Just 18 years old and fresh from a Church of England girls’ school, I couldn’t wait to read history at Oxford University.
I’d imagined a life of intellectual small talk, long, swotty afternoons in the Bodleian Library and earnest discussions about politics and current affairs.
Instead, over the course of the first term, an undeniable truth dawned on me: that even at Oxford, this bastion of learning, the curse had struck — the curse of being a woman with a ‘great rack’.
Earlier this month, following in my footsteps 20 years on, Oxford undergraduate Madeline Grant learnt the very same lesson.
The perky English student caused a furore when word leaked out that she’d boasted about her bust in a draft manifesto for a post at the Oxford Union.
She insists her idea was to send up the fusty debating society and its relentless politicking (‘hacking’ in Oxford slang) when she came up with her witty quip: ‘I don’t hack, I just have a great rack.’
Her (entirely female) critics say her comments are demeaning to women.
But I think she highlighted a universal truth: that if you have a big bust, most men will struggle to see past it.
It doesn’t matter if you are a brain surgeon or a High Court judge, if you’re a C-cup or more, you are going to face a lifelong struggle to be taken seriously.
All Madeline did was make the mistake of saying what many of her male contemporaries were no doubt thinking: that if you’ve got lots up front, whether you have brains as well is by-the-by.
How I used to squirm with embarrassment in tutorials as tutors outlined the repeal of the corn laws or expatiated on the rise of the landed gentry — all directed at my chest.
After a while, I took to wearing baggy jumpers in the hope of diverting wandering eyes. In student bars, cafes and even libraries, meanwhile, I was constantly being propositioned by floppy-haired boys freshly released from boarding school.
Even though I had a boyfriend back home, the fact I had big boobs seemed to send out a message to them that I must be fair game.
Ignoring my far more attractive female friends, they would slip notes into my bag or leave them in my pigeon hole asking me out for a date.
When I did find myself single at the end of the first year, I fell headlong into a passionate relationship with a public school boy who was drop-dead gorgeous.
But he scuppered the relationship when he admitted I ‘reminded him of a secretary’. By that, I assume he meant the clothes I wore were a little too revealing. But like Madeline, I didn’t see why I should dress like a nun just because I happened to be a DD cup.
I didn’t dress like Jordan either — just fitted tops worn with Levi’s jeans. But there was no way I was going to burn my bra and wear smock tops like some of my Leftie friends.
Maybe I was a mug for thinking I had a right to be taken seriously. Or a mug for not covering up.
My new heroine is busty British presenter Susanna Reid, who has come under criticism for wearing revealing clothes.
Last year, the 41-year-old’s choice of dresses drew a chorus of comments on Twitter. And when she interviewed Hugh Grant in a top with a square neckline that showed just a hint of cleavage, she was accused of ‘flirting like a schoolgirl on a first date’.
Her riposte to all this cattiness? She recently pointed out that: ‘People seem to be shocked that women have breasts.’
I quite agree. In my early 20s, I was so irritated by the fixation with my boobs that I bought a T-shirt that said ‘hello boys’ right across the front.
By then, I was so fed up of men talking to my chest that I decided to play them at their own game. At work, though, as a reporter starting out on a local newspaper, the only way to be taken seriously was to dress as conservatively as possible.
I invested in a selection of androgynous black suits and I kept the jackets buttoned up at all times.
Even that didn’t deter a room full of firefighters from giving me the once over when I arrived at the local fire station to shadow a night shift.
When I was sent off to learn how to Morris dance, I ended up rapping my dancing partner over the knuckles with my bells after catching him gawping down my top.
To be honest, I’ve lost count of the number of times men have seemed to be mesmerized by my boobs.
I had a youngish bank manager back then who was always summoning me for meetings to discuss my student debts when we both knew the only figure he was really interested in was mine.
I once even caught the local mayor taking a quick peek. I was there to cover a town council meeting, but his eyes were certainly not on my notebook.
Show a little cleavage and you are likely to be gawped at, no matter where — or who — you are.
Last month, the Crown Princess of Denmark was filmed sitting at a state dinner in Copenhagen, her embonpoint resplendent in a bejewelled dress — while the husband of the Finnish president was caught on camera having a good old ogle.
When I got my break as a feature writer on a national tabloid newspaper, I quickly made a name for myself for all the wrong reasons. There were no page three girls, but there was still sexist exploitation.
While my flat-chested colleagues covered war zones and famine in Africa, I was sent undercover to get a job as a bunny girl, posing in a figure-hugging satin leotard with tail and ears in the middle of Leicester Square. (Piers Morgan was editor. I can only presume he is a breast man.)
Another of my ‘serious’ assignments was to head to Wiltshire, where locals had found a mud swamp that they believed could cure wrinkles. So I was tasked with disrobing and climbing in.
I once caught sub-editors at the newspaper red-handed lusting at pictures taken during an assignment in Sweden, where I had been asked to track down the national football team — and found them in a hotel sauna.
No wonder, then, that when I left the newspaper, the first draft of the headline on a mocked-up front page that my colleagues made for me screamed ‘Jugs Bunny!’
Thankfully, a friend intervened and toned it down to ‘Mugs Bunny’, which was perhaps closer to the truth.
While I can’t deny I had fun during those years, the bluestocking in me used to cringe.
Now, though, I wonder if Oxford’s Madeline Grant has got the right idea after all.
In these days of The Only Way Is Essex, if it’s fine for Essex girls to strut around with everything on display, why should clever girls be ashamed of their curves?
Now I’m fast approaching 40, I find myself longing for the days before motherhood, age and gravity took their toll on my ‘great rack’ of old.
These days, choosing the right top is all about trying not to look like Hattie Jacques at one extreme and Bet Lynch at the other.
But a few months ago, at a 40th birthday, I got chatting to the father of a very dear friend who I’ve known since I was 20.
Even though I haven’t seen him in years, he remembered me — or rather, he remembered the pink top I was wearing in the summer of 1995.
When I told my husband this, he smirked: ‘Ah yes, I remember that top.’
And there was I thinking he married me for my brains.
by Susan Floyd