Oprah lays stretched back on a chaise longue. Her hair is straightened, her features look dainty, her body . . . well, her body is the thing we notice most, knowing what we know of her dieting history. Her arms are thrown over her head in a gesture of abandonment, and they are downright skinny. She's no Shalom Harlow, but those look like chicken arms to me. Her makeup and strapless dress possess the colorless chic of contemporary minimalism, the uniform of the drab, beautiful (and usually white) girls who fill the pages of Vogue. And Vogue, the summit, the ultimate object of all beauty aspirations, is where Oprah has landed. On the cover of the October issue looking like an elegant ghost of her old chattery self.
Open to the "Letter from the Editor" and there's a condescending note from Anna Wintour, no stranger to chicken arms herself. I once saw her not eating a power breakfast at the Royalton Hotel in New York, surrounded by fawning, impossibly soigné acolytes. Her speck-like frailty conveyed far more power than generous size would have—there was a perversity in her tininess. "So, you want to impress me? First you have to find me." (She also wore sunglasses all the way through the meal, which my granny could have told her was tacky.)
Comments the profoundly, eternally, deeply thin Anna on the fleetingly thin Oprah: "Every now and then we encounter a personality who, like many of our readers, wants to do more than turn the pages. She wants to live the fantasy. She wants a 'Vogue makeover.' . . . [Oprah] knew she had to lose weight, but she has done that before, and she promised she would lose the 20 pounds by our deadline. She did, and I think that, as you see in this month's issue, together we have more than succeeded." Wintour means that they have succeeded in creating a glamorous Oprah, an Oprah no longer of the people but of some higher stratosphere of beings created through will, through expense, through taste. But the two women and their team of stylists have actually succeeded in creating a ghostly, frightening Oprah: an Oprah who exists solely in the realm of what should be.
Of course the most perfect expression of this should is Oprah's weight, or lack thereof. Vogue, like every other women's mag, is careful in its Health and Fitness pages to disown the message of its fashion pages: You can never be skinny enough. The Health pages remind women it's good to be fit and strong and it's bad to smoke and be too skinny and go on crazy diets—all of which activities are meanwhile written on the bones of the skinny-marinks in the fashion spreads. As Richard Klein writes in his wonderful book Eat Fat, wherein he attempts to "transvalue fat" into a positive good, "Who could prefer thin if thin is starvation? Only an anorexic. Or us. Most of the models whose beauty obsesses the media have thin, emaciated arms. The models are probably starving. For most of us, to be as thin as you'd have to be to look thin . . . you would have to starve, drink coffee, and smoke cigarettes, which at least a third of adults and most models are doing."
Yet despite this message that the models send us through their long, antennae-like arms, the Health pages still remind us: Yo-yo dieting is unhealthy; yo-yo dieting indicates lack of control. How easily Wintour jettisons this rhetoric, congratulating Oprah on her speedy loss of those 20 pounds—never mind that the whole country knows all about Oprah's history of yo-yo dieting. Wintour, the image of control, makes it all too clear that if Oprah had shown up 20 pounds heavier, Something Would Have To Be Done. One shudders to think exactly what.
All this may seem obvious: Everybody wants to be thin. Quite the news flash. Recently the humor mag The Onion did a man-on-the-street poll about the rumored eating disorders of Calista Flockhart, Helen Hunt, and Courtney Cox, leading one commentator to respond with a deadpan "It's almost as if Hollywood puts a premium on thinness and beauty."
But there's something more interesting going on here: Oprah is just one of several highly visible women who are right now in the process of whittling their images and their bodies into new, more angular shapes. Calista Flockhart is so thin that she has to answer the question "Am I anorexic?" on the cover of this week's People. (The answer is—surprise!--no.) Jennifer Lopez—she of the great big butt, whose mysterious allure I've celebrated more than once in these pages—is slimming down. Her recent Entertainment Weekly cover was supposedly scandalous for its degree of nudity, but the question around here was "Hey! Where'd her butt go?" Helen Hunt is clearly in desperate need of a sandwich. And Minnie Driver appeared on the cover of the fall InStyle with her signature chipmunk cheeks literally removed.
What's remarkable is that all these women have sought new, more perfect images as they reach the apex of their careers. Oprah was just named THE MOST POWERFUL PERSON in the entertainment industry by Entertainment Weekly—not the most powerful woman, or the most powerful black person, or the most powerful TV figure, but the most powerful person. She waxed Steven Spielberg, for chrissakes. And the same week, we find her weeping tears of joy in People magazine over her makeover. Flockhart is the linchpin of the hottest show to hit TV last year; Driver and Hunt are considered Oscar-caliber actresses; Lopez is the most successful Hispanic actress ever.
These are all women at the peak of their careers, and (perhaps except Flockhart) they're all women who've made careers largely thanks to the identification of other women. Hunt, looking like no one so much as Linus from Peanuts, built her career (and her Oscar-winning role) on being the slightly uptight girl next door. Minnie Driver's breakthrough role was playing a "fat" girl in Circle of Friends, and her subsequent success has been thanks to her intelligent, fiercely iconoclastic acting style—she's one of the few movie actresses you might actually want to hold a conversation with. Jennifer Lopez has been a role model not only to Hispanic women, but to women with luscious cabooses. And of course Oprah has built an empire based on folksy appeal.
But now these same women are busily aspiring to a standardized ideal of beauty. Just check out Hunt's supermodel mom on Mad About You. She's all long, straight hair and bony limbs and groomed eyebrows—Linus in Prada. These actresses are denying the (relative) ordinariness that put them where they are. It's as if they turned to their female fans and said, "Once I was like you. Now I'm better than you." It's as if Doris Day came swanning out in Givenchy and a chignon, Audrey Hepburning all over the place. It's as if they were denying their humanity.
In the viewer, at least in me, this elicits a feeling of hostility that doesn't come when I look at the perfection of a movie star who's always looked like a movie star. Michelle Pfeiffer is Michelle Pfeiffer is Michelle Pfeiffer. Who cares what she eats? It's these achievers who make us uneasy. Once they were Us; now they're becoming Them.
Sallie Tisdale has written, "Dieters are the perfect consumers: They never get enough." This desperate wanting, this unfulfillable desire is one of the saddest things about being a woman now. I was standing in line at an espresso cart recently behind a woman and her daughter, who looked about 9. The daughter ordered an Italian soda, and asked for extra cream in it. As the barista poured the heavy half-and-half into the drink, the woman turned around red-faced to me—to me, a perfect stranger!--and said with evident embarrassment, "I have got to get her to stop eating so much fat." The daughter's eyes shifted between her mother's face and the drink that was being made. Would it be taken away from her?
To see these normalish women mold themselves into perfection is an evident betrayal. The irony is that we feel more identified with them than ever, as they all too publicly try to achieve the same unachievable goals in whose shadow we all labor. Says Wintour, in a cheap bid to be one of the girls, "There's something reassuring in the fact that Oprah, one of the most powerful women in America, should nurture her own dreams of perfect beauty and allure—just like the rest of us." Reassuring is not the word.