all sorts of conflicting thoughts and scintillating fantasies.
Where should I look? Should I ask her out? Is she doing this on purpose? Am I just a hot-blooded male who can't control his urges? Help!!
Many women have cottoned on to the innate power of the simple act of showing a bit of chest flesh. And, while the fairer sex aren't exactly sure what chemical reactions are sparked in the minds of blokes at the mere sight of a little décolletage, nevertheless over time they've learnt one vital life lesson: a little cleavage goes a long way.
A screen grab from 'Tit for Tat' on You Tube.
A bit of bosom on show does something more powerful and more intoxicating to a bloke than any conversation, expensive gift or home-cooked meal.
And when it comes to the workplace, despite the fight for equal pay and equal rights, some women (many women) know that a good push-up bra is a better investment than any PhD. Besides, it sure as hell is something no man can ever attempt to compete with, no matter how many golf games or strip-club outings they organise for prospective clients. Women simply whip on a low-cut dress, some spindly stilettos and, voila! They're ahead of the game by a long shot.
But, of course, a little cleavage doesn't come without a load of consequence.
In the much-discussed article in this newspaper by Bettina Arndt titled "Busted: the politics of cleavage and a glance" – she debates the great cleavage paradox: should men really look if it is on display? Are women encouraging men to look at their chests if they are showing a little flesh, or are the blokes supposed to go against their biological urges and stare at their loafers instead?
In response to the article published last week, comments from readers, colleagues and my male friends came in fast and furiously.
An older male work colleague rang to tell me about the article and claimed Arndt was spot on the money:
"Women will wear cleavage to attract looks from men in a certain age bracket. If the woman is in her 20s, she only wants other men in their 20s and 30s looking at them. Anyone above that age, overweight or not within their 'standards' staring at their chest comes across as creepy, weird and unwanted."
One man in his 30s says a woman bearing cleavage is the ultimate cue for him to hit on to her.
"When you see a woman who has loads of cleavage and is a complete bombshell, the chase sets in. You just want to have her. But it doesn't mean you want a relationship with her. Not at all. It just means you're going to definitely ask her out and then see if you can have some fun together."
Herald reader Dom Archie concurs and writes this: "Just met a girl in the bank yesterday in home loans. Wore a low cut revealing top and yes I asked her out. She gets asked out all the time, has a partner but wears clothing that is going to get any man's attention."
Writes jayb1: "Breasts are like jewellery, besides their natural function, they are there to attract attention & a possible mate. Enhanced breasts even more so. ?So girls, 'reap what you sow', enjoy the attention. Your anger says more about you than the person whose eyes were attracted by your charms."
Which is exactly why Tc reckons too many single women are attracting the wrong types of men:
"As a male I often wonder how many 'Mr Rights' are out there, and do women really know what most men are looking for in a woman. If they think that their breasts will pull Mr Right - then perhaps, just perhaps, they will get the wrong Mr Right. I have been in meetings with women exposing large areas of their breasts, and have explained the situation I find myself in and where would they like me to look - at the floor or the ceiling. Women know exactly what they are doing when they dress this way."
Many of the women I polled for this story say they are extremely self-conscious when it comes to cleavage of their own. Flat-chested women, (especially in a sun-drenched country like ours), know all too well about the pains of having to go to the beach and compete with the ample-breasted women flouncing their double Ds as the men gawk, ogle and stare, ignoring the fact that the flat-chested femmes even exist.
"It's the absolute worst being flat," a friend said to me before she decided to opt for breast augmentation surgery. "You feel as though everyone is staring at your chest for all the wrong reasons. No men call you sexy, and you definitely don't get any wolf whistles. It brings down your entire self-esteem."
That's why, says Sheeva Tavakoli, the wife of well-known Sydney plastic surgeon Kourosh Tavakoli, the numbers of breast augmentations in Australia have grown astronomically in the past five years.
"I think most women would like to have more cleavage," she told me over the phone. "But it's not the only reason women opt for the operation. It's a self-improvement thing. We see a lot of patients who are mums and have just breast-fed and therefore have lost a lot of volume and tissue. They get the operation done to feel like a woman again."
I wondered if the increase had anything to do with pressure from husbands or boyfriends. But Tavakoli was quick to pooh-pooh that theory.
"No. To be honest, I don't see a lot of men encouraging their girlfriends to have it done. In fact, I hardly see any men saying they want their partner to have it done. It's mostly the woman's own decision. But 95 per cent of the partners are supportive in their girlfriend or wife's decision to undergo the procedure. But, no, I definitely don't see pressure from a male to have it done."
Would she have the procedure herself?
"Not yet, because I am currently pregnant," she replied. "I am waiting to have all my children before I have it done. But my situation is the same – breast-feeding means you lose a lot of volume and tissue, and, yes, I want to have more volume."
Let's get back to the politics of cleavage.
Whether fake or real, it undeniably empowers a woman, gives her a great sense of self-esteem, a colossal confidence boost and often gets her ahead of the men she's long been trying to compete with.
But if a woman does indeed decide to put her Betty Boops on show, are the men at fault for looking? Can only men of a certain age be allowed to take a peep? And is it really all that powerful that it deserves two entire columns on the subject?
Perhaps Herald reader Tc summed it up best when he wrote this in response to Arndt: "Perhaps men should go back to wearing codpieces to draw attention to themselves, and see how women deal with that, and where would they look."
Maybe, just maybe, he actually has a point ...
Samantha Brett is a journalist, TV and radio personality, and author of four books including bestsellers The Man Whisperer and The Chase.
The story The Great Cleavage Conundrum: should men look if it's on display? first appeared on Fairfax Regional Pages.