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Miley Cyrus arrives at the 2012 Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas, May 20, 2012.

STEVE MARCUS/REUTERS

All that vertical cleavage, it turns out, was a joke. The Huffington Post's recently launched page devoted to the subject of "side boob" was "put together by our comedy team in response to a segment on Jon Stewart," editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington told The Guardian on Wednesday.

"I'm sorry it wasn't clear," she added.

But if the page is a prank, the cultural obsession with the sartorial phenomenon is serious.

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Side boob, for the uninitiated, is an update on classic full-frontal cleavage, whereby the breast is exposed in profile. The implicit message is that a woman working this look has forgone a bra. The explicit one is, unsurprisingly, provocation. Unlike Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show, the side boob reveal is entirely intentional.

Celebrity websites have actually been tracking the revealing trend for some time, questioning whether so-and-so (typically, a hot young star) was showing off her assets or risking overexposure.

Both jeered and celebrated in recent days, HuffPo's side-boob page currently features various degrees of skin showing, from Kristen Stewart's borderline exposure at Cannes to actress Emmy Rosum discussing her contractual obligations to show skin on the television series Shameless. Miley Cyrus – a habitual side-boob boaster – receives a disproportionate number of posts.

Only a few years ago, "pantsless" had become the racy new buzzword, driven by Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Rihanna, who treated bodysuits and thigh-skimming tops as complete ensembles.

Whereas pantslessness remained exclusive to concert stages and music video, though, side boob is more democratic, poking out of tank tops and red-carpet gowns alike.

It's even permeating less salacious publications such as Forbes, which mentions side boob in an article about the broader cultural context of breasts as a boon or bane to advertising.

Fashion designers are partly responsible for pushing this PG-13 peep show. By cutting a dress more severely under the arms, they invariably provide less coverage at the chest. For some women, the result comes across as less risqué because it's only visible from a certain angle.

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Still, side-boob obsession suggests a level of desperation in seeking out a novelty erogenous zone. One, notably, that is distinctly female. As more and more men co-opt the notion of cleavage by sporting V-neck T-shirts that plunge below the sternum, and signalling their well-toned pectoral muscles, the side boob remains out of their realm.

Sites that zoom in on side boob are essentially aggregating titillating pictures of gorgeous women. The Today Show is as complicit as The Huffington Post (which has undoubtedly benefited, traffic-wise, from its joke), but because "side boob" sounds funny, it isn't seen as exploitative.

Of course, the natural progression from side boob is to "under boob," which occurs when a bikini or crop top does not fully cover the lower curvature of the breast. HuffPo, show us what you've got.

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