The Hunger That Cannot Be Filled

A SCENE near the end of the new film version of "Beauty and the Beast" is revealing in a way the Disney people probably didn't intend.

The Beast has just turned back into a handsome prince. His punishment is over, and he and Beauty will live happily ever after. Our hearts should swell. Yet the scene goes emotionally flat, as though someone had punctured it with a nail.

How could this be? The scene fulfills a deep American yearning: to be released from physical imperfection and to be united with beauty in the form of an adoring mate. It tells us something that the movie goes limp at this very moment - something about the body myth and why the American media pushes it so much.

Probably there has never been a culture so obsessed with bodily perfection as that in the United States. Between diet books and potions, cosmetics, fitness clubs, and the rest, the American economy would take a severe plunge if people woke up tomorrow feeling good about themselves just the way they are. The most dramatic form of bodily alteration is cosmetic surgery, and while the rest of the economy languishes, this field of dreams is booming. Some 3 million Americans went under the knife last year, at $6,000 or more for each operation.

Once cosmetic surgery was the resort of aging starlets. Now people are resorting to it in their 20s and 30s - including men, who are having their tummies tucked (like singer Kenny Rogers) and chests and buttocks (don't ask me why) enhanced. Business is especially brisk in the corporate suite, where macho executives use cosmetic surgery to help prolong careers. Some 15 percent of all face lifts and 26 percent of all nose jobs done last year were done on men.

The most troubling new frontier of bodily obsession is among teenaged girls. Last year, the Wall Street Journal told the story of a 14-year-old Brooklyn girl who had her hips and thighs narrowed and was considering chin and nose work, a cheek implant, and breast implants as well. Her story is not as uncommon as one might imagine. Some plastic surgeons say teenagers make up as much as 25 percent of their business.

People have worried about their looks at least since the invention of the mirror. What's different today is that mirrors are everywhere; not the glass kind, but the images of idealized physical beauty that surround us in the media. One surgeon reported that men bring in surfing magazines and Calvin Klein ads to illustrate the kind of chest they want.

A study of sixth-grade girls in a Boston suburb found that most were full-fledged dieters. The "eating disorders" that afflict primarily young women - the "gorge and purge" syndrome - can be seen as literal obedience to the media images that tout oral gratification on the one hand and a svelte physique on the other.

Vanity is often insecurity in disguise, and it can be a relentless taskmaster.

Naomi Wolf, author of a book called "The Beauty Myth," observes that women today are driven to work a "third shift." The first is in the office, the second at home, and the third shift is at the weight-loss salon trying to look the way the women's magazines say they should. Moreover, the media figures who perpetrate this third shift are often the most enslaved to it. "They're terrified about losing their careers," a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon told TV Guide.

All this helps explain the sudden letdown in "Beauty and the Beast." Up to the climax, the relationship between the two has an inner reality that is gritty and compelling. I wonder how many viewers, men in particular, see something of themselves in the Beast - clumsy and unattractive to the one they desire. Vicariously, Beauty's affection redeems what we already are. But when the Beast turns back into the prince, we are left stranded in the Hollywood mirage in which we yearn for what we are not. The Amer ican marketing machine cultivates this mirage because it bestirs a hunger that cannot be filled.

It is not accidental that this hunger afflicts mainly women. As the movie shows, men still get a lot more leeway.

If the Beast had been a maiden and Beauty a handsome prince who loved her for what she was, then America would be making progress.

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