WHEN THE NEWS BROKE LAST WEEK that Michelle Pfeiffer is not perfect, a collective sigh of relief was heard from women everywhere.
"Did you read they spent $1,525 to retouch her photograph on the cover of Esquire?" a friend asked, not even trying to disguise the pleasure such news gave her.
I started to answer but a male colleague overheard the remark and jumped right in: "Yeah, I couldn't believe it. I had three calls from women who told me they were just so happy to know that Michelle Pfeiffer -- the image of perfection -- isn't perfect."
Ms. Pfeiffer's "imperfections" were made public last week in a bill submitted to Esquire from photo retoucher Diane Scott who worked on the magazine cover, headlined, "What Michelle Pfeiffer Needs . . . Is Absolutely Nothing." The bill seemed to prove otherwise.
It includes charges for the following: "Clean up complexion, soften smile line, trim chin, soften line under ear lobe, add hair . . . add forehead to create better line . . . soften neck muscle a bit . . ."
I had barely finished reading this laundry list of "imperfections" when the phone rang and a voice said: "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Michelle's got thin hair. I've got thin hair. Michelle has a blotchy complexion. I have a blotchy complexion. Michelle's got smile lines around her mouth. I've got smile lines around my mouth. I haven't felt this good since I graduated from medical school," cackled my friend -- who, by the way, is a respected psychiatrist -- into the phone.
My first thought, naturally, upon hearing such a reaction was to hold the moral high ground and say something like: "Well, Michelle Pfeiffer may not be perfect, but she's still pretty." My second thought? "What a relief! Chalk one up for me and all the other average, imperfect women."
It's the second response, says Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, that he had in mind when he decided to publish the retoucher's bill in the January issue of his magazine. It was done as "a kindness to women [who] are constantly faced with perfection in magazines . . . [and] to remind the reader in an amusing way there's a difference between life and art."
And at the superficial level, amusement was the initial -- and appropriate -- reaction of women to the air-brushing-into-perfection of the almost-perfect Michelle Pfeiffer.
But at a deeper level, many women were experiencing something else: a feeling of relief, however temporary, from the burden of trying to meet the impossibly high standards placed on the way women look.
Or to be more accurate, on the way society tells women they ought to look. Like a Michelle Pfeiffer, for instance. Or like Bo Derek -- the woman responsible for the invention of a quick way to evaluate a woman's attractiveness using a numerical scale: 1 (a dog) to 10 (a Bo Derek).
There is no comparable scale upon which women evaluate men. Not that women are free from the appeal of male physical attractiveness -- the word "hunk" attests to that. But surveys suggest that women place a lesser value on the way men look than vice versa. A recent study commissioned by Time magazine, for instance, found that when it comes to requirements for a spouse, only 19 percent of women say physical attractiveness is important vs. 41 percent of men.
And the women I talked to agree. And add that they think they'rless rigid in their views of what constitutes attractiveness in men than the other way round. Women, for example, are capable of finding both Tom Cruise and Charles Kuralt attractive. Many of the men I know don't dispute that they have a harder time broadening their view of what constitutes attractiveness.
But women will tell you that it's not just men who place a premium on female physical attractiveness. Women do it, too. We do it to other women -- sometimes assigning a lesser value to the plain woman than to the beautiful one. And we do it to ourselves. Often it's a matter of applying the societal values we absorbed as young girls.
Writer Susan Sontag articulated this point of view a few years back when she observed that society has a different set of standards for ascertaining the value of a man and the value of a woman. Men, in her view, are valued more for what they achieve than for how they look. The value of a woman, however -- no matter what her achievements -- is always more closely tied to her appearance.
Which brings us back to the Michelle Pfeiffer Coverup. "You know," said one woman, "now that I know Michelle Pfeiffer's not perfect, I like her even more."
Now what we have to do is apply that bit of insight to all women, including ourselves.