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WOMEN STILL THINK BEAUTY MEANS A BEASTLY SACRIFICE OF COMFORTS

FROM THE BEGINNING of time, women have mutilated themselves or their daughters for the sake of "beauty." From the ancient Far East practice of foot-binding young girls to using dangerous dyes to create porcelain skin in Elizabethan times, and from the tortuous corset to the expensive, even dangerous, surgeries of today, little has intrinsically changed. Why do women do it?

BETSY HART: To look better according to their society's standard of beauty. What a drag.OK, true confessions. I highlight my hair, always dreading the hours that takes every few months. I've used awful tasting stuff to whiten my teeth. And I'm considering laser treatments to rid my legs of those nasty little broken veins.

And no, it's not fair. Men become more distinguished as they get older. Women just get older. I guess that goes back to what we value in a mate. Historically, men have always looked for signs of "fertility" in a woman. Youth, smooth skin, curvaceous breasts, etc. Women have always looked for signs of responsibility in a man. I.e., they needed to make sure he'd provide for the offspring if they mated. That, apparently, means income and maturity.

Alas, younger women and older men tend to have most of what the opposite sex seeks. Either that, or it's a revenge plot by all those freshmen guys in high school and college who could never get a date with a girl in their class because they were always going with older guys.

Yet, in all seriousness, I do want to look my best. And I think as long as that's kept in perspective, that's fine. For me, "perspective" means putting more emphasis on trying to be the best person I can be.

BONNIE ERBE: My colleague and I may finally agree on something: That character and brains are more important than beauty. What fascinates me is that women (and men) have probably believed this throughout the ages but instead fall prey to societal pressures.

While they may say otherwise, they continue to act as if beauty is worthy of sacrificing all other comforts toward its attainment.

The current issue of Civilization magazine sports a fascinating history of women - from every race and culture - and their contortions in pursuit of beauty. In addition to the Chinese foot-binding and Elizabethan skin dyes, Mengbettu women in Africa bind the heads of female infants to push the skull into an elongated, distortion that, to them, signifies beauty.

Our modern contortions may not seem as harsh, but they cause equally severe side effects. Just ask any woman who started smoking because she thought it made her look cool. Or most of those who underwent surgery for silicone breast implants. Or anyone (including this one) who took legally prescribed amphetamines in the 1970s to help lose weight.

Just as my foremothers opened doors for me in the professional world, I hope my generation opens doors for our successors in the "beauty" world. I hope they love themselves enough in their natural states to withstand the contortions their culture will inevitably inflict on them.