Welcome to . . . the Thin Nation : Someday, a magic pill may make us all fat-free. Problem solved? Don't bet on it. We'll find something else we don't like about ourselves--that's just the way we are.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's really too soon to even talk about America as a nation of the lean.

The scientists who made headlines last month for discovering a hormone called leptin that makes mice skinny insist that a magic bullet for humans won't show up over the counter for at least seven, 10, probably 15 years.

But imagine it: A needle a day, and pouf! You're fat-free. Who among us could resist?

And then what?

It is perverse but delicious to imagine the ideal turned upside-down.

Instead of a society that glamorizes 6-foot-tall anorexic teen-agers, the gods of commerce would have soft, rounded bellies and wraparound smiles suggesting they've had a good meal and experienced fulfilling love. And of course, bulbous men would become the rage and Marlon Brando again a sex symbol.

In today's elastic world of trendiness, we have gone so far on the axis of thin-as-chic that we revere camera-friendly waifs and buy into the cultural myth of the perfect body that denies women in particular the respect they owe themselves.

But if the unobtainable became obtainable, perhaps millions of Americans would, rather than carp about their excess flab and feed the $30-billion weight-loss industry, simply shed the fat and get at what truly makes them unhappy.

There is not a lot of optimism for that scenario. Nor is there much hope for the way our culture might reconfigure along with the nouvelle bodies of the 21st Century.

What tea-leaf readers foresee is a world of women, all Size 8 instead of the current average Size 14, obsessed with the shape of the breast or the cut of a muscle. Or an army of men, their barrel bellies flattened, plagued by mental distress for failing to meet some other societal standard.

Valerie Steele, a fashion historian, recalls a time earlier in this century when America had hope that new labor-saving devices such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners would allow women to spend less time cleaning the house.

"Instead, standards got higher, and once we didn't have to beat the clothes on stones to get them clean, we began worrying about ring around the collar," says Steele, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.

The great expectation, of course, is that leptin--from the Greek leptos , meaning thin --will cure those suffering from clinical obesity and other weight-related disease. For people who are overweight simply because they eat too much and exercise too little, it is unclear how the miracle treatment might be used.

It would be in keeping with free-market values to make leptin shots available only to the rich, thereby polarizing the poor even more, forcing them into an unscrupulous underground trade and deepening the societal prejudice against fat people as declasse.

And, in a sense, someone would have to remain plump for there to be Schadenfreude --and for the naturally thin to find a way to distinguish themselves from the hormone-supported, just as it is now easy to spot a person across a room whose eyes are blue or green because of contact lenses. Cosmetic fetishes have always been about privilege, about being born into a small group or having the leisure to work at becoming what you're not.

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Anne Hollander, an art historian and author, says changes in attitudes toward overweight people have often been associated with changes in prosperity and well-being. When food was scarce, as in the time of 17th-Century artist Peter Paul Rubens, well-fed larger people were envied and considered beautiful, and they made themselves even larger with layers of clothing. In other eras when food was plentiful, fashion turned toward the slim.

The modern pressure to be thin began during the first decade of this century, Hollander says, and was influenced by two factors: the introduction of weight, height and mortality figures to develop actuarial tables for life insurance policies, and the use of movies and cameras as the chief engines of chic and beauty and elegance.

And because the camera does lie, adding the illusion of pounds to even the thin, people felt they had to stay lean to look like their idols, Hollander says. "And we then believed it was healthy to be thin instead of healthy to be fat."

She disdains the national obsession with matching images captured by the camera.

"When fashion art was done with a pen and brush, it was understood," she says, "that images weren't real, that women really weren't nine feet tall. Now that we use the camera, which we know was trained on a real person, we want to be that person.

"Since perception is very largely governed by ideals, we think if we don't look like what we see in fashion magazines we're non-pretty. What we need to do is strengthen our character, stiffen our aesthetic sense and love what we actually see. God is an excellent designer."

But Frances Grill, head of the New York modeling agency Click, and Ken Siman, author of "The Beauty Trip" (Pocket Books, 1995), doubt that access to being thin would broaden the aesthetic of the Brave New World.

The camera, Grill says, is a blunt, limited instrument. "If everyone was thin, we'd all wonder how come we don't look like models. But we won't and never will," she says. "I have 1,000 people send pictures or come see me a month, and most of them don't look like models. They're as thin and as tall and as young as models, but they're not models. They don't have the shoulders and bone structure and the ultimate of what a face is supposed to be like."

Siman notes that the acne drug Accutane was once touted as a liberator of beauty.

"But these breakthrough drugs, even the best plastic surgery, can't create beauty. They may prevent ugliness and spare people a lot of humiliation, but nothing can create real beauty. Leptin won't give you a perfect body. People will still be chubby, and to get the guy you'll still have to be obsessed with food and the gym."

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Linda Wells, editor of the beauty magazine Allure, is most forgiving of the fashion industry for creating the ultra-thin ideal, but she predicts its tyranny will exist whether our nation is thin or pudgy.

"Fashion and beauty have never been about satisfying everybody equally. Rather, they're about wishing and dreaming and obtaining and getting closer to an ideal, any ideal," she says. "The definition of what is desirable is whatever is a little bit beyond our reach."

When the federal government last counted, in 1985, half of American women and one-fourth of men were trying to lose weight. Yet despite a booming weight-loss industry, these Americans have little to show for their effort, and considerable evidence suggests that obesity has increased. Worse yet is the deteriorating image women have of their bodies.

"There are vast numbers of women who are embarrassed to see themselves in clothes, embarrassed in social situations because of their bodies," says Kelly Brownell, a psychology professor at Yale University. "They pay attention to every morsel of food they eat every day and exercise compulsively. Their weight and shape lie at the heart of how they see themselves."

Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, can't imagine how a miracle drug will alter such a deep scar on so many psyches.

If there is a voice of hope--although not necessarily optimism--about the end of the cult of physical perfection, it comes from Caroline Miller, editor of Seventeen magazine.

If some miracle drug could just begin to level the playing field, it might improve the frightening fantasy lives of enormous numbers of teen-agers who view the curves of womanhood as a betrayal, she says.

"So many girls don't even see themselves as whole people," Miller says. "They think of themselves as a collection of assets--breasts too small, thighs OK, hips large. If the new drug pushes the premium on having muscles, that would at least be better. So the ideal becomes about building up as opposed to reducing."

Kelly Goodman, a Los Angeles plus-size model, actress and comedian, favors a reversal of values so that fat people aren't treated like freaks, but predicts leaner audiences will be no less mean.

"Oh, I can see it now," says Goodman, a Size 26 whose day job is at Brentano's in Century City. "I'd be thin, and having a pot belly would be sexy and I'd have to figure out how to get a perfectly round belly at the same time I'm taking a double helping of leptin. Thanks a lot. I just may stay the way I am."

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