By Lynn Elber

Associated Press

February 13, 1999

LOS ANGELES -- Calista Flockhart is just fine, insist the folks at Fox TV. She's absolutely fit and healthy, says her publicist.

Which is certainly good to hear about the lovely "Ally McBeal" star whose whisper-thin figure has prompted cries of concern and just plain prying about her eating habits.

Quite a few of the rest of us, unfortunately, are in rotten shape.

It's not just that we're chubby, although we are. More Americans are overweight now than at any other time in our history, with up to one-third fitting in the obesity bracket that indicates an increased health risk.

But it's more than that. Some of us are hurting emotionally, too, the result of a psychological battering about how fashionably thin we ought to be in a land of plenty.

More children, teenagers and even adults are suffering from eating disorders, while many other people simply drive themselves to distraction trying this weight-loss diet or that new drug.

"I believe we live in a toxic environment with respect to both food and body image," said Kelly Brownell, a Yale University professor of psychology and public health. "On the food side, we're exposed to unprecedented levels of high-fat, high-calorie foods, highly available at low costs. Because of that, and declining physical activity, the population gets fatter.

"The pressure on people to have a thin body in the face of a tidal wave of inducements is what creates this paradox."

Certainly, the flood of television, movie and magazine images of sexy thinness seems inescapable.

"I entered a field that is weight-obsessed," said Camryn Manheim, who co-stars on ABC-TV's "The Practice." Her Emmy acceptance speech in September for supporting actress included the war cry, "This is for all the fat girls!" And she has an upcoming book called, "Wake Up, I'm Fat."

"If an alien came down and their only experience of our culture was watching television, they would never get a sense that we had fat people in the world," Manheim said.

Slimness, of course, always has been at a premium in Hollywood. But the quest for it seems to have accelerated recently into what one industry member called a "high-school competition" among actresses to flaunt the smallest dress size.

Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston of "Friends," Lara Flynn Boyle of "The Practice," Helen Hunt of "Mad About You" and talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford are among the TV stars who were wisps to start with or are shrinking before our eyes.

A costume designer for one new drama said the lead is a dream to dress: She wears a size zero.

The star of another series smokes to keep herself from gobbling doughnuts off the set's omnipresent snack table. Weight control is a major reason cigarettes are seen hanging off so many actresses' lips.

But where is the pressure coming from to turn them into weightless wonders?

Veteran casting director Junie Lowry Johnson ("NYPD Blue," "Star Trek") insists there is no emphasis on "rail-thin" looks by studios or producers. But if actresses are lowering the bar themselves, she understands why.

"There is tremendous competition (for work) and all these girls want to look good. They want everything in their pocket that they can have. It's so hard to get a part," said Johnson.

Even if these women win roles, however, they may end up being penalized by observers and viewers who claim they are too scrawny for their own good, or ours. Skeletons aren't sexy, we complain. Antisocial X-rays, we grumble, setting unrealistic standards for the rest of us.

Emme, who has gained success as a larger-size model (her latest coup is a contract to join Cindy Crawford and Halle Berry as a Revlon "face"), thinks that actresses like Flockhart are victims of changing attitudes.

"There's been such a pressure in the past to stay thin, thin, thin . . . but now there's a little bit more of an open-mindedness," she said, pointing to Manheim's achievements and her own busy schedule that includes an E! Entertainment Television series.

And there's a backlash: "The finger is pointed to the women that they've been telling to keep so thin; it's, `Hey, what's wrong with you?' " Emme said.

"It's a very sad thing to see that women, once again, are having to jump through hoops."

So are consumers, especially when it comes to television.

The medium, of course, is far from alone in featuring the extremely thin. Movie actress Gwyneth Paltrow, repeatedly acclaimed for her elegant air, isn't a whisper heavier than any TV star. Fashion models like Kate Moss and Shalom Harlow barely tip the scales.

But television is the master of mixed messages. Ads for Big Macs or M&Ms don't fill the fashion pages of Vogue or Elle; the magazines present a seamless -- if unattainable -- fantasy in which images of lean models are separated by entreaties to buy perfume, cosmetics and clothes.

Television repeatedly interrupts its sleekly populated shows to bring these important words from our sponsor: Eat something.

It's just business, of course, a way to make a sale. But the result is like a demoralizing carnival visit in which the fun-house mirror taunts us with thin images while we shove corn dogs and candy down our throats.

And we're supposed to buy into it. The most significant numbers in America's weight war aren't on the scale; they make up the bottom line.