ON THE MEDIA:

In Search of the Ideal Body

NO ONE LOOKS as good as Elle Macpherson--not even Elle Macpherson.

At least no female member of the human species looks as stunningly beautiful as Elle does on the pages of this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. In real life, of course, Elle sweats, peels, breaks out, belches, gives off odor and blows her nose. She gets split ends, skin blemishes, bags under her eyes, food between her teeth and hair on her legs. She does not always smile radiantly.

Through tricks such as accentuated shadows, water on key body parts and hundreds of shots, photographers create an impossibly ideal female body. Each year this obsession with women's looks causes a group to protest the swimsuit issue as sexist and exploitative, while another group counters that the magazine is harmless.

As a contribution to the debate, I put before the world the reactions of my friend Billy. After opening the magazine, his eyeballs left their sockets and beads of sweat gathered on his forehead. While wetting his lips, he traced the curves of each model's body with his index finger.

Then he put the magazine down and exclaimed, "There's no way I'm ever going to meet such a girl," realizing that such perfect beauty might not even exist. But he picked up the magazine again. And again. And again.

The swimsuit issue seems to confirm his tendency to hold all women to impossibly high physical standards. You can almost hear him say, "Too skinny. Too fat. Too big. Too flat. Too small. Too tall," or "She has a zit on her chin, yech."

Of course, these high expectations can work both ways. I have a recurring nightmare that begins pleasantly enough: a woman invites me to her room and asks that I take off my shirt. After I eagerly satisfy her request, she takes out a picture of the Soloflex man. She compares our physiques and then shows me the door, as well as directions to the weight room.

AN OBSESSION with superficial beauty is as unfair to the man as it is to the woman he judges. Because of his search for a perfect female body, Billy rarely asks women out anymore. He often spends Saturday nights sitting in his boxer shorts, drinking a six-pack of Meisterbrau, and watching the Junk Yard Dog battle Mr. Wonderful in the fake wrestling match of the week.

Unlike the majority of readers of the swimsuit issue, Billy forgets that there are other facets of women's beings--traits like character, intelligence, humor and enthusiasm. I saw an extreme case of Billy's mind set while standing in line at Sage's. In front of me, a 300 pound man bought two Hostess cream pies and a Penthouse forum. This was at nine in the morning. He had an exciting day ahead.

Perhaps the swimsuit issue is after all nothing more than a harmless break from the midwinter blues. Its readers, though, should remember that the models are actually women with real bodies, warts and blemishes included. No woman should be compared to Elle Macpherson. Nor any man to that Soloflex bum.