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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Reassessing Beauty . . . From the Inside : LOOK AT MY UGLY FACE: Myths and Musings on Beauty and Other Perilous Obsessions With Women's Appearance, by Sara Halprin ; Viking; $22.95, 352 pages

August 10, 1995|KAREN STABINER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was just one of those days that people of a certain age can have: First the woman who owns the eyeglass emporium tells me not to buy a particular frame because it's going to age me. Then a friend with what I consider a rather snappy physique confesses that she won't wear sleeveless shirts because she doesn't think she can get away with it anymore.

I come home and collapse in front of the TV--and the news is that women and men around the country are letting doctors shoot botulism toxin into their foreheads because it paralyzes the facial muscles that make wrinkles.

What are we coming to--or, more to the point, how do we get out of here? Sara Halprin thinks she has the answer in "Look at My Ugly Face," her investigation of our obsession with women's appearances.

Halprin is a process therapist, a university professor, a filmmaker and a woman who has always paid attention to looks. From the moment she set eyes on Margaret O'Brien's costumes in the 1949 film version of "The Secret Garden," Halprin was hooked on the notion that you are what you wear. To be a proper academic, she was going to wear Laura Ashley cottons and corduroys; to be a proper young wife, she was going to keep slim enough to look good in a bathing suit.

It was only when she and easy beauty parted ways, after the difficult birth of her first child, that Halprin was forced to reassess her definition of beauty. Was it something applied from the outside in--or something she could find within her self?

She has spent her career since looking for the answer, which happily, with some struggle, is that she's found that beauty lurks within (didn't I hear that in "Beauty and the Beast?"). Her search has taken her from Taoist legend to contemporary anecdote, from the story of a beautiful Chinese woman who mutilated her face lest her appearance prove an obstacle to enlightenment to the all-too-familiar story of a young woman, ravaged by cancer and the attendant treatments, who has to redefine herself.

The result is an earnest, well-intentioned look at our preoccupation with appearance. Halprin has long since abandoned her own self-consciousness about how she looks and, more interestingly, how she feels about how she looks. Her memory of seeing "The Secret Garden"--and of being reassured that the celluloid Mary Lennox, unlike her prose counterpart, can become a good person and still look the same--is a touching one, a reminder of how early young girls learn to worry over their looks.

Ultimately, though, much of this seems like familiar turf; yet another chapter on early religion and goddess worship, yet another look at how the media affect our perceptions of ourselves, more material on the youth obsession that makes it so difficult for a woman to become a grown-up. Halprin's generous nature almost works against her: The prose is modulated; the point of view, considered.

Halprin genuinely believes that beauty is not about transitory features, but about freedom of spirit--an admirable point of view, one that too many women spend too much time trying to attain. The problem, ironically, is that this kind of message always goes better with a bit of anger, or a side of righteous indignation, and Halprin seems to have gotten beyond those petty emotions.

"So long as women are defined by appearance rather than by action, old women will be powerless in a world that sees them as ugly," she writes. "This is a loss to the world as well as to the old women."

This is hardly news. Some remedy for the collective unconscious would be, but Halprin is more philosopher than politician. So we wait, and wade through the ads for age-stoppers of all variety. If enlightenment comes one woman at a time, we're going to be stuck here for a while.

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