Getting Early Lessons In the High Price Of Looking Beautiful

INDULGENT parents who want to throw a memorable party for a young daughter might consider the latest offering from Neiman Marcus: For $3,000, social planners at the Texas-based store will arrange an ''unbelievably awesome'' event for 10 little girls - a ''supermodel slumber party.'' A glossy catalog explains that young guests ''will don matching gowns and slippers and snack on NM party treats as Chanel makeup artists provide 'makeovers.' ''

At $300 per makeover, these pint-sized beauties will be getting an early lesson in the high cost of looking great. For adults who believe that you can never be too rich or too thin, the new corollary seems to be: You can never be too young to be preoccupied with your looks.

Chalk up the makeover party to one retailer's attempt at creative upscale marketing. But don't write it off as a total aberration. This month's YM magazine - YM as in Young Miss - reinforces the theme by offering a complete ''makeover issue,'' as if to imply that even teenagers need to overhaul their looks.

Everywhere, the demand to be beautiful - and willowy thin - starts earlier and earlier. Among fourth-grade girls responding to one survey in San Francisco, 80 percent said they were dieting. Those nine-year-olds may be about the age of guests at a Neiman Marcus makeover party.

Elsewhere, a 13-year-old recently wrote a plaintive letter to Ask Beth, wondering, ''What do guys look for in a girl? If you aren't absolutely gorgeous, do you stand any chance of getting a boyfriend?''

Where does this intense pressure come from?

Some culture-watchers point an accusing finger at Barbie, claiming the long-legged, wasp-waisted, well-endowed doll gives girls false images of an ideal body. So improbably shaped is Barbie, in fact, that Kelly Brownell, a psychology professor at Yale University, has calculated how the proportions of normal-sized women would need to change to match Barbie's. A 5-ft., 2-in.-tall woman who weighs 125 pounds would have to grow to more than 7 feet tall, reduce her waist by 6 inches, and increase her bust by 5 inches, Mr. Brownell says.

So much for reality. Yet Barbie, a toy, can hardly bear full responsibility for distorting the ideals of a whole culture. When Barbie fans grow up, other messages about beauty abound.

Fashion magazines must take some blame. Although editors print articles lamenting a ''culture of thinness,'' they continue to use rail-thin models.

Similarly, try to find a traditional women's magazine that doesn't regularly offer a new diet or promise a new figure. On the newsstand now: ''21 Ways to Look Thinner,'' ''25 Tips to Stop Winter Weight Gain,'' ''How Not to Gain Weight This Holiday.''

Also sharing the blame are lingerie manufacturers and retailers. Day after day, up-close underwear ads feature long, lean modmodels who come as close as real life allows to a Barbie figure.

Even the tobacco industry plays a role, labeling cigarettes for women ''thin,'' ''slim,'' and ''light.'' So preoccupied with appearance are young women that many use smoking as a form of weight control, according to one survey.

When all else fails in the quest for beauty, there's the ultimate makeover: cosmetic surgery and breast implants. With a few thousand dollars and a few hours time, women hope to nip and tuck their way to ageless physical perfection.

Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all? That fairy-tale question will never go away. Beauty plays a central role in most cultures, and to pretend otherwise ignores reality.

Still, the best makeover that could take place would involve not girls and women but the institutions that currently profit from selling them distorted views of weight and beauty. A few corporate face lifts to improve business practices just might help change the destructive attitude, too prevalent among young women, that self-worth depends on being thin and gorgeous.

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