Rowan Pelling: Bad break-up? Best stay indoors

Unsuitable best friend, big cleavage, slightly crazed look - Britney is a classic newly single woman
Click to follow

Here's an infallible way to identify the woman in the room who is recovering from a bad break-up. She'll either look crop-haired and fierce like Joan of Arc, the Sword of Castration upright in her hand, or she'll resemble Courtney Love's sluttier sister. No prizes for guessing which look Britney Spears opted for when making her return to the singles circuit in LA last week.

She was photographed out on the town with her New Best Friend, Paris Hilton, wearing a garment (the term "dress" would bestow undeserved dignity) that can only be described as short, trashy and frontless. It showed so much bosom that you could only presume her nipples had been surgically removed to allow pictures to appear in newspapers. In fact, Britney achieved the unprecedented feat of making Paris look vestal by comparison.

Just as I was cringing in sisterly empathy at this surfeit of up-for-it vulnerability, a friend emailed me a web link to allegedly authentic photos of Britney's de-forested front bottom. "What is it with today's young gels and their obsession with flashing shaved quim?" asked my friend. But then my friend's a Joan of Arc type, who eschewed men and sex for 10 years after her caddish ex-boyfriend two-timed her with a Scandinavian blonde.

Britney and my emailing friend might represent the more extreme parameters of the born- again virgin/whore mode of behaviour, but most women require a year's get-out-of-jail-free card for erratic behaviour, following a bust-up.

One friend, who had taken to wearing shapeless sweaters while in the throes of West Country coupledom, returned to the metropolis, single and sobbing, in the tightest T-shirt known to womankind, which bore the legend over her capacious bosom: "Everybody loves a Catholic girl." This became her pulling outfit, teamed with matching Catholic girl knickers. "It was a phase I had to go through," she says.

Another girlfriend marked her break-up with a £200 spending spree at Agent Provocateur. "It was ironic when you consider my boyfriend used to complain about my ancient, grubby M&S undies. And even more ironic if you discover most men wilt with fear if you take off your work suit and reveal scarlet nipple tassels."

Newly-minted spinsters tend to forget that being on your tod is both normal and non-hazardous. They don't think they're taking the plunge so much as a bungee jump; single life is viewed at the point of re-entry as a dangerous sport that should only be undertaken with a skinful of vodka. Indeed there is a school of thinking that says all ladette behaviour can be explained by the fact that your boyfriend has just ditched you. You don't know how to deal with the sudden concept of freedom, so you squander it mercilessly.

I must say Britney Spears makes an ideal figurehead for the deranged newly single brigade - with the slight caveat that she hasn't yet been pictured doing a mascara-streaked karaoke rendition of "I Will Survive". Not only is she dressing like Trailer Trash Barbie on speed; she has the requisite inappropriate party pal in Hilton.

A great many people change their circle of friends when they get spliced. They drop the bed-hoppers, coke fiends, vamps and disco bunnies in favour of similarly sedate couples. But when domestic bliss turns sour, the last thing they want is to seek solace with lovey-dovey partners who are a cruel reminder of what they have just lost. That's when the hardened party animal rolls up.

Remember how Sadie Frost was scooped up by new-best-friend Kate Moss as her relationship with Jude Law fell apart? A scenario that unfolded with spellbinding predictability when a bleary-eyed Frost was accused of louche behaviour at Kate Moss's wild 30th birthday bash and snapped leaving the party with a breast tumbling free of her frock. Meanwhile, Moss maintained the sphinx-like air of the master puppeteer - an expression that's been playing on Paris Hilton's face as she steers a giddy Britney round clubland.

How satisfying it must be to the media's favourite bad girls to find friends who will draw the tabloid bile their own way. Even the most well-meaning of friends will egg the new singleton on to heights of foolishness. It's as if the sisterhood have taken survival training from Grease: if you can cajole your mate into skin-tight togs and stilettos, with a new barnet and lashings of make-up, she'll soon have men fawning at her feet. This couldn't be further from the truth. As one man said to me last week: "There's no more terrifying sight known to man than the hunger-crazed eyes of a newly single female seeking a little 'respect'."

At least the wild-child new singletons can console themselves that they scrape a little more dignity than the clingers. I am told of a woman who clung to her boyfriend's ankles when they split. One friend of mine trailed her then ex-boyfriend (now husband) all round Cambridge after they bust up for three months and remembers standing by him at a cashpoint saying: "I'm not going away, you know."

But enough cautionary tales. Those of us who are more susceptible to the world's ridicule are best advised to go abroad following a break-up. Everyone expects single females on their hols to behave like crazy women, get slaughtered and shag unsuitable men. As with actors on tour, bad behaviour simply doesn't count. If Britney had flashed her tush and tits in Ibiza, no one would have given a monkey's.