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Skin-deep beauty -- Is the cost too high?

The face of the '80s, as designed by a panel of plastic surgeons meeting in New York recently, offers features not found on the face of the '60s and '70s. The wide-eyed look is Out. ``Assertive, athletic'' eyelids are In. The upturned nose is pass'e, replaced by a ``stronger'' nose with a broader tip. ``Fuller, richer lips, high cheekbones, and stronger chins are the look of the day,'' one specialist declared, outlining the current ideal for a ``surgically renovated'' face.

To those of us who have grown more or less comfortable with our non-athletic eyelids and our less-than-perfect faces from another decade, this ``facial sculpturing,'' as the procedure is called, offers a chilling commentary on Americans' obsessive search for the body beautiful. Changing a wardrobe to follow current trends in fashion is one thing; changing a face is quite another.

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Yet from health spas and diet books to fitness centers and cosmetics counters, the message remains the same: If you want love, happiness, success, be beautiful and thin -- at any price.

And how those costs mount up! A week at a posh health spa can reduce a bank account by $2,000. A face lift can cost $5,000. And a tiny 1-ounce bottle of Prescriptives, Est'ee Lauder's new line of anti-aging cosmetics, sells for $40.

Yet dollars and cents become insignificant compared with the terrible psychic costs attached to this emphasis on lithe bodies and unlined faces. Anorexia and other eating disorders have become serious problems for teen-age girls and young women who see themselves as fat even when their weight dips below 100 pounds. And the highest suicide rate for American women occurs among those between 45 and 54, with at least one factor being the tendency to accept as a trauma what the passing years are doing to their bodies.

Once, in a simpler time, women in this age group were allowed to become -- dare we still use the word? -- ``matronly.'' Now Joan Collins serves as a sex-goddess role model for 50-year-old women. And a youthful Gloria Steinem has proclaimed that ``this is what 50 looks like,'' thereby setting a new standard by which her contemporaries are liable to be judged.

Ms. Steinem, in fact, in her dual role as mid-life beauty queen and high priestess of feminism, reflects the ambivalence even ``liberated'' women feel about beauty. In the early days of the women's movement, feminists gave notice that they were to be respected for their minds instead of their bodies. Scrape off the makeup, they advised other women, and skip the seductive styling.

Now that attitude has circled back with a vengeance. The result is that the '80s may be both the best of times and the worst of times for women.

Over the years, as women have gradually exchanged whalebone corsets for string bikinis and hobble skirts for jogging suits, we have achieved a freedom undreamed of by our great-grandmothers. No one can deny that we've come a long way, baby -- but baby, we've got a long way yet to go.

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For where is the liberation in a slavish pursuit of physical perfection that requires a devotee to spend hours working out at a health club, or megabucks buying makeup to achieve a ``natural'' look? In requiring women to look younger than ever for longer than ever, is society merely exchanging one form of bondage for another?

Two vastly dissimilar types of books currently lining bookstore shelves illustrate the two faces of American beauty, circa 1985. On one table are the celebrity beauty books, starring Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, and Victoria Principal. Using countless photographs of themselves and lots of upbeat prose explaining their private beauty secrets, the actresses sound like aging cheerleaders, rooting their readers on to victory over limp hair and lumpy bodies. Follow our regimens, they seem to be saying, and you too can look like this.

Nearby, on a separate shelf, another book -- far less flashy, far more intelligent -- offers insight into an uglier side of Americans' obsession with beauty. ``By Youth Possessed,'' by Victoria Secunda, is the best known of the second genre, reporting that there is trouble aplenty behind that mirror mirror on the wall.

``America is the worst country as far as youth obsession is concerned,'' said Mrs. Secunda in an interview with the Monitor.

``It's very difficult to ignore those ads that say, for instance, `Does everyone at work suddenly look younger than you?' `Do you see your mother in the mirror?' There is no question that this is insidious -- this pervasive insistence on viewing signs of experience as akin to laundry stains. If you have a wrinkle, the only way the cosmetics industry is going to succeed is to tell you that wrinkle is a terrible, terrible flaw that must be fixed by buying something.

``You cannot be both seasoned and 22,'' she continues. ``So why should we be ashamed of the evidence of that seasoning? We're taught to be ashamed. So we're filling in our wrinkles with silly putty and covering our gray hairs with hair dye. Just as we're living longer than ever, we're trying to get rid of the evidence of experience on our faces.''

There is no denying the power this cultural ideal of beauty holds over all of us, no pretending that attractiveness doesn't matter. But in our quest for thick hair and thin thighs, in our preoccupation with crow's feet and cellulite, we run the risk of ignoring other kinds of female beauty. By keeping our definition of beauty sexy, glamorous, and essentially ing'enue, we deny ourselves the pleasures of marvelous faces like Edith Sitwell's or Virginia Woolf's or Georgia O'Keeffe's -- faces of character, dignity, elegance, and wit that any photographer of taste would prefer to the blandness of the most perfect face lift.

But above all, the Venus trap imperils the attention we pay to honoring and cultivating the part of life that goes into forming such faces. We do lip service to inner beauty -- and then sprint back to the magic creams and the rowing machines.

If we ever find the courage to value, in fact, courage and intelligence and humor -- and pronounce such assets, at any age, ``beauty'' -- we will have taken one of the firmest steps yet to emancipate women. Marilyn Gardner is the Monitor's Home & Family editor.

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