Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, March 10, 1998

Oh, how we suffer
in the name of beauty

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Blake Kushi loves the tiny bound feet of Lee Chen. He especially loves their smell -- the stinkier the better.

Corsets, foot-binding,
breast implants -- all ways
we fool with Mother Nature

By Nadine Kam
Assistant Features Editor


In the 20th century, we smugly concur that the 1,000-year Chinese ritual of foot-binding was barbaric. We recognize the absurdity of Victorian women who bound their waists into 14-inch corsets, cutting off their breathing and damaging their organs to achieve an ideal beauty.

So what are we to make of our own era of scalpel-happy souls willing to nip and tuck and lift their way to "perfection"?

Women from all three eras compare notes when Betty Burdick, master of fine arts candidate at the University of Hawaii, directs "The Waiting Room" at the Earle Ernst Lab Theatre.

The contemporary comedy by Lisa Loomer was written while the playwright's mother was suffering from breast cancer. Loomer saw the need for patients to be allowed to make educated choices when confronted with health issues.

In researching the play, Burdick said one of the facts that interested her was that 75 percent of women with breast implants need to have follow-up surgery due to complications.

The damage was psychological as well as physical. Burdick said that men like the look, but not the feel of implants, and that "women were shy of having sex after they had the implants because they knew they didn't feel natural."

As comedian Billy Crystal said, for many, "It's better to look good than feel good."

"People are funny in certain situations," Burdick said. "Lisa Loomer was criticized by people who told her, 'Cancer's not funny,' but people are funny in certain situations. I think humor will get a point across faster than beating people over the heads."

The comedy's setting is a contemporary waiting room, in which Lee Chen plays the woman with bound feet, Jill Rolston is the woman with breast implants and Maureen Freehill plays the corseted Victorian. No matter what the era, Burdick said, "Women will go to any ridiculous length to do that which will allow them to fit in with society, to get a man, to get a job.

"Women are constantly confronted with images of what's desirable through Madison Avenue's eyes."

Freehill squeezes her 25-inch waist into a 22-inch corset for the play, but this is large compared to Victorian times. At the most severe, corsets helped to create a 16-inch waist.

"My character is very proud of her small waist because she got her corset at 14, young enough for organs to develop around the corset. Women ended up being strangulated by their corsets. They had very little ability to breathe, they couldn't eat, they fainted. All this looked crazy. People called it hysteria, but it was in response to pressures physiological and sociological."

There was a lot of research done for this play in areas of alternative medicine, 18th century China, the Victorian era, breast cancer and implants.

"People are only now getting smart with breast implants," Freehill said, "but I talk to women all the time about wanting to get a lift here, a tummy tuck there. I ask them why and they say, 'Because it makes me feel better.'

"But why do they feel better? Because other people from the outside are going to say, 'Oh wow, you look hot.'

"That way of thinking can be so damaging, not only physically, but emotionally, and it can be limiting in what you can achieve. So much attention and energy is focused on physical appearance that you're not able to educate yourself about issues, you may not even know what you think about issues. You're focusing on whether you'll be liked by society, particularly male society."

In Victorian times, society was even more male-dominated. Women of that time had a huge stake in physical beauty, Freehill said, because they were economically dependent on men who saw no need to educate women, except in the domestic arts.

"To this day I think it's appealing for men to have women be not as smart as them," Freehill said. "I think it's kind of scary for some men to deal with smart women."

Yet we can't ignore the way society shapes desires and ideals.

Freehill said, "I do feel -- especially as an actor -- that there is a strong pressure to keep a certain physique, although I also feel it's a health choice for me.

"Most of the time I just get really tired and feel I look really old. Now, a man can look tired and he'll be told, 'You must be working hard; you're very distinguished looking' vs. 'You look like an old bag.'

"It's still very important to look fresh and young no matter what age I may be."

The Waiting Room

° Place: Earle Ernst Lab Theatre

° Showtimes: 8 p.m. tomorrow through March 14 and 2 p.m. March 15

° Tickets: $6-$8, $3 for UH students

° Call: 956-7655

Do It Electric!

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