Upfront and personal

"When should a woman stop showing her cleavage?" wonders Annalisa Barbieri

There's a question that has long perplexed me. It is not "When did Ken Livingstone become such a disappointment as mayor?", but a conundrum with rather more far-reaching consequences: at what age should a woman stop showing her cleavage? Though the answer should be "Whenever she likes", we all know that's not the case. The rules of fashion and skin exposure are especially harsh to women once they reach 40.

I had no breasts until I was about 20. When I joined the army, at 18, my quartermaster used to make jokes about my sunken chest, and I was mistaken for a boy throughout my teens (at one point I used to wear a badge saying "I am a girl"). Then I went to bed one night aged 20 and woke up with a C-cup bosom (I wasn't in a plastic surgery unit, either). It took me four years to grow confident enough to show my embonpoint, but once I did, I began to flash it at every opportunity; by the time I hit 30, I had set feminism back at least 25 years. Pregnancy and breastfeeding my nearly-three-year-old have done nothing to stop me; if anything, they've added more gente to my balcone ("hai gente al balcone" - "you've got people on the balcony" - is the Italian way of commenting on an ample bosom).

But as I've got older, I've wondered about the fleshy issue of when to put it all away. You see women who have "used" cleavage all their lives and can't let go of it: every top they have is low-cut, though everyone lost interest a long time ago (don't, anyone, say they're doing it "for themselves"). I understand how hard it is to let go of a good asset, but it's important to know when to stop, otherwise you start looking desperate. We should leave such sorry states to the likes of Jackie Stallone and Raquel Welch. Yes, Raquel looks good, but she committed the cardinal sin of flashing way too much chest at her daughter-in-law's wedding. I have never forgotten this travesty. The only mature person I can think of who gets away with showing a bit of bouncy bosom is Sophia Loren, who always looks glamorously appropriate.

This is very probably because, in Italy, breasts aren't the salacious attraction they are in Britain. In the big Italian families of the past, there was always at least one person breastfeeding a child; and in most ordinary households you will find no fewer than three Madonna statues (as in the now lesser-known Madonna, the mother of Christ) with one breast exposed.

Italian women regularly display a bit of bosom without showing any of the self-consciousness of their English counterparts. Thus, Italian men seek out what they tend not to get at home; their "thing" generally is blonde hair and long legs. And if they're on a woman, even better.