Women’s Cleavage and the Man’s Package in Professional Counseling and Psychotherapy


In 2013, for the first time in the history of counseling and psychotherapy textbook writing (at least our history), Rita and I included a section heading titled “Straight Talk about Cleavage” in the 5th edition of Clinical Interviewing. This section was inspired by comments posted on the Counselor Education and Supervision Listserv (aka CESNET). Now, we’re working on the revision for the 6th edition (affectionately referred to as CI6). For CI6 we solicited reactions from students, professional counselors, and professional psychologists. Not surprisingly, we received some fun, stimulating, and challenging responses.

For your reading pleasure, here’s the first draft of the revised section on cleavage. You’ll notice that it begins with a section on “Self-Presentation.” That’s because the cleavage and related content is a subsection of the self-presentation section.

This is a draft . . . and so please feel free to message me (or post) your comments and reactions. Thanks for reading.

Self-Presentation

You are your own primary instrument for a successful interview. Your appearance and the manner in which you present yourself to clients are important components of professional clinical interviewing.

Grooming and Attire
Choosing the right professional clothing can be difficult. Some students ignore the issue; others obsess about selecting just the right outfit. The question of how to dress may reflect a larger developmental issue: How seriously do you take yourself as a professional? Is it time to take off the ripped jeans, remove the nose ring, cover the tattoo, or lose the spike heels? Is it time to don the dreaded three-piece suit or carefully pressed skirt and come out to do battle with mature reality, as your parents may have suggested? Don’t worry. We recognize the preceding sentences are probably pushing your fashion-freedom buttons. We’re not really interested in telling you how you should dress or adorn your body. Our point is self-awareness. If you’re working in rural Texas your tattoo and nose ring will have a different effect than if you’re an intern in urban Chicago. Even if you ignore your physical self-presentation, your clients—and your supervisor—probably won’t.

We knew a student whose distinctive style included closely cropped, multicolored hair; large earrings; and an odd assortment of scarves, vests, sweaters, runner’s tights, and sandals. Imagine his effect on, say, a middle-aged dairy farmer referred to the clinic for depression, or a mother-son dyad having trouble with discipline, or the local mayor and his wife. No matter what effect you imagined, the point is that there’s likely to be an effect. Clothing, body art, and jewelry are not neutral; they’re intended to communicate, and they do (Human & Biesanz, 2012). An unusual fashion statement can be overcome, but it may use up time and energy better devoted to other issues (see Putting It in Practice 2.3). As a therapist your goals is to present yourself in a way that creates positive first impressions. This includes dress and grooming that foster rapport, trust, and credibility.

In one research study (albeit dated), Hubble and Gelso (1978) reported that clients experienced less anxiety and more positive feelings toward psychotherapists who were dressed in a manner that was slightly more formal than the client’s usual attire. The take home message from this research, along with common sense, is that it’s better to err slightly on the conservative side, at least until you’re certain that dressing more casually won’t have an adverse effect on your particular client population. As a professional colleague of ours tells her students, “A client should not walk away from your session thinking too much about what you wore” (S. Patrick, personal communication, June 27, 2015).

Straight Talk about Cleavage
Although we don’t have solid scientific data upon which to base this statement, our best guess is that 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) makes us feel terribly old. But we 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 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 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 and should be able to dress any way they want.
• Commenting on how women dress and making specific recommendations may be viewed as sexist.
• 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 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 venue for initiating a discourse on social and feminist change.
• For better or worse, most 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) 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 watch themselves on video from the viewpoint of a client (of any sex or gender) and then discuss how to manage sexual attraction that might occur during therapy.

We don’t have perfect 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 think about this dimension of professional attire and hope you’ll openly discuss cleavage and related issues with fellow students, colleagues, and supervisors.

Minding the Body for Males
It’s inappropriate to stop our discussion about sexuality and sexual perceptions without addressing the other end of the sexuality and gender continuum. To start, we should emphasize that, to a large extent, our cautions about cleavage aren’t really about breasts; instead, these are comments about cultural messages pertaining to sex and sexuality and how clients are likely to perceive and react to seeing too much of certain portions of their therapist’s skin. Back in Freud’s day and setting, viewing women’s ankles was reportedly rather titillating. This observation begs the question: “Is it possible for individuals who identify as being on the male end of the sexual identity continuum to dress in ways that might be described as titillating?” When we tried to experiment with this in a group counseling class, mostly the feedback was that the males were being “gross” and “disgusting.”

