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How to lose friends and alienate colleagues: Show cleavage, study finds

How to lose female friends in one sashay on the pool deck: look too good in that string bikini.

The scorn of the sexy woman is practically ubiquitous among other women, a new University of Ottawa study has found - and showing too much cleavage may just be the surest way to be ostracized from the female circle, let alone be introduced to anyone's boyfriend.

"We can't tolerate anyone giving the milk away for free," quipped psychologist Tracy Vaillancourt, the author of the study, in a Globe and Mail interview. "We are living in a modern context, but we are operating with an old brain. We have this instinctual response to people who defy social conventions in a way that threatens the group."

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And women, even in this time of independence and self-expression, still find short skirts and skimpy tops awfully threatening - so much so, they couldn't resist making catty comments even to total strangers.

This was the experiment, published in the current edition of the journal of Aggressive Behaviour : pairs of women were left in a room thinking they were participating in a study on conflict. While they were waiting, an attractive woman wearing provocative clothes entered to talk to another researcher setting up the cameras. The reactions of the women were filmed after she left, and were almost unanimous. "It was so obvious," said Dr. Vaillancourt, who coded their reactions on a "bitchy" scale.

"They were saying thing like, 'oh, she's dressed to have sex with her professor,' or 'oh, her boobs are about to pop out. They were looking her up and down, and as soon as she leaves the room, they start laughing hysterically."

By comparison, when the same woman carried out the exact same task - but this time dressed in chinos and a high-neck t-shirt - almost all participants in the study didn't even notice her.

Dressed too provocatively, "she violated the unwritten rule all women should know about," said Dr. Vaillancourt, the Canada Research Chair in Children's Mental Health and Violence Prevention, who hopes the study will help people think about the reasons behind certain reactions and stereotypes. "It's women who suppress the sexuality of other women."

And don't think you'd be above it all, she warned. "We are deluding ourselves if we think we are not capable of this reaction."

In a study of 46 women, only two let the skimpy clothes pass without comment.

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"I think the two who didn't respond," said Dr. Vaillancourt, "were checking their blackberries."

Do you hold your tongue when a colleague exhibits her "assets" a little too freely? Or do you wear what you want, and let the tongues wag at will?

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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