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THE STYLE FILES: THE PAIN : Our Living Hell : Instead of doing a thousand more pushups, could we petition for more realistic standards of beauty?


I have a dream.

As a result of the benign influence of an asteroid, all the truly attractive men on the planet suddenly decide they hate buns of steel. Instead, they begin searching the highways and byways for women as voluptuous as cream puffs, women as warm and soft as Caribbean nations.

As the newly desirable Rubenesque females graciously accept this tsunami of male attention, they smile mysteriously. In their heart of hearts, they know they owe it all to "Buns of Eiderdown," the tape that allowed them to stick to that oh-so-demanding, but oh-so-rewarding regimen of power-lifting Sacher torte and glasses of sherry.

Not bloody likely.

To an extent unprecedented in my lifetime, beauty has become linked with pain. Women do excruciating things with wax to remove unwanted hair at the root. They endure applications of caustic chemicals in hopes that their skin will revert to its baby state. They go into seclusion for six weeks, seeing no one but their personal trainers, while the swelling goes down on their state-of-the-art facelift. And, day in and day out, they crunch and burn on machines that would have given the Inquisitors pause in hopes of getting the nod from the doorman at a hot Hollywood club, the Southern California equivalent of a papal blessing.

Before Twiggy, America wasn't like this. Beauty hurt in other parts of the world. In far-off lands, the odd body part was ritually pierced or tattooed, foot-binding had only recently gone out of fashion and women sometimes had to s-t-r-e-t-c-h their lips or even their necks to become irresistible to the males of their tribe.

But in the United States, mild discomfort was the highest price to be paid for beauty--nothing nastier than the occasional pinch of the panty girdle, the errant bone in the pushup bra. There was, admittedly, the living hell of stiletto heels, but if they were working their wanton magic properly--on the dance floor, for example--you could eventually kick them off. Let me put my head on your shoulder--and give my aching feet a break.

The Age of Aquarius was even better. The nursing mother look was in, and who needed hard bodies under those undulating layers of Indian fabrics? The beads distracted the onlooker's eye from any less-than-perfect feature. The fuzzy-edged, tie-dyed patterns confused the guy even more. And the widespread ingestion of recreational drugs made the precise evaluation of the muscle tone of a potential partner very, very hard indeed. There is some evidence that not a single woman counted calories during the entire Summer of Love.

I don't mean to be flip. Beauty is a serious business, maybe the most serious business of all. The drive to attract the people who can impregnate us is a far more powerful motivator than any ideology, including feminism. But I wonder why it is currently such hard work. Why do women have to train like Ironmen to compete in the scrimmage of appetite, as poet Delmore Schwartz called it? Instead of doing a thousand more pushups, couldn't we petition for the adoption of more realistic standards of beauty? Do we have to look like Susan Powter? How about buns of fit female flesh, instead of steel, to start?

Part of the problem with perfection is it takes too damned much time to achieve. Life is too short to do 2,500 crunches a week, as Demi Moore is said to do. Young women are wasting the best years of their lives draped over Soloflex machines. Older women are squandering precious hours on a losing battle against time and gravity.

What's the worst thing that can happen to a woman who starts eating and exercising for health, instead of some Draconian ideal of beauty? She may fail to attract a man with brains of lead. Or she may lose one. This year, not next.

Edna St. Vincent Millay offers considerable comfort on this point. "If I had loved you less or played you slyly / I might have held you for a summer more, / But at the cost of words I value highly, / And no such summer as the one before."

Forget the burn.

Maybe the asteroid is coming.

Go for the Sacher torte.

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