Slim but curvy - the pursuit of ideal beauty

For Northerns, this is the season of maximum coverup, when bodies are hidden under coats, boots, and gloves.

But in the rarefied world of fashion magazines, January is a month of minimalism, a season designed to make women feel dissatisfied with their bodies. As snow falls, readers can flip through page after body-baring page of bikinis, resortwear, and diaphanous spring clothes, displayed on trim young women, toned and airbrushed to perfection.

Consider the double-page Ralph Lauren ad in the January Harper's Bazaar. A bronzed model lies in the sun, her ultra-thin frame showing off a gold-lame bikini. Yet what catches a reader's eye is not the swimsuit but the two knobby protuberances jutting out prominently above her thighs. These are hip bones, a part of the anatomy usually invisible even on lean figures.

It is a bizarre distraction that raises a question: Is this extreme supposed to be the latest goal in feminine beauty?

Some culture watchers dismiss the issue of extremely thin models as passe. The real problem, they say, is rampant obesity. But Jean Kilbourne, who has studied images of women in advertising for more than 25 years, sees a connection between the obsession with thinness and the prevalence of obesity.

"In some ways this impossible ideal causes people to give up," Ms. Kilbourne says in a telephone interview. "We're given this extreme ideal. It's so impossible to achieve, why even try?"

Dieting, Kilbourne notes, has become a $50-billion industry, one that didn't exist 20 years ago. It is also an industry aided by women's magazines. For editors, January and February mark the height of the diet-mania season, even though a growing number of nutritionists insist that diets don't work.

Cover headlines tell the story:

Ladies Home Journal offers "Lose it for good." Marie-Claire promises that you can "Shrink your body in 4 weeks." At McCall's, the theme is "Diet damage control - quick binge busters." Good Housekeeping adds "Our all-new soup diet."

Who can imagine men's magazines - Esquire, GQ - featuring a diet-of-the-month, promising male readers 30 days' worth of soup recipes?

A national survey of baby boomers' attitudes toward appearance, released Monday by AARP, finds that 1 in 4 midlife women is currently on a weight-loss diet. Another 23 percent say they plan to diet in the future. That adds up to nearly half of women in this age group. By contrast, only 17 percent of midlife men are trying to shed a few pounds, and only 10 percent say they will later.

Extremism isn't restricted to dieting. Cosmetic surgery continues to be a growth industry for all ages. Women who were once content to be grandmotherly are now the prime customers - 1 out of 10 women between the ages of 55 and 64 chooses to pay the high costs of plastic surgery, according to AARP.

As a reality check for anyone chasing unrealistic magazine ideals of beauty, Kilbourne quotes supermodel Cindy Crawford, who acknowledged the transforming power of makeup and lights and cameras by claiming that, in real life, "Even I don't look like Cindy Crawford."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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