Time was, if you weren't a blondee with more curves than Mario Andretti could handle, you walked a long, lonely runway in the beauty pageant of life. But graced with hair like the sun and a body like a goddess, you could count on this: In your presence, heads would turn, hearts flutter and imaginations soar. Think of Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Jean Harlow.
Today, some of America's loveliest still play the role. (Think of Madonna, Claudia Schiffer, Sharon Stone.) But in the '90s, determining what's fetching is more like taking a multiple choice test.
What's beautiful now?
C. Statuesque figures
D. Diminutive frames
E. Being 20
F. Being 50
G. Blue eyes
H. Brown eyes
I. Hazel eyes
J. All of the above
If you answered J, go apply for the editor's job at Vogue. But first hear what fashion designer Michael Kors has to say about modern beauty:
"It's no longer about a specific body type or ethnicity or even length of hair. Today it's often about personality. And mystery. It's not something quite as obvious as blond hair and blue eyes. It's more subtle."
Glance at People magazine's 50 most beautiful people for 1992, and you see what a melting pot of shapes and faces now gives pleasure to the senses. There's the predictable Michelle Pfeiffer, a blonde who can purr like a catwoman without mussing her hair; exotic Iman with the arched brow, heart-shaped mouth and legs that never quit. (She even makes the knife tattoo on her ankle look beautiful. Sort of.); and Adrienne Vittadini, the 47-year-old fashion designer who wears her crow's feet with a smile.
Is society intrigued by beauty? Bet your mascara wand on it. Why else would Americans undergo nearly 70,000 nose jobs a year, spend $5 billion on cosmetics, have their bikini lines waxed, and in the end still never be satisfied.
Tony Edmonds, a history professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., first realized how beauty-crazed the culture is when he offered a course on the subject several years ago. The class size was limited to 20 students; 77 signed up.
Through the ages, there have always been ideals for beauty, he says. From the Rubenesque woman of the baroque period to the Gibson girl of the early 1900s to the devil-may-care flapper of the '20s, society has sought out a commonly accepted notion for femininity.
And that ideal has often reflected the times. The commanding Gibson girl was a prototype of the independent woman, the flapper a reaction to that. The fitness craze of the '70s ushered in the athletic, trim style of women like Farrah Fawcett and Cheryl Tiegs.
So what are we to make of today's pluralism?
Those who have studied beauty see many strains converging: America's interest in multiculturalism, its respect for immigrant roots, the globalization of the country and the images television and cable bombard us with everyday.
"America has always prided itself on diversity. I see us continuing in that direction," says Dr. Edmonds.
If there is a paragon for the '90s, it's in contradictions. Plump lips, childlike eyes and willowy hair playing off a body that's the female equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger's. It's good looks with high definition. And that strength often comes from good old developed biceps, triceps, deltoids and quads.
Linda Wells, editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, says of this imaginary woman, "From the neck up, she's feminine. From the neck down, she's muscle. It's a fascinating contradiction that all these things can coexist attractively."
She cites Madonna and Geena Davis as examples. "They are really strong women," she says, "but there's this exaggerated femininity and sexuality there."
Mr. Kors has his own incongruous list of fabulous faces: Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Faye Dunaway, Robin Givens, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell.
"The one thing they all have in common is a quiet kind of strength," he says. "But strong doesn't mean overbearing. Strong can be very feminine also. It's a combination of strength and sensuality."
One thing that is changing, however, is breast size. Because of the reported dangers of breast implants, models are no longer appearing as busty as they recently have. "Slowly but surely, we're moving toward more delicate bodies. It's not the Amazon woman anymore. Being ultra skinny with big breasts was not realistic for most people anyway," Mr. Kors says.
Models in his fall show demonstrated the variations now allowed. They ranged from 5-foot-7 to 6-foot tall; from size 4 to size 10; from small-chested to well-endowed; from hair worn in a chin-length bob to poker-straight strands that reached the base of the spine.
And while in the past there's been a mainstream standard and a rarefied ideal, those two notions are growing more similar now.
"When Cindy Crawford is on the cover of TV Guide and Vogue, high-brow beauty is reaching the masses," Mr. Kors says.
Yet despite greater diversity, Dr. Edmonds finds there's still a discouraging similarity when it comes to faces on the covers of magazines.
"Most of the people on the covers look like they may have grown up in the same family. That's an artificial hegemony. I don't want to say the media meets at the Waldorf-Astoria and plots what the world is going to think about beauty. But most of the mainstream fashion magazine covers have a commonality to them," he says.
That may be particularly true in Baltimore, where beauty is still often classically defined. Fashion photographer Christopher Robbins says tall, sophisticated-looking models find the most work here. "People try to stay very safe. A lot of times I'm not allowed to use a masculine-looking girl or someone with a boyish-type haircut or really strong jaw line," he says. "Very sexy is what sells in this area."
He admits, however, that his vision for beauty is often not the norm. "[Comedian] Sandra Bernhard. I find her beautiful, but a lot of other people would not. She is who she is and that makes her a beautiful woman," he says.
Where does that leave the average American woman, who will never look like Christy Turlington or model for Calvin Klein?
Says Ms. Wells, "It would be nice if women learned to accept themselves . . . and stopped pushing and pulling ourselves into some mold. I'd like to see women care about their looks but not worry about them all day."
And by the way, does she consider herself beautiful?
"No," she says with something akin to a sigh, "but I'm attractive enough."