WHEN the final issue of Lear's disappears from newsstands this month, it will mark the end of an unusual publishing venture: a magazine for mature women.
Founded by Frances Lear and funded by her $100 million divorce settlement from producer Norman Lear, the publication set out to give women over 40 an alternative to magazines filled with young, rail-thin, smooth-skinned models. It also promised intelligent reading beyond the latest hype on hemlines and diets.
``At Last! A Magazine for the Woman Who Wasn't Born Yesterday!'' proclaimed the cover of the first issue exactly six years ago. That cover was, in fact, an exercise in bravery. It featured a dark-haired, 44-year-old designer with high cheekbones, a firm jaw line, and - gasp! - wrinkles, crow's feet, and laugh lines. Ms. Lear had obviously banished the airbrush that usually smooths cover models to impossible perfection.
Inside, a photo spread called ``Portraits of Beauty'' featured more real women ranging in age from 43 to 50. And articles covering everything from finance to automobiles to women entrepreneurs gave the issue a distinctive and auspicious beginning.
Yet wrinkles apparently don't sell. In time, the bold ``For the woman who wasn't born yesterday'' tag line disappeared and was replaced by a nonsensical slogan, ``For the woman who was born today.'' The target age was also scaled downward to include women 35 and over, a move that created a broader market of readers and made the magazine more appealing to advertisers.
By the time the final issue of Lear's rolled off the presses this spring, its cover seemed far more mainstream, with softer photos and headlines typical of the grim social realism that has become a mainstay of women's magazines: ``Wife Killers With Custody.'' ``Breast Cancer and Pesticides.'' ``The AIDS Dentist: Rush to Judgment?''
As mainstream women's magazines have moved beyond the domesticity that once gave them their central focus, they have broadened their horizons to include more than the ``three F's'' - fashion, fat, and food. By covering workplace and social issues, they have kept pace with women's changing lives.
But that expanded coverage has come with a price. By adding a dreary litany of problems and phobias to their staples of sex, diets, and beauty tips, editors seem more than ever to be playing on women's insecurities and fears.
Consider the cover stories in several April magazines:
``The health risk every woman carries.'' ``The sex crime women never talk about.'' (Ladies Home Journal)
``Is stress damaging your skin?'' ``How to stop an anxiety attack.'' (Redbook)
``Stalked! How a mother saved her daughter.'' ``Lose 10 pounds. The 20-minute trick that works.'' (McCall's)
Even Mirabella - a magazine that deserves high marks for intelligent coverage - sends mixed signals in its April issue. A cover story on the ``Return of the Real Woman'' delivers a welcome message that bigger-boned, heavier models are coming back. ``The return to the curve could be the start of something; at least we're seeing more flesh on the body,'' the article states.
But wait. The same issue features a model with legs long enough to rival a giraffe's and a figure that, when photographed from the side, looks almost as thin and flat as an ironing board. For all the brave talk about curves, thin is obviously still in.
Please pass the lettuce and hold the chocolate cake.
Just how unrealistic that look is becomes apparent in the spring issue of a new magazine for women, Know-How. By using computers, the magazine explains, art directors can manipulate photographs to lengthen a model's legs, thin her waistline, lift her bust, contour her cheeks, smooth her skin, and lighten her hair.
As Frances Lear goes on to her next project - a video that tells women how to manage their money - she leaves behind a void. For all its ups and downs, Lear's was a mirror that reflected back the faces of the ordinary women reading it rather than a computer composite of Superwoman. Wanted - and quick: another magazine like the Lear's of six years ago to apply a reality check to all the surrounding sellers of glossy dreams.