The Ideal Woman

ELLEN GOODMAN

September 23, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- Before you throw away the hanky and stash the scorecard for another year and another pageant, one last word on the latest word from Atlantic City. The new improved Miss America, the much vaunted and somewhat updated ''real woman of the '90s'' not only has to walk down a runway, she has to stand on a platform.

Last year, Miss America's platform was AIDS education. This year, 18-year-old Kimberly Aiken of South Carolina chose homelessness. Next year who knows? It could be the International Monetary Fund.

The audience that tuned in Saturday night witnessed yet another stage in the de-bimboizing of the beauty pageant. First they took the word beauty out of the title. Then they renamed the bathing suit competition as the ''physical fitness in swimsuit'' event. Finally they added brains, or at least academics, to the list of credentials. Soon, Miss Anywhere will have to have 35-23-35 on her body and 1200 on her SATs.

The irony in the update is that not even the contestants wanted to be thought of as ''beauty queens'' anymore. Way back in 1969, feminists protested the Atlantic City boardwalk as a national meat market. But in 1993, young women in carefully applied makeup are the ones who protest when reporters stereotype them as just another pretty face.

This is probably progress of one strange sort or another. I'm glad that ''the woman of the '90s'' doesn't have to be a beauty or a brain, lovely or intellectual. But I'm pretty sure that she has to be both.

For every beauty who has to prove her worth on the platform as well as the runway, there is a TV correspondent or political candidate who is judged for her hairdo as much as her head. For every gorgeous 18-year-old Miss South Carolina who must sing ''Summertime'' and worry about the homeless in order to win the crown, there is a 14-year-old tennis star who has to be pretty to win the endorsements.

Outside the environs of Atlantic City, the debate about women and the beauty industry is not whether someone is too pretty to be taken seriously. It's an exhaustive argument about the time, energy, attention, money and self-confidence chewed up in attention to perfecting everything from the eyebrows to the ankles.

Miss America is a one-night-a-year stand. But the argument is going on furiously all year long in the fashion and beauty magazines. Flip through Elle, Allure, Mirabella, Harper's Bazaar, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Vogue, and you see messages on a NTC collision course.

The magazines are both critiquing and promoting the beauty industry. Critiquing the images of flawless, lineless, hipless beauty and promoting flawless, lineless, hipless cover girls.

There are thoughtful essays about the dangers of anorexia alongside photographs of models, role models, who are anorexic waifs. There are pieces suggesting that we are beyond the youth cult, and pages of women straight from the cult. There are articles both extolling the natural look and lauding the cosmetics that you can buy to achieve it.

The cover of this month's Elle lauds: ''Body Reshaping, Snip It, Tuck it, Work It . . . or Love It.'' The inside photo shows the only body that the editors love. Mirabella -- the thinking-woman's fashion magazine -- carries an article by a woman who got rid of her ''smile lines.'' The editors describe her as someone who ''looks better than she thinks she does.''

The schizy message of the moment is to be yourself and be all that you can be, come as you are and never go out without putting your face on. The message is that you can be brainy even if you're beautiful and that you'd better be beautiful even if you're brainy.

In the magazines, the split is often between editors and advertisers. On television it's between contestants and commercials. But it's for the same reasons. There is, literally, no money to be made in telling women to feel good about themselves. You can't sell mouthwash to people who feel fine about their morning breath. It's tough to sell ads for an anti-beauty magazine. Or book commercials for a prime-time show of un-glamour.

This then is the ''real woman of the '90s.'' Sometimes angry about the beauty imperative and often influenced by it. One foot on a runway and one foot on a platform. As uncomfortable with double messages as a contestant walking around in a bathing suit and three-inch heels. Next year, I hope the winner wears flats.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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