THE curvaceous blond on the cover of a current magazine strikes a seductive pose. Wearing a clinging low-cut dress, she leans forward to show off a voluptuous figure. With her "panther print" outfit and "cat's eyes," the magazine teases, she is "on the prowl."
Last month, the same magazine ran an even more revealing cover, showing a naked model stretched out on her stomach, arms strategically crossed over her bare and ample bosom. Inside, editors playfully describe her as a "bombshell" who "throws some curves."
Is this Playboy or Penthouse? No. It's Allure, a beauty publication that has become the latest women's magazine to use under-dressed, well-endowed models on the cover. Plunging necklines and cleavage show up everywhere on newsstands these days, as if editors are trying to clone Cosmopolitan. Even McCall's features Priscilla Presley in the barest of necklines on its latest cover. Redbook shows Melanie Griffith in a tasteful but deep-cut V-neck outfit.
Manufacturers of breast implants could hardly ask for better publicity for their products. Even if the models' figures are their own, with no help from surgeons or silicone - and these days, who can be sure, since models are among the two million American women who have received implants? - the subtle media message beamed at readers seems to be, "This is the ideal body of the '90s."
Just how far some women will go to achieve that ideal can be measured by the controversy that erupted last week when the Food and Drug Administration called for a moratorium on silicone breast implants. The agency has received 3,400 complaints of medical problems associated with the devices. Even so, opponents of the ban insist that women have the right to elect this surgery.
Every generation creates its own standards of physical perfection. Beginning in the 1950s, the Playboy centerfold symbolized the supposed ideal against which all figures were judged - and mostly found wanting. Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Sophia Loren were held up as every woman's model.
Then came the '60s, the fledgling women's movement - and Twiggy. Thin was in. Although androgyny relieved some of the pressure to look like a Playboy pinup, it imposed strict new demands for diet and exercise.
Today a woman doesn't have to open Playboy to feel that her figure is inadequate. The new enslaving fantasy comes in part from women themselves as editors and others promote a nearly impossible figure - a bustline resembling Jayne Mansfield's, combined with a waistline like Twiggy's. Even fitness queen Jane Fonda resorted to implants.
Some fashion and beauty magazines have questioned the safety of these devices. Vogue sounded a warning in 1989. This month Allure offers an update headlined "Breast Implant Panic." But those messages can easily be lost, surrounded as they are by covers, ads, and editorial spreads featuring thin-and-buxom models displaying decolletage.
Media pressure to achieve a perfect body also goes beyond implants. Last month, Allure included a short feature on "The Perfect Belly Button," which is "vertical rather than horizontal." For "the truly obsessed" worried about an aging navel, the magazine reports, a French surgeon has "introduced a technique for creating an entirely new umbilicus." In a photo spread showing women artfully stepping out of limousines, editors define "the perfect accoutrement" as "a pair of long, lean, lovely limousine legs something not yet available from any plastic surgeon.
"Mirror, mirror on the wall" can be a cruel game as women paint, powder, diet, and exercise their way to beauty.
But the struggle to become a complete woman goes far beyond cosmetic imagery. A moratorium on breast implants can serve to remind women of an earlier time when they consciously rebelled against having their value judged by physical looks.