Cleavage, Revisited

It’s revision time for the Clinical Interviewing textbook (the 6th edition is coming). Revision time also means revisiting time. About three years ago I posted a new proposed section for the 5th edition cleverly titled, “Straight Talk about Cleavage.”

This time around I’m posting our slightly revised version of that section. What’s new is that I’m explicitly asking and hoping for your comments and feedback. Please note that this makes me nervous, but we (Rita and I) hope your comments and feedback will help us provide more perspective and depth to our discussion. We don’t want to come across as old fogeys or rabid feminists. Instead, we want to be reasonable, thoughtful, and balanced . . . and so we’re turning to YOU.

The section is below. You can post comments directly here at Word Press for all to see or email me privately at

Straight Talk about Cleavage

Although we don’t have any solid scientific data upon which to base this statement, our best guess is that most of the time most people on the planet don’t engage in open conversations about cleavage. Our goal in this section is to break that norm and to encourage you to break it along with us. To start, we should confess that the whole idea of us bringing up this topic (in writing or in person) and saying something like, “Okay, we need to have a serious talk about cleavage” makes us feel terribly old. But we also hope this choice might reflect the wisdom and perspective that comes with aging.

In recent years we’ve noticed a greater tendency for female counseling and psychology students (especially younger females) to dress in ways that might be viewed as somewhat provocative. This includes, but is not limited to, low necklines that show considerable cleavage. Among other issues, cleavage and clothing were discussed in a series of postings on the Counselor Education and Supervision (CES) listserv back in 2012. The CES discussion inspired many of the following statements that follow. Please read these bulleted statements and consider discussing them as an educational activity.

  • Female (and male) students have the right to express themselves via how they dress.
  • Commenting on how women dress and making specific recommendations may be viewed as sexist or inappropriately limiting.
  • It’s true that women should be able to dress any way they want.
  • It’s also true that agencies and institutions have some rights to establish dress codes regarding how their paid employees and volunteers dress.
  • Despite egalitarian and feminist efforts to free women from the shackles of a patriarchal society, how women dress is still interpreted as having certain socially constructed messages that often, but not always, pertain to sex and sexuality.
  • Although efforts to change socially constructed ideas about women dressing “sexy” can include activities like campus “slut-walks,” a counseling or psychotherapy session is probably not the appropriate venue for initiating a discourse on social and feminist change.
  • For better or worse, it’s a fact that both middle-school males and middle-aged men (and many “populations” in between) are likely to be distracted—and their ability to profit from a counseling experience may be compromised—if they have a close up view of their therapist’s breasts.
  • At the very least, we think excessive cleavage (please don’t ask us to define this phrase) is less likely to contribute to positive therapy outcomes and more likely to stimulate sexual fantasies—which we believe is probably contrary to the goals of most therapists.
  • It may be useful to have young women (and men) watch themselves on video from the viewpoint of a client (of either sex) that might feel attracted to them and then discuss how to manage sexual attraction that might occur during therapy.

Obviously, we don’t have perfect or absolute answers to the question of cleavage during a clinical interview. Guidelines depend, in part, on interview setting and specific client populations. At the very least, we recommend you take time to think about this dimension of professional attire and hope you’ll openly discuss cleavage and related issues with fellow students, colleagues, and supervisors.

5 thoughts on “Cleavage, Revisited”

  1. This is a great topic to discuss because it includes our appearance, which correlates with our clients perception and if they can connect with us. It is a piece of the pie but no doubt an important one. I know professionals in counseling and teaching who exhibit poor hygeine, dress and might toss some cleavage out from time to time. Students do notice and, it’s not cool. In my professional place I want students to see me as casual, clean, and someone they are drawn to for a good ear and safe space. I do not want them to see cleavage ever. It is a distraction. Cleavage is sexy and draws attention no matter what. I am not drawn to women sexually but I am super distracted by cleav! I can’t imagine how a person attracted to females would react! I find that when I am not at work there are dates and social functions available that allow me to find my sexy self, but that self doesn’t fit into the profession I have chosen as a school counselor. Yes woman should be able to wear what they want but the reality is if you sport cleav you will receive notice by everyone and there is a time and place to celebrate our cleav; work may not be the place.

    1. Hi Melissa.

      Thanks for this excellent post. I have to say although it’s all great and helpful to me as I try to adopt a balanced and multi-perspective voice regarding this important issue, it’s especially informative to me to hear new phrases from the “younger” generation, like, “If you sport cleav.”

      That said, I may end up wanting to quote a part of your post and, if so, I’ll email you and ask permission.

      Thanks for your insights and perspective.



  2. Thank you John and Rita for this excellent article. As a practitioner, I find that my clients are affected by how I present myself – it sets the tone for the consultation. As a practitioner I find it distracting if my clients are displaying cleavage. There’s more than enough going on in my brain without having to manage distracting thoughts about cleavage. I think the same applies to male clients too – if a male client arrived for his consultation shirt-less or displaying excessive chest skin that would be distracting too. In a nutshell: What are we trying to communicate in the consulting room?

  3. As an PhD candidate I spend a lot of time teaching and training masters students. I too have found that the younger generation seem to think that they have a RIGHT to dress in whatever manner they choose. I consider a counselor’s dress to be a part of professionalism. I don’t think that cleavage is not appropriate for counselors, counselors in training, or doctoral students. When students protest and advocate for this type of dress, perhaps we should ask the question, how would you feel if your professor were to teach while displaying cleavage?

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