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The paradoxical attainability of beauty is the central though unspoken theme of Ken Siman’s The Beauty Trip, a meditation on the yearnings of and for the beautiful. With the aid of three female friends, Dorothy, Elly, and Cecilia, Siman visits various “sites” of beauty—Chippendale’s, top modeling agencies, and famous photographers’ studios among them—and attempts to pinpoint their meaning. He and his friends each have different perspectives that affect their conclusions: Dorothy’s a dyke who writes for Playboy, Elly works at the American Anorexia/Bulimia Association, Cecilia’s a successful model, and Siman himself is a former pizza face (and author of a novel by that title) who’s had a lifelong battle with his own inner ugliness.

Though not particularly profound, Siman & Co.’s observations become compelling through their proximity to gorgeous black-and-white photos of famous faces; the text is liberally spattered with images of Kristen McMenamy, L.L. Cool J, Cindy Crawford, and others. This makes The Beauty Trip‘s overall effect both singularly odd and sadly familiar: Despite Siman’s vigorous attempt at deconstruction, beauty retains its calm hold over both him and the reader.

Hampered by this pull, as well as by his desire to identify with those he interviews, Siman often uncovers contradictions without resolving them. Like society at large, he can’t decide whether beauty is simply inherent, or whether it can be—and should be—attained through dedication and struggle.

It’s a paradox embodied by Kelly and Amanda, two University of Georgia students, avid calorie-counters and occasional fasters who were chosen to represent their school in Playboy‘s “Student Bodies” issue. Purporting to feature the girl next door (or in the next dorm room) who just needed to be discovered, the “Student Bodies” concept is a celebration of supposedly natural beauty. Kelly and Amanda fulfill this fantasy precisely because of the invisibility of their obsessive bodily discipline. The people who come to see them at their obligatory round of local appearances don’t view them as women who get naked for money, but as home-grown Cinderellas.

Though he points out the falseness of this perception, Siman can’t write off the notion of magically occurring gorgeousness. He notes that it’s the golden rule of the modeling profession, where no amount of work makes up for faulty bone structure. “You can’t strive or work toward anything,” Cecilia, his model friend, insists. “They’re either into you or they’re not.”

Siman confirms this pronouncement with a visit to glamour guru Eileen Ford, who emphasizes repeatedly that her work isn’t about dreams or magic—it’s about money. “She doesn’t fantasize about turning ugly ducklings into swans,” Siman notes. “Her job is to turn swans into paid swans.”

“Mrs. Ford doesn’t even pretend to be interested in hiring normal-looking models,” he continues. She lives to ferret out perfection, so “[t]o pay an average-looking model would be, in her eyes, rewarding mediocrity.” Flawed hopefuls get no further than the agency’s brisk answering machine message: “Ford holds interviews for young girls five-foot-nine and over and between the ages of fourteen and nineteen.” The “only” is implicit.

But even Ford has had cosmetic surgery, so beauty—if not the real thing, then a simulacrum—must be attainable. Once outside the runway zone, Siman finds legions of successful wanna-bes and a diametrically opposed definition of beauty. Here in the real world, it’s something to be seized, not conferred. People just like Siman, frustrated by their physical shortcomings, keep alive a whole industry of facial salons, plastic surgeons, and health clubs, and provide the stories that dominate the rest of the book.

For those who know what it takes, successful artifice holds its own fascination. Siman and the equally insecure Dorothy are mesmerized by a parade of Barbizon clients, plastic surgeons, and male and female bodybuilders. The wrinkle-free, Colgate-smiled, 62-year-old Phyllis McGuire of the ’50s pop group the McGuire Sisters commands particular interest, and not just for the author. When Phyllis and her Size 6 sisters perform at the Drury Lane Dinner Theater in Illinois, it’s not their singing that’s the attraction, but the miracle of their preservation. “Good Lord, they haven’t aged a year!” the diners marvel. “And Christine is a great-grandmother!”

Siman himself knows a lot about what is and isn’t attainable. His lifetime pursuit, not of perfection, but merely of acceptability, is the clear motivation for The Beauty Trip—perhaps by scrutinizing all these forms of beauty, he seems to feel, he can attain a lofty perspective on the whole question and shed his self-hatred along the way. Appearance anguish has, of course, been done to death by feminists, but Siman, a gay man, brings a fresh perspective to the issue. He may not have been as thoroughly oppressed as the anorexic adolescent girls his friend Elly works with, but his youthful problems with acne have left their mark.

Obsessed as it is with young, muscular bodies, gay male culture is rife with self-flagellation. But though it’s well-known, this ferocious perfectionism is seldom decried with the same venom that is brought to bear on women’s beauty standards. Siman doesn’t explicitly attack the tyranny of buffness among young gay men, but his description of his own hour-a-day weightlifting routine is a subtle denunciation of the search for perfect pecs.

“There are as many vain people in gyms now as jocks,” he says. “The two may look alike at first glance, but here’s how to tell them apart: jocks get joy from exercise; vain people—like [Playboy‘s coeds] Kelly, Amanda, and me—do it because we’ll feel worse if we don’t. And because the tedium of working out twelve hours per week is preferable to the revulsion of seeing excess body fat in our mirrors.”

This is the hidden divide between Siman’s subjects. Those born beautiful can take it for granted, but for the strivers it’s a carrot always dangled out of reach—they can’t expect to achieve beauty, only to escape from ugliness.

Siman’s war with his acne scars is a lurid illustration of the point. He’s undergone every possible skin-care regimen, even to the point of having silicone injections to smooth out his face. At one point he visits Dr. Lewis Feder, a “plastic surgeon to the stars” with his own local TV show, Here’s Looking at You. Feder, who claims to peel his own skin weekly with chemicals, greets Siman with a hearty “See how much better my skin is than yours?”

“Dr. Feder wants to give me a chemo-dermabrasion, a procedure he says he invented,” Siman writes. “He removes the skin on your face with a diamond wheel that rotates more than twenty thousand times a minute (your basic dermabrasion) and then takes off even more with carbolic acid.

“I’ve already had two dermabrasions.”

Siman opts not to undergo another of these ordeals, which leave his face looking like “blood on a skull,” but he never does escape his yearning. Like his skin problems, his sense of unfulfilled desire can only be reduced, not eliminated. He can’t even build a wall of cynicism between himself and the beautiful ones—the standard is simply too insidious to be shucked off so easily.

This conclusion, while true enough, is nonetheless rather depressing to contemplate. It seems that people should have at least some hope of gaining real inner beauty, but The Beauty Trip goes in circles around this possibility. Siman’s wry, brooding tone makes it unclear whether his examination of the issue has really helped him. He may have acquired some small mastery of his self-image, but at the end of the book it’s still fragile at best. “[B]eing truthful about beauty was the only way for me to realize that it is necessary for me to take another, entirely different trip,” he concludes. “But before I do, I’m going to go get my teeth whitened.”