Are we too close for comfort?

Gone are the days when we greeted each other with a peck on the cheek. Now, even strangers expect a full frontal embrace, or worse, when we meet them. Helen Brown re-defines her boundaries
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The Independent Online

There was a time when personal space, particularly the 16 or so inches around a woman, was sacred. My grandmother said that any non-family member close enough to identify a lady's perfume was too close. That made buying Chanel rather pointless, but it did define the boundaries.

There was a time when personal space, particularly the 16 or so inches around a woman, was sacred. My grandmother said that any non-family member close enough to identify a lady's perfume was too close. That made buying Chanel rather pointless, but it did define the boundaries.

And, if catching a whiff of another woman's Coco meant that you were breaking taboos, heaven knows what my grandmother would have made of recent pictures in which 61-year-old Cilla Black appeared to be groping 67-year-old Shirley Bassey's impossibly geometric glands at the film premiere of The Phantom of the Opera.

In fact, La Bassey was rearranging herself within a slinky silver dress, scooped low to reveal a good third of her black lacy brassiere, while Cilla's laughing eyes plunged deep into her friend's cleavage. While the image was initially a little shocking, a closer look revealed two women having fun celebrating their bodies and their affectionate intimacy with each other.

So, is it prudish of modern woman to conceal her breasts protectively under this season's retro cashmere twinsets? Are we repressed if we don't offer handfuls of our bosoms to close friends, like so many mince pies? After all, celebrities have been at it for years. Madonna smooched Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on stage. Diana Ross tweaked one of the rapper Lil' Kim's flaunted breasts at the 1999 MTV awards. And an episode of What Not to Wear wouldn't be complete without some poor woman's sagging breast being hoisted to the nation's attention by Susannah Constantine.

I'm undecided, myself. I'm increasingly protective of my personal space, and have been known to respond with hedgehog prickles to the whole "mwah mwah" greeting palaver that now seems obligatory when you bump into the ex-girlfriend of somebody you once bumped into at a party. Surely it is only natural to withdraw from the salivary embrace of a total stranger?

But, as a member of the Friends generation, I am relatively tactile with a small circle of girls I have known since my teens. My family live hundreds of miles away, and I was single for most of my twenties. While my grandmother's generation could count on nearby family for hugs, and even my mother's generation coupled up in their early twenties, today we can end up feeling alone and untouched in the world.

My best friend Michelle and I have hugged each other through calamities of varying severity all our adult lives. And if her bra strap is showing, I don't hesitate before slipping it back under her shirt. We are also both a little prone to insecurity about our looks, and in the ruthlessly judgemental environment of the modern nightclub, the familiar touch of her arm around my waist offers reassurance.

Of course, there is a difference between being touchy-feely and groping. But the distinction is starting to look fuzzy. Like a growing number of publicity-seeking pop stars, many of my female peers admit to moments of faux-lesbian campery on the dance floor with close friends, given too much white wine and "Vogue" on the decks. It's not normally sexually motivated, and has more to do with trust, intimacy, comedy and a little of what Lil' Kim meant when she described Ross's squeeze as "motherly".

The pop star Pink has taken this to an extreme that makes me wince. She says she needs her nipples pinched before every show to get her "pumped" to go on stage, and her very personal assistant Jackie has the technique "down to a fine art". Commenting on Pink's penchant, the clinical sexologist Ian Kerner says: "Nipple stimulation produces the hormone oxytocin, also known as the 'love hormone' or 'cuddle hormone'. Unlike testosterone (that produces desire) or dopamine (that produces excitement), oxytocin produces a sense of intimacy, well-being and attachment. It's the hormone that makes us want to cuddle after sex, it's the hormone that makes us want to bond."

Kerner, the author of She Comes First: The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman, says: "A good squeeze of the nipples from a trusted friend and ally might be just what Pink needs to get the oxytocin flowing and relax her before the big show. Maybe it even allows her to bond more deeply with the audience. Oxytocin is also the hormone that produces the 'let-down' reflex in nursing mothers and gives mom a contented feeling of blissful love while junior gnaws away. So, in a certain sense, when Pink goes out on stage (post nipple-squeeze), the screaming fans are but a metaphorical infant, suckling lovingly on Mama Pink's beneficent breast."