Despite the fact that our students reacted negatively to the idea of males exposing their skin, we should note that throughout the history of time, therapists who engaged in inappropriate, unethical, and illegal sexual behavior with clients have been disproportionately male. This leads us to conclude that our cautions about females showing cleavage is at the least ironic and at most sexist. Consistent with feminist theory, when men sexualize a woman’s body, it shouldn’t be viewed as the woman’s fault.

These issues are obviously laden with cultural stereotypes, norms, and expectations. In an effort to balance our coverage (no pun intended) of this topic, we went online and asked professionals and colleagues to give us feedback about the “Straight Talk about Cleavage” section. A summary of this feedback is included below.

Feedback on Cleavage
A warning to male therapists: Male therapists need to watch their own flirtatious behavior. They might consult with a female therapist friend to check out anything that might be questionable. I know, most males don’t have cleavage issues, but they sometimes do make provocative comments, such as, “You know, you should take that lovely sexuality of yours and use it to your advantage.” I’m not making this up. Also, they might want to rein in, “You are so pretty. I’ll bet this gets the guys going.” I’m not making this up either. (J. Hocker, personal communication, June 27, 2015).

Extending the conversation to male therapists: I do think part of the unfairness in professional attire for women vs. men is that men’s work wear is simply “easier.” But a woman doesn’t have to dress like a man in order to be taken seriously as a professional. Curiously, I do find that the conversation regarding appearance needs to take place with men; for example, male students who want to wear flip flops, large jewelry, or “muscle” shirts. We also talk about whether or not to wear things that reveal tattoos, hair styles, and so on – so I think men are now as much a part of the conversation as women (S. Patrick, personal communication, June 27, 2015)

A Message from a Licensed School Counselor: I know professionals in counseling and teaching who exhibit poor hygiene, dress, and might toss some cleavage out from time to time. Students do notice, and it’s not cool. In my profession I want students to see me as casual, clean, and someone they’re drawn to for a good ear and safe space. I don’t want them to see cleavage ever. It’s a distraction. Cleavage is sexy and draws attention no matter what. I’m not drawn to women sexually but I’m super distracted by cleav! I can’t imagine how a person attracted to females would react! I find that when I’m 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 school counseling profession. Yes, women should be able to wear what they want, but the reality is if you sport cleav you’ll receive notice by everyone and there’s a time and place to celebrate our cleav; work may not be the place. (M. Robbins, personal communication, June 30, 2015)

The Man’s “Package”: I noticed there’s no mention of a man’s “package” or the open seating posture many men use that gives quite a clear view of any crotch bulging that may be had. I think this deserves to be discussed as well, and not just as an afterthought – it is at least as important as cleavage to the imagination and distraction.

One thing that seems to go on in common discourse is an acceptance of the idea that men are more sexually focused than women. This is problematic on a couple fronts, I think. Although research shows some increased arousal for men from visual stimuli compared to visual stimuli for women BOTH men and women have been shown to be aroused by visual stimuli. BOTH women and men want sex for physical pleasure, not just as a relational tool. The difference is in degree to which these things are acknowledged by each sex, perhaps, but I haven’t seen compelling evidence that there’s actually a difference in the degree to which men and women can be sexually distracted by physical bodies. It’s neither then men’s nor women’s job, then, to “protect” clients from that distraction more than another (C. Yoshimura, personal communication).

Monitoring Flirtatious Behavior
Behavior standards for mental health professionals are high. This is partly true for being a professional of any type. However, mental health professional standards for dress and flirtation are higher than most other professions. If you think about the setting and process, the high standards make sense. Personal disclosures and conversations that happen during clinical interviews and other mental health-related encounters naturally involve non-sexual intimacy. It follows that deep emotional disclosures and exchanges between client and therapist might arouse feelings related to sexual intimacy in clients and/or therapists. It’s perfectly natural for non-sexual intimacy to sometimes trigger feelings of sexual intimacy . . . and so maintaining professional boundaries in this area is essential. All ethical codes that pertain to professional counselors, psychologists, and social workers prohibit sexual contact between therapist and client. The bottom line is that it’s your responsibility, as a mental health professional or student therapist, to closely monitor your attire and behavior to make certain you’re not directly or indirectly communicating flirtatiously with your clients.

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