Valerie Bertinelli in a bikini? It's a miracle!

The world rejoices as Jenny Craig spokeswoman dons a bathing suit for People magazine's cover -- and there's so much that bums me out about this.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 27, 2009 3:55PM (EDT)

Rejoice, America. Your company probably laid off a hundred people yesterday, your department store, car manufacturer and favorite magazine just folded, and that pesky war thing is still happening. But Valerie Bertinelli has poured herself into a bikini for the first time in 30 years.

It's a miracle!

Gracing the cover of the new People magazine with what Extra! helpfully describes as only "minimal airbrushing," the former "One Day at a Time" star, mother and current Jenny Craig spokeswoman does indeed look every luscious inch the cougar pinup queen. She smiles widely, her trademark long brown locks cascading past her shoulders, a demure navel ring glimmering halfway between the top and bottom of her teeny green string bikini. Eat your heart out, Eddie Van Halen.

Inside, Bertinelli proudly proclaims her healthier new lifestyle of moderate eating and regular, vigorous exercise, providing motivation to the roughly 63 percent of Americans who are overweight, and proving pretty conclusively that sexiness is not the exclusive purview of the under-40 population. Yet there's so much about this that bums me out. I can start with the way People boldly declares Bertinelli's age on the cover, as if she's standing on that beach in that bathing suit with one unpictured foot in the grave. There's the way the accompanying story mentions how the actress once "tipped the scales" at a whopping 172 pounds. Then there's the whole confessional tone of the feature, wherein Bertinelli reveals her gutsy determination to look hot by her 49th birthday. "I thought, Am I really going to do this? Can I pull this off?"

But hallelujah, she did! All it took was a personal trainer, a diet of 1,200 calories a day, a team of stylists and a little postproduction Photoshopping!

How inspiring, especially when People points out that "as any woman knows, those innocent-looking strips of Lycra can be a terrifying sight."

There's nothing wrong with wanting to look and feel your best, whatever your age or size. And meeting a fitness goal is a pretty cool accomplishment. But in all the celebratory amazement at the phenomenon of Bertinelli's transformation, it needs to be stated that not every woman who isn't a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model is filled with anguish and self-loathing. While we're at it, I'll mention that maybe weekly magazines whose bread and butter is the gleeful scrutiny of celebrity cellulite don't exactly contribute to an overall culture of self-esteem.

You want to "terrify" me? Make me look at my recent 401K and educational IRA statements. Ask me to contemplate why an actress losing weight is regarded as heroic. Bathing suits and mirrors can't hold a candle.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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