Diagnosing Demi Disease

I didn’t go to the Jane Fonda tribute at Lincoln Center back

in May. My excuse was a long-standing engagement, but that wasn’t the real

reason. As much as I’ve admired many of her films, Ms. Fonda’s career-watching

her morph from Barbarella to barbells-brings out a sense of confusion and

embarrassment. Demi Moore taps the same strain of acute ambivalence. As they

literally change shape from decade to decade, both Ms. Fonda and Ms. Moore show

too clearly the strains of trying to define oneself as a physical and spiritual

woman in a feminist age. We don’t give them enough credit for the things

they’ve done well, both within films and as champions of women, because they

remind us, irritatingly, of our own internal contradictions. Flaunting their

sexual assets one minute, asking us to take them seriously the next, their

endless gyrations reek of discontent and uncertainty, parts that don’t fit

together-body obsession, body despair.

It used to be that this dread neurosis was a seasonal thing.

In spring, when a young man’s fancy turned to love, a young woman’s turned to

the terror of trying on a bathing suit in front of a three-way mirror. The

gourmand pleasures of winter would be laid aside for diet pills and cottage

cheese. But now we’re trying out for A

Chorus Line all year long. Chronic female insecurity about body flaws,

combined with the baby-boomer belief in freezing time and fixing what ails,

have led to Image Awareness Month 12 times a year, siren calls to reshape the

body through surgery or diet, and messianic fitness gurus beamed into our

living rooms 24 hours a day. Does this invitation to make yourself over

represent a new sense of empowerment or merely encourage overload as life

becomes a never-ending dance between new possibilities and new insecurities?

Among the 340 mostly useless channels that have invaded our

houses and taken over our lives, I’ve developed a fondness for the Health

Network. Amidst the garish mixture of kitsch advertising (Bobby Vinton CD’s,

anyone?) and self-help psychobabble are some genuinely helpful shows, including

exercise programs low-tech enough for someone who’ll never see the inside of a

bikini again, but who wants to flop around on the beach without embarrassment.

I had hoped to grow old staying moderately fit with Margaret Richards’

long-running Body Electric , aired

locally on Long Island public television. But dear low-key Margaret, with her

engaging girls-together humor and phony palm-tree sets, is apparently as

out-of-date as the generic word “exercise.” Her show has disappeared from its

New York home channel. (Not Type A enough for the tristate area?)

Almost as old-school as Margaret, gung-ho Denise Austin

appears on Lifetime from Boca or the Disney cruise ship or Hawaii, doing yoga

on one show, aerobics on another, but it’s too early and too cheerful for me,

and too full of self-promotional tie-ins. So I’m left with Yoga Zone and Bodies in

Motion , the two Health Network shows I like. The biggest drawback about

this network is the constant self-advertising: When their commercials are not

actively promoting their videos, the shows themselves are product placements

for their locations, in Jamaica and Hawaii, respectively. But on the plus side,

one or the other is on every half-hour all morning-they’re the Law & Order of fitness programs-so

that they not only alternate at reasonable hours, but you can pick one to suit

your mood.

Gilad Jancklowicz, a charming hunk in a black body suit who

hosts Bodies in Motion , shows you how

the Israelis went from being the neighborhood weaklings to the tough guys on

the block. He’s sexy with a dancer’s grace as he performs modified kick-boxing

moves-but, except for the occasional ringer roped in from the beach, his

satellite team is a depressing group of standard-issue shiksa bimbos. On a

recent show I was surprised to see, among the inner circle of adepts, an obviously

middle-aged woman, dark-haired and a little lumpy in sweats, going through the

paces, but it turned out to be Gilad’s mother. Yoga Zone , my favorite, is a refreshing half-hour with different

instructors and different body parts in play each day, relaxing and toning with

no obligatory 15 minutes of just breathing.

But I can barely manage an hour tuned to the Health Network

without getting a disturbing sense of the cultural disconnect, the warring

messages regarding women’s body image. There’s a 10-minute pitch for Bloussant,

an “all-natural herbal breast enhancer” that promises to “regenerate” your

mammaries within two weeks or refund your money. Ignoring the high-decibel

warning that Bloussant has not been medically proven, smiling overdeveloped women

offer testimonials to its transforming power, not just of their upper-body

cells but of their self-esteem. No longer feeling old and undesirable, they now

walk proudly into rooms, exulting in the attention. From that uplifting

spectacle, we move on to a spot for something called Serevent, apparently for

asthma sufferers, that promises “fuller breaths”-a phrase that, if you’re not

paying close attention, you might be forgiven for mishearing. Fullness is all,

until moments later we return to Yoga

Zone , where women with small breasts and limber bodies and gangly guys look

inward as they quietly announce that “less is more.”

In films I recently saw back to back, two leading ladies put

it this way: “Women are darn fools!” The two women-Claudette Colbert and Lillian

Gish, no less-share the line in movies made 20 years apart. Colbert, poor,

unmarried and about to give birth in Torch

Singer (1933), is speaking to a similarly afflicted fellow inmate (Lyda

Roberti) in a Catholic home for unwed mothers. Gish, guardian angel of a brood

of illegitimate children in The Night of

the Hunter (1955), says it of her oldest charge, a teenage girl who, moony

with the discovery of boys, will no doubt soon furnish her with another little

bastard.

It seems that since then, instead of our becoming less

foolish thanks to wider professional options and what should have been a more

robust sense of self, our foolishness has just spread to other fronts. Our

ongoing conflict between essence and appearance seems to be: Does self-worth

lie in the breasts, the brain or-as Hillary Clinton ruefully suggested-in the

hair? Isn’t it time to sit back, take a few big breaths-that’s “breaths”, not

“breasts”-and relax? Or, as they say in Yoga, “Namaste.”