- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2001

Call me a traitor to my sex. I don't deny it. I'm wasting precious newsprint complaining about the titillating photos that run rampant in young men's magazines such as Maxim, Stuff and FHM.

These aren't artistic shots we're talkin' about. It's in-your-face sexuality, airbrushed to postmodern pulchritude. The subjects are a silly string of actresses, would-be supermodels and other women eager for face time with the American public — particularly male faces in their late teens with disposable income.

OK, so I admit that I peek at the spreads when they arrive on my doorstop. My roommate subscribes to a gaggle of them, and I often fetch the mail. My hormonal id would sooner dispatch my perennial crush, Katie Couric, from my apartment than not take a peek at these portfolios.

But I feel dirty afterward, like the sensation that overwhelms me after solving a "Wheel of Fortune" puzzle.

What's troubling about this trend is that it seems that any young actress seeking to become the next Julia Roberts has to pass this skin-revealing muster to make the grade. Female thespians with a bit of modesty, or a little extra meat on their frame, seem at a distinct disadvantage.

In days not so far past, only certain kinds of actresses submitted themselves to these cheesecake choice shots. They existed on the periphery of show biz, attractive enough to get noticed but not talented enough to radiate on screen. Think Barbi Benton, Adrienne Barbeau and any Bond girl. Posing provocatively was seen as a dangerous move, one that could spark a career or trounce it before it began. See Miss Benton for the latter.

Today, seemingly every ingenue is fair game for these pictorials, from fringe actresses such as Doritos girl Ali Landry to potential stars like "American Beauty's" Mena Suvari and Leelee Sobiesky of "Eyes Wide Shut."

Occasionally, you might find a young actor in an embarrassingly cheesecake pose parading though People or some other light fare. But more often, the pictures are head shots or simple fashion spreads in which the clothes are as much a part of the shot as the actor.

Many established actresses ascended to their glamorous thrones without passing a Maxim-type conscript. Try imagining a young Meryl Streep offering some faux alluring quotes while reclining on a leopard skin armoire.

As if the trend weren't alarming enough, many photos receive more airbrushing than a junior prom portrait. What can a 17-year-old starlet be hiding? Age spots? The photographs bluntly indicate the magazines hire artists to airbrush in sex appeal and away any blemish that might render them human.

The results look like the handiwork of a art student project. Still, these high-profile magazines, and these spreads, proliferate.

When Dame Elizabeth Taylor is shot with a gauzy filter, the televised equivalent of airbrush, you can somewhat rationalize the decision. Beauty queens as heavenly as Miss Taylor aren't allowed to age in our society, even if they do so gracefully.

But how should an impressionable, 15-year-old girl, flipping through her brother's dogeared Stuff magazine, feel when she sees 18-year-old Lacey Chabert of "Party of Five" swathed in airbrushed highlights? How can she compete? How many cans of paint might these magazines go through to make a 30-year-old model ready for her close-up?

One wonders about the pressures these actresses face before signing up for such shoots. I envision a scene inside their agents' dank offices, glossy pictures strewn about the rooms while the agents bark something about "beating the competition."

A few young actresses seem unlikely to submit to such surreal scrutiny, no matter the cost. Natalie Portman, a gifted young beauty who starred in "The Professional" and "The Phantom Menace," seems the type to avoid such exposure. Oscar winner Anna Paquin also seems a long shot to grace Stuff's seedy pages.

The next time an issue of, say, Maxim, hits my mailbox, I'll no doubt flip through the pages before moving on to my stack of bills. Hypocritical? Perhaps. But when my roommate's subscription runs dry, that's the last I'll see of these magazines.

I'd sooner subscribe to the National Enquirer. At least the tabloid operates without the consent of the actresses it tries to embarrass. Somehow, that feels more honest.

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