A leggy, buxom woman wearing a deep-cut halter dress saunters alluringly down a runway. Her pencil-thin body and perfect face - full red lips, flawless skin, and chiseled cheekbones are the living image of ideal feminine beauty. Suddenly a somber woman's voice cuts in: "Every age has had its own idea of the perfect virtue of woman...."
THIS is how Katherine Gilday opens her film, "The Famine Within," a compelling Canadian-made documentary about the North American obsession with the perfect female body. Unlike the lightweight "Eating" - Henry Jaglom's film about women's obsession with food and body image that backfires into parody - "Famine" digs into this struggle intelligently and in a manner that is both gutsy and humane.
The themes in this film are revealed through a series of candid interviews with decades-long dieters, bulimics, and anorexics, who talk about the roots of their problems with self-image and food.
Scattered throughout these intimate disclosures are observations by a social historian, anthropologist, and psychotherapist, who explore the larger cultural forces that shape many women's lives.
It is not front-page news that looking "really skinny" is on top of the collective wish-list of American women. But what is stirring is Ms. Gilday's research that traces the recent history of this "thin-is-in" ethic and spotlights a culture that has steadily grown intolerant of women who fail to fit into this category.
Her findings: The average Miss America's weight between 1954 and 1980 has dropped from 132 pounds to 117 pounds; moreover, the ideal fashion model - who 25 years ago weighed 8 percent less than the average American woman of that time - today weighs 25 percent less than her counterpart.
Though most women are not shaped like reeds, many people believe women should be, is Gilday's implication. "A collective delusion rules both sexes' perception of the female body. Thin is normal, and everything else is an aberration," a narrator says.
Gilday contends that images from the diet, fashion, and cosmetic industries reinforce the rightness and naturalness of this slim body. Their multibillion dollar ad campaigns, she says, trumpet a message to women that a toned, slender body is forever attainable through willpower and self-discipline.
The degree to which this compulsion to be thin occupies the minds of American women is gleaned from disquieting surveys Gilday weaves into her narration. A sampling: Women in one survey were asked what made them happiest and chose "weight loss" above romance and success in careers. And in another study, more women said they feared becoming fat than feared dying. Indeed, one woman tells us that being female means spending a lifetime at war with one's body.
Many women in the film also describe a feeling of strength and victory when they deny bodily hunger.
Gilday gives strong evidence that the intolerance toward women who are not rail-thin has filtered into the circles of adolescent girls. In one sequence, an outdoor photo shoot with a breezy model is spliced with an interview of a wispy grade-school girl who confides to us in her bedroom, "I am worried about being fat.... I've never been fat, don't wanna be fat.... I like the thought of being skinny." She finishes her words with a coy toss of her head as a narrator informs us of a study that found 80 perc ent of fourth grade girls said they were on diets.
A poignant moment occurs in the bedroom of a teenage girl, who speaks openly about the causes of her slide into anorexia. "I never had any guys and my friends did ... and I was getting sick of it." She decided to lose weight, she says, and the compliments starting coming. "I kept losing more - and then I couldn't stop...."
Gilday's documentary raises questions about the deeper political implications of today's slender "fashion statement." She tells us at a time when more women than ever before are holding the reins to economic and political power, it's a peculiar irony that women are feeling more pressure to define themselves by how their body looks; and contends that this pressure to look perfect is a "hidden clause" in the contract for women's equality.
Indeed, in the background of "Famine," an important question lurks: Is today's unattainable ideal of beauty a political tool to keep women down?
Gilday interviews women who fuel this theory. One says, "As long as women don't like the way they look, they have no power."
Another asserts that obsession with body weight is the worst "cultural brain-drain" that exists for females, adding, "It's a brilliant form of political oppression." A third flatly declares, "The cult of the body is the only coherent philosophy of self that women are offered in today's society."
Gilday's riveting documentary uncloaks the deeper, more complex implications of this obsessive quest for the perfect female body. "Famine" is an overdue plunge into a topic that deserves to be taken seriously.
* `The Famine Within' will be available on videotape later this fall.