American media have not been kind to Soviet women over the decades. In magazines and newspapers, on television and in movies, they have been depicted as drab, dour, built like locomotives those, at any rate, who were not gymnasts, ballet dancers or Raisa Gorbechev. They are always working over a tractor on the collective farm or standing on line for a loaf of bread, stockings at half-mast, clutching a shopping bag.
On the contrary, according to American beauticians and cosmetologists who recently visited Leningrad and Moscow, Russian women are as eager as their Western counterparts to look glamorous and alluring. They visit beauty parlors whenever they can afford it, and they are up on the (almost) latest styles.
Traveling in two groups, some 80 members of the National Cosmetology Association journeyed to the Soviet Union.
As with everything else in the Soviet Union, says Carla Dowell, who operates The College of Cosmetology in Killeen, Texas, beauty salons lack almost everything needed to do the job except skilled operators and eager customers.
In their quest for beauty, Russian women have to contend with waxy lipstick and creams as heavy as industrial grease.
Some Russian salons do not even have running water. When a customer wants a shampoo, Dowell says, the operator pours cold water into a heater on the wall, lights the flame and waits.
Nevertheless, members of the two groups came away impressed by what they had seen. The idea behind the trip, sponsored by the Citizen Ambassador Program of People to People, was that U.S. beauticians might teach their Soviet counterparts the latest styles.
Instead, the Americans learned a thing or two.
"The biggest surprise that hit all of us was the quality of hair coloring and cutting," says Doris Banks, who owns Total Concept Salon in Morehead City, N.C.:
"We thought we could really dazzle them with our talent and we had a good cross section of wonderful hairdressers from all over the United States. We thought we would go in and be very impressive.
"But as we gathered to watch their exhibition, we were extremely surprised. We were sitting there wondering, why are we not better prepared?"