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Beauty Breakthrough? The popularity of stars like America Ferrera and Jennifer Hudson may help change media-fueled stereotypes, but there are signs that the process will be a long one

Was it too good to be true?

Just weeks ago, the image industries were showing signs of finally "getting it" -- of finally allowing that the current measure of female beauty is a very limited one.

The indicators were there. The Council of Fashion Designers of America issued guidelines recommending that catwalk models have healthier Body Mass Indexes. Jennifer Hudson and Helen Mirren won Oscars. The show "Ugly Betty," whose main character is a young woman who succeeds at a fashion magazine on her wits, not her looks, attracts 14 million viewers each week. "Ugly Betty's" star, America Ferrera, won multiple awards and began appearing on covers of magazines from CosmoGIRL! to W.

But is the growing attention on "real" women enough to counter things like this:

*News people attending the February fashion shows in New York City received swag bags containing two diet products.

*Gossip magazines offered up the secrets of Hudson's post-"Dreamgirls" weight loss.

*Paparazzi shots of supermodel Tyra Banks in a bathing suit ran on a tabloid cover under the headline " 'America's Next Top Waddle.' "

*Two-thirds of the members of DePauw University's Delta Zeta sorority chapter (those who were overweight and/or minority) were relegated to "alumnae" status during a recruitment drive.

*Fox TV announced that during the new "The Simple Life" season, anorexic and hypoglycemic Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton will be counselors at a "wellness" (read: weight loss) camp.

Negative stereotypes of women are pernicious and pervasive, and concern about them is no longer the exclusive purview of mothers of teens.

"I want my daughter to know that beauty comes from within and not from a bottle or a magazine," says Summer Flaherty, a key account manager from Buffalo whose daughter is just 1 year old.

"Keeping her away from those images until she can digest them will be a battle, but I am hoping I can be a role model for her," Flaherty says. "I want her to love herself and not focus on all the negatives she'll be exposed to. She is only [a baby], but you can never start to soon."

>Signs of a shift

Experts agree that the media's focus on women like Ferrera and Hudson is a good sign that conventional standards of attractiveness are, indeed, shifting -- albeit slowly. And the increased focus on more realistic role models will go a long way toward improving the physical and emotional health of girls and teens, they say.

"It's promising that these people were recognized," says Dr. Lora E. Park, assistant professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, who has done extensive research on self-esteem-related issues.

She says the effects of the award wins were "powerful, but they can't come in isolated incidents."

"The effort needs to be sustained, and it takes a lot of time [to make an impact]," Park says.

The media's negative influence on girls' self-esteem has been a concern for years. But experts say the issue is even more critical to today's teens, for whom the link between appearance and self-worth has become so ingrained that many have difficulty finding a more valid measurement for their value.

Studies show that the instances of delinquency, unhealthy relationships, eating disorders, drug use and suicide in the teen population have increased dramatically in recent years.

According to studies by the American Psychological Association and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the number of girls under 18 getting breast implants tripled between 2002 and 2003; 40 percent of 9- and 10-year-old girls have tried to lose weight; 53 percent of 13-year-olds are "unhappy with their bodies"; and, by age 17, 78 percent of girls don't like what they see in the mirror.

>Self-esteem issues

"Teens are in dire need of a safe environment [in which] to learn how to respect and value themselves as unique, gifted and lovable," says Betty Hoeffner, founder of Hey U.G.L.Y. an organization that aims to teach girls to accept themselves the way they are.

The group's Web site features self-esteem assessment tools and teen-friendly articles, celebrity stories, contests and a reader's forum.

Contrast that to the Web site ABC tacked onto its own public service campaign for which they made Ferrera spokesperson. "Be Ugly '07" purports to "debunk conventional notions of beauty," ABC's entertainment marketing executive Michael Benson said in a news release.

The site's message is not a bad one. "Be real. Be smart. Be passionate, Be determined. Be kind. Be honest. Be true to yourself. Be ugly," it trumpets. But its content is as skimpy as one of Lindsay Lohan's skirts.

A zipper runs along the bottom of the home page with quotes from real women. There are also plugs for ABC and a link to the network's online store, which offers, among other products, a $250 copy of Betty's "B" necklace.

This public relations masquerading as public service casts a bit of a pall over the Ferrera phenomenon. Ferrera has been a strong role model for teenage girls since her breakout role in "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," and she knows how important that role is.

"There was a letter from a young girl who wrote into a magazine [CosmoGIRL!] . . . thanking the magazine for putting me on the cover," Ferrera told reporters after her Golden Globes win. "She said, 'When I watched "Ugly Betty," it was the first time in my life I felt beautiful.' That was overwhelming."

Ferrera (whose awards ceremonies dresses, by the way, were a size 6, not that it should matter) says she "didn't know how 'fat' and 'ugly' I was until I started going on auditions. In the world of Mode [the magazine Betty works for], 99 percent of us are Ugly Bettys."

Her numbers are only slightly off. According to Kimberly Borrman, community educator for the Eating Disorders Association of Western New York, less than 2 percent of the population is the size of runway models and young actresses.

>Gaining momentum

Fortunately, the Ugly Betty effect on women isn't letting up.

"I am impressed with the [show's emphasis on the] fact that who you are, how you treat others and the choices you make are more important than how you look," says Erin Wilkins, a development specialist from Williamsville.

"I think it [Ferrera and Hudson's award wins] is the best thing to have happened to women of all ages in a very long time," says plus-sized supermodel Emme (Melissa Aronoson).

"I feel like we're getting some momentum," she continues. "I hope this starts a groundswell."

Karen Lippold, an aesthetician from Hamburg and mother to a teenage daughter, points out that "most women say that by the time they turn 40, they finally feel confident and don't care what other people think. Why do we have to waste 40 years of our lives to find this out?"

And how, she and other women wonder, can we help the next generation of women learn self-acceptance before middle-age sets in?

Stressing the existence of role models who are not recognized for their looks or their weight -- and who have enough self-respect to avoid rehab and to wear underpants -- is one of the most effective techniques, the experts agree. Entertainers like Ferrera and Hudson; "Grey's Anatomy" stars Chandra Wilson and Sandra Oh; women who "give back," like Oprah Winfrey, or have made a mark in politics, like Condoleezza Rice and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, are all women girls can model themselves after. And being reminded of the accomplishments of women in their own world is invaluable, experts say.

>Speaking out

In addition, we have to encourage girls not to buy into the negative messages of the media, says Borrman. "We need to voice our opinions; write to stores and designers and manufacturers and tell them when their actions are not good for children."

Emme, who has a 6-year-old daughter, also advocates women using their voices to change the status quo.

"Women have to stir the pot," she says. "We have to take responsibility. We have to say to each other, 'Let's put on our seat belts get crazy.' Nothing will change unless we get crazy."

e-mail: bsullivan@buffnews.com

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