What’s wrong with cleavage? A belly dancer’s costuming conundrum

written by Andalee on September 8, 2014 in Body image and Costuming for any size with 14 comments
Andalee is rocking some cleavage at a photo shoot.

Andalee is rocking some cleavage at a photo shoot.

A couple of weeks ago my husband made a comment about my cleavage and how it should be more covered up when I belly dance. I asked him why partly because my feelings were hurt and partly because I wanted to know why he really felt that way. It took awhile to get him to talk about it; but he started out with the “it’s distracting” route and quickly dug himself into a hole that he could not really dig himself out of. The problem lies in the way breasts are sexualized in our culture . They are live-giving and at the same time eroticized. We are taught to display them; and we are taught to cover them up. There is often a spectrum when it comes to breast exposure–it’s starts at prudish and ends at–dare I say it–slutty.

Just read some of these articles I found the web:

Just one missed blouse button and your “girls” can suddenly go from classy to trashy. Whether you meant to show off the goods on purpose or you’re just too busty to help it, learn how and when to give your cleavage its stage time with our 6 rules for best breast etiquette. [snip]

The average breast size has grown from a 34B to a 36C since the 1970s and clothing styles are smaller and snugger. So it’s no wonder the line between “Nice!” and “Look at those!” has blurred.

“I don’t think women are stupid,” says Elisabeth Squires, author of bOObs: A Guide to Your Girls. (Seal Press). “I just don’t think anyone knows the rules.”

If you’re confused about when to flaunt them and when to cover up, here’s what the experts say:”

Source: Lifescript.com: The 6 Rules of Cleavage

So apparently there are rules and women must be taught what they are because we’re not smart enough to figure them out ourselves…

Here’s another one:

When it comes to putting your bosom on display, here are guidelines from the experts.

Do dress for the occasion. A glimpse of cleavage is a classic look, but for any kind of work-related event it’s inappropriate. Stick to higher necklines that keep cleavage under wraps.

Do take care of your décolletage, the skin that covers your chest. If you’re unhappy with that area, skin brightening ointments such as Lytera or laser resurfacing may help.

Do go to a professional for a bra fitting. The correct bra will lift and separate your breasts, but not push them together. The cup size should be big enough so nothing spills out.

Don’t try to fit a size 8 bosom in a size 6 dress. Always buy a dress to fit the largest part of your body, then have an alterations person take it in.

Don’t show more than a maximum of three inches of cleavage (one or two inches is ideal). If you show too much you run the risk of becoming the joke of a party, or making guests feel uncomfortable.

Don’t mash and smash the breasts together. The breasts should have a natural shape and should not be touching.

Source: Charlotte Observer: Holiday style: How much cleavage is too much?

And of course, we have to hear what Cosmo has to say about it!

We don’t think there’s anything wrong with showing off what your mama gave you, but when it comes to your cans, can you expose too much?

The answer is hell yes.

We look at cleavage like this: If you’re going to show off your chest, choose a region of boob. Go for either top, middle, or side, but by no means should this be an around-the-world tour of your tatas where you get to look at the entire view.


Like we said, we get that cleavage is sexy, but just pick a lane. If you have a plunging dress, great, rock the center boob. Just make sure you’re not popping out of it. No one wants to see that. However, if you’re trying to flaunt top boob, we’d say about an inch of cleavage before your shirt starts is still classy; beyond that and it’s just tacky.

Tell us your thoughts on cleavage. Sexy or just say no?

Source: Cosmopolitan: How much cleavage is too much?

And that’s just for every day wear! When it comes to belly dance costumes, a little bit more cleavage is allowed. But how much is too much? As a plus size belly dancer with a very large chest, finding the right bra size to support and adequately cover my breasts is hard. Very hard. You don’t know how many times I have had to add on to a costume in order to make the cups larger and give me more coverage. Even cholis and crop tops show cleavage. I often joke around that I need a turtleneck belly dance costume (my husband would probably buy one for me if I asked him to). And despite custom ordering costumes and letting the costumers know exactly what size breasts I have, I still end up with cups that are too small for me!

Women with small- to medium-sized busts can get away with pushing them up, sticking them out and rocking cleavage like no one’s business. I’m not saying all small- to medium-sized chested women want to do that, but they usually can with no repercussions. And when you compare apples to apples (melons to melons?) it appears that the larger woman is showing more skin, and she is, but proportionately it’s often not that much more of a difference.

And belly dancers themselves are divided over this issue. Here what some had to say:

“I an too quite insecure about mine. It keeps me from buying costumes because a lot of adjustments are required. I have seen some nice costumes on large breasted women. I think some cleavage is necessary though. Just not too much wherein the breasts ate spilling out of the bra.”

“Regarding your cleavage question: so this is an area that I struggle with personally, especially as a belly dancer. I can appreciate that for a women who is well endowed, cleavage has big (no pun intended) issues. Heavy, possibly in the way, needs special work to contain and support for dancing. I am on the other end of the spectrum. I’m not entirely flat but my cleavage is smallish and not very firm or full. When I dance I like to do upper body stuff like shimmies and chest drops but I feel like it’s not pronounced. Of course push ups and such would seem to be the answer but it doesn’t feel like part of my body. I find this especially prominent with the chest drops/lifts. I generally feel like NOTHING is happening. Just my perspective.”

“Trying to write down how my hate-love relationship is with the cleavage! I know a lot of dancers who pad their bras like crazy and you still don’t see a real cleavage. I actually like it that way, because I feel like their boobs do not distract the overall view. I feel like it’s more elegant for a dancer. I don’t pad most of my costumes. But still, I feel like all you can see is the cleavage. Not the costume. Not the dancer. But the cleavage.”

It’s a really difficult line to walk. Either we don’t have enough or we have too much. But let’s look at some of the language we’ve seen in just these few quotes:

  • spilling out
  • heavy
  • in the way
  • distracting

All of that language points, in my opinion, to an underlying belief that our cleavage is somehow shameful. It’s really not. There is nothing to feel shameful about. Breasts are breasts. They have been stigmatized, demonized, sexualized and they have been censored. I personally believe that these things are meant to police and contain a woman’s body in order to maintain the current patriarchal society and keep women in their place. I believe it’s important to fight back from this type of oppression. It is true that when you put on a certain type of costume or bra, you are eliciting some sort of response in your audience, be it admiring or disdainful or whatever else, but you can’t let other’s opinions drag you down, especially when you consider the cultural context of their opinions.

When it comes to costuming, I think there are two rules to follow:

1) Wear what makes you feel fabulous.

2) Wear what is comfortable for you.

If you don’t feel fabulous and if you are uncomfortable, then something isn’t right. If you just have one of the two going for you, then you’re on your way. And if both is happening, then it will show in your dancing. If you feel fabulous and are comfortable in a costume that shows cleavage, by all means wear it and rock the heck out of it. And if you feel that you’ve been shamed somehow, just look to Egypt’s Dina. She is a belly dance star in a very conservative country and has managed to make a name for herself and be highly respected even while wearing those special “Dina bras.”

So what are your thoughts on cleavage? Do you like to show cleavage or hide cleavage? Do you like cleavage but feel uncomfortable showing it? What things can we do as belly dancers to break down stereotypes and stigmas that are meant to police women’s bodies?

About Andalee

Andalee is the founder of Belly Dance at Any Size. She is an Oriental dancer and instructor from Durham, NC, now based in Montpellier, France. She has been dancing since 2005 and teaching since 2008. Her mission is to promote Oriental Dance (a.k.a. belly dance) as a respected and valid performance art.