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Don't Hate Her Because She's Powerful

A Moment With Nancy Friday

September 12, 1996|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

What's an alpha woman to do?

If her image is too seductive, men don't take her work seriously. If her appearance is too blandly professional, she deprives herself of the admiring glances she needs like oxygen. What should she wear to look attractive, to get noticed, to inspire respect yet defuse poisonous female envy?

These are questions Nancy Friday ponders.

For her latest book, "The Power of Beauty" (HarperCollins, 1996), she turned to history, sociology and autobiography to confront the current American obsession with appearance. "It's very much a point of this time in which we live that what you put on your back has become so critical, because invisible, internal qualities of character no longer count," Friday says. "We are a society of the empty package."

The pressure to measure up to a standard of beauty, thinness and stylishness is a natural reaction to the feminism of the '60s and '70s, when women largely repudiated beauty. Friday lived through that era.

"Then women knew that if they were going to get any economic power, they'd have to get rid of beauty, which up to then had been their only source of power. Men had all the money. We had the beauty, and traded it for their money and power. It was a bad deal, because beauty fades," she explains.

The sexless blue suit that was the working woman's uniform until Donna Karan ushered provocative clothes into the office 10 years ago disarmed the enemy. Friday remembers her pulse quickening the day she browsed through Vogue and saw Karan's red cashmere bodysuit and sarong skirt. "One of the things we wanted to do with our earnings was to buy some colorful plumage. You can't keep beauty down," Friday says. "It looks good. It feels good. It works."

And it even works for women who don't have it. "I think a powerful look now has everything to do with how a woman carries herself," she says. "If you go out and buy the most expensive, great look of the season and you don't know how to carry it or walk in the room and put people at ease and live up to whatever you've put on your back, that is not power. You are simply a coat hanger."

Friday favors the simple, architectural designs of Zoran and Geoffrey Beene. "They make me feel like the woman I am right now--elegant and in charge. I feel I can be myself in these clothes, say whatever I want to say and be as outrageous as it may be, or as intelligent as I hope I might be."

In "The Power of Beauty," her seventh book, Friday is often outrageous. (The other works have focused on such subjects as women's erotic fantasies, jealousy, men's erotic fantasies, the treacherous relationships between girls and their mothers.) Like the foot fetishist who gets a job in a woman's shoe store, she has found a socially acceptable, profitable way to channel her neuroses: Whatever plagues, confuses or compels her, she explores on the printed page.

Neither her manner of dress nor her confessional writings have been stifled by her eight-year marriage to Norman Pearlstine, editor in chief of Time Inc. That relationship makes Friday half of one of New York's powerful media couples and part corporate wife. "Norman encourages me daily to never stop being myself," she says. " 'Oh, sweetheart, never stop dressing the way you do,' he says. So I march into the world in my Zoran pullover with my nipples showing. I'm not a typical corporate wife because my husband doesn't want me to be."

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