Picks and Pans Review: American Beauty

updated 04/25/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Lois W. Banner

Like some fleshy, 19th-century actress tight-laced into a corset, this book strains at its 352-page container. Instead of a fragrant bosom overflowing its whalebone girdle, though, fascinating tidbits and theories ooze out of a social history that chronicles the changing American image of female fairness. Banner, a historian of feminism, argues that those who would mold women's forms have always been with us. The current crop of long-stemmed beauties—Christie Brinkley, Jane Fonda and Cheryl Tiegs, say—would have been jeered at for their lanky limbs in the 1870s. As a historian of the period, Henry Collins Brown, put it, "We liked our women with plenty of meat on them in those days." It was, in fact, often that succulent double chin or tender elbow dimple that mashers craved. Lillian Russell, the Bo Derek of her day, remained a famous beauty even after she had become Rubenesque. The drive to conform to the prevailing image of beauty—however it's defined—has remained a constant in our society. Banner argues that the effect of this on the female psyche has been crippling. And despite doctors' warnings and feminists' pleadings, women also continue to abuse their bodies in the name of fashion. In the early 1800s they devoured arsenic to achieve a pale, otherworldly glow. Today women follow crackpot diets by the millions. Better they should read this book. (Knopf, $20)

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