All this is a far cry from Germaine Greer's assertion in the Seventies that "a full bosom is actually a millstone around a woman's neck: it endears her to the men who want to make their mammet of her, but she is never allowed to think that their popping eyes actually see her. Her breasts... are not parts of a person but lures slung around her neck, to be kneaded and twisted like magic putty, or mumbled and mouthed like lolly ices."

The former lap-dancer Rebecca Drury tells me that "the whole thing with straight women getting it on together on the dance floor is relatively recent. When I started behaving like that with my best friend Sarah about five years ago, I'd say we were considered quite ground-breaking... We would kiss all the time and it felt great... we don't do that any more because we have boyfriends, but I'd still say she's the best kisser I know."

Drury tells me that, when she was lap-dancing, there was a glow of solidarity between the girls. "We'd often be asked to put on a show together. In the London clubs, there was no touching... but in places more on the periphery, where the rules weren't so strictly enforced, we didn't mind touching each other. Because it's all improvised, you need to know your partner very well and be able to read what she will do next."

The bonding between friends was also heightened by the presence of rogue females. "There was a queen bitch in every club," Drury says. "Some would just shout out things like 'banana tits' when we were dancing for clients. But one girl put itching powder in my eye make-up, and another threatened me with a knife."

Judi James, the body-language expert on Strictly Come Dancing, says: "Modern Western society equates space with power. Women grabbing each other's breasts can almost be read as an act of open warfare."

When dominatrix divas such as Diana Ross and Madonna feel threatened by pretenders, they assert their authority by literally taking possession of the younger women's sexuality, the same way they are used to grabbing anything else they want. The more famous woman's name will appear first in the headline, while some of the greener girl's street cred will rub off.

James's theory is that "dancing with another person is like getting into a lift with them. We all have our separate coping mechanism for the enforced sexuality of some situations, and the testing of parameters can take on a ritual quality." While her own attitude to "tit tweaking" would be to say, "Hang on, mate!", she says that women often use milder forms of lesbian flirtation in dance moves as a way to soften the unapproachable "pack" impression given by a bevy of beery females. "It breaks down the group," James says, "and informs any men watching that the girls can be daring."

But under more sober circumstances, we are still easily embarrassed by other women touching us - from familiar colleagues accidentally brushing past us, to the intrusions of total strangers, even in unavoidable security or medical situations. A journalist I know still reddens at the memory of an overzealous frisker who got a bit intimate at this year's Labour Party conference. I try to stay cool when being patted down in airports, despite the mortifying double whammy of being intimately handled and tacitly accused of criminal intent.

They've never checked out my breasts at Stansted, though, normally contenting themselves with a whisk around my arms, legs and waist. If I am ever forced to take up drug smuggling, I could probably do worse than pop the class As in a push-up. I'm not the first person to have thought of this; a policewoman tells me that "women often conceal substances in the crease beneath the breast. When we are doing strip searches, always with one other female officer present, we like to avoid touching the suspect, as that can leave you open to accusations of abuse. It's easier if they strip themselves. Then we ask them to bend over, so that if anything is tucked under the breasts, it will fall out as they flop forward."

A nurse working at a plastic-surgery clinic in the north of England tells me that "women are still very awkward when they first come in. It's not easy revealing the parts of your body you're unhappy with in front of a surgeon and a nurse. Taking the photographs is the most difficult part for them. But we tend to have a bit of a giggle. And when they've had the work done, they usually can't get their tops off fast enough."

My most startling experience occurred in a New York lingerie store. More familiar with the UK's rather limited chain-store ranges, I was bewildered by the plethora of bras on display. I must have seemed obviously adrift as I was soon accosted by the elegant, elderly proprietress, who asked whether I needed any help. "Ummm... yes..." I said. "Stand!" she ordered, in a businesslike French accent, before proceeding to rummage my flummoxed breasts and marching off back into the shop.

Before I had managed to get the words of my complaint in order, she returned with about six or seven bras of just the style I had been admiring, and all beautiful. I tried them on. They fitted better than anything I would have chosen for myself. I was so overjoyed, I nearly fell to the ground and kissed this French Susannah's feet. But showing genuine emotion in a retail situation would surely have been a presumption too far.