"There is something new," said the voice of the Wise Woman. "Have you heard about The Body Wrap . . .?"

Feminism, for all its impact in other areas of human endeavor, has made none at all in the area of beauty. There was a brief effort to promote the "natural look," based on the theory that woman contort their appearances in artificial ways in order to please or appease men, reducing themselves to trivial, doll-like figures covered with paint and polish and thus perpetuating their own oppresion.

The natural look sounds interesting, but unfortunately it has proved to be hogwash. It seems it is possible to be a feminist and wear eye shadow and sit for four hours in a bearty salon having your hair doused with a foulsmelling lotion in order to have permanent waves. It seems that your "natural" friends who eschew makeup usually end up confessing that they never learned how to apply it, and would you teach them? It seems that even those who won't wear makeup will submit to having goo piled on their faces if it is called a facial, and many whose hair has never seen a roller or a hair-dryer are often seen in wooden "exercise sandals" that supposedly shape the leg while incidentally killing the feet, as their sisters in eras past have accepted mud baths, feet-binding, hair-plucking and other torturous devotions to beauty.

It seems that even the most independent, competent, accomplished New Woman can not dismiss the years of brainwashing performed so adeptly by the fashion magazine industry, which still outsells by millions the publications directed at the Modern Professional Woman. With astounding regularity we are promished a new face, a new figure, a New You, and with astounding regularity we believe it. And want it. As the Wise Woman once said, "nobody really looks at you like you look at yourself."

It seems that even a sane, intelligent, accomplished woman -- the Wise Woman, in fact -- would undertake The Body Wrap.

You may ask yourself: What is The Body Wrap? Can such a cosmic question be answered in a few words? Is The Body Wrap merely the application of tightly wrapped Ace bandages around the appendages and torso for 90 minutes in the hope of reducing flab?Or is it a metaphor for the human condition or rather the female condition, a parable of modern mores, a searing, or rather, dripping, example of existential expiation? Yes, all this and more.

A journey to East Nowhere, i.e. Gaithersburg, brings the seeker to the Salon, where one Blanche Marcus has opened up shop in a shopping center. She is a healthy-looking, middle-aged woman who wears short white shorts and high heels, her legs encased in panty hose. Marcus used to run a garden center, but because of back and heart problems she decidecd she wanted to get into "clean" work. She learned about The Body Wrap from her daughter. "I told her she was out of her mind when she told me about it," she said. But later Marcus went to Denver to learn the technique, and, a year-and-a-half later, set up her franchised branch of The Body Wrap Inc. "Of course they've been doing it in California for years," she said.

The Body Wrap begins with the customer disrobing, robing in a salon-provided bathrobe, disrobing again to be weighed and measured, robing and then disrobing again to be fitted for a "suspension bra."

The suspension bra, Marcus says, is designed to retrain the flab that creeps away from the breast tissue, where it belongs, to the armpit, back and who knows where else. "As we get older we start to sag a bit," Marcus said. How true.

The suspension bra comes equipped with flaps over the breast so that the creeping flab can be pulled into the breast area for restraining. It is not uncomfortable, but it reminds the wearer of the models of old ladies' underwear in the Sears catalogues.

It is useful at this point to remind oneself that in Elizabethan times, upper-class women wore as a matter of course a rigid bar that stretched from between the breasts to the middle of the abdomen, designed to keep the bodice of the dress in place. And, no doubt, to keep the flab from creeping.

It is still true that one major thing that separates the sexes is that women understand why it is important to, say, be poked with a needle and a jolt of electricity in order to get rid of unwanted hair, and men do not. And women, generally, do not understand why it is important to sit for several hours in front of a television set watching other men throw a ball around in preordained patterns. And while each sex is willing to allow the other its strange tribal ritual, neither really understands the other's need to do such dumb things.

How often has a woman heard the plaintive bleat of a man, "Why do you want to dye your hair? I like you just the way you are," and known that this is one of the most persistent calumnies of all time? These are often the same men who decide that a 23-year-old secretary is more interesting than a vibrant, mature wife with a few gray hairs. Even if he relly means it, so what?

At any rate, after the suspension bra is in place, it is time for the Wrap. Starting with a foot, Marcus or one of her assistants wraps an Ace bandage, socked in a hot solution, around the leg. The solution, according to the Body Wrap brochure, is "secret (patent pending)," but "it is composes entirely of water and minerals, all of which are normally taken internally."

The wrapping continues. A large woman may require as many as 26 bandages to cover her; a small woman about 13. The wrapping is very tight around the target areas; Marcus strains as she pulls the elastic tighter over the wretched flab. When both legs are wrapped, still more bandages are wrapped around the derriere and down to mid-thigh. Thus the wrappee is rendered almost completely immobile.

After the torso and the arms are wrapped, plastic bags are fastened around the feet with rubber bands. Then, the entire body is covered with a two-piece, navy blue plastic "wrap suit," a voluminous outfit that resembles a clown's garb. If the head has also been wrapped (to chase those double chins), the effect is that of a nun's habit above an inhabited sleeping bag.

Now the wrappee is told to walk around the room for 90 minutes. Teetering together, she joins the other blue-suited ballons in waddling and bending and taking tiny steps around the room. The plastic bags begin to fill with water.

One woman collapsed in laughter when another emerged in full wrap regalia."I know I'm going to look like that in a few minutes," she gasped between gales. "But you look so funny I just can't help it."

What happens, Marcus explained, is that liquid between the fat cells pushes the cells out, creating Soft Fat, or those dreaded ripples known as cellulite. The Body Wrap tightens and firms the flesh, flushes out "interstitial fluid" and toxins through the kidneys and skin surface, and leaves the skin feeling smooth and the person feeling fresh and clean. "We can wrap a curve into the calf and firm the upper thigh," says the brochure. "We can also fit the derriere and flatten the abdomen . . . We can do 'facelayering' . . . many women with wrinkled or 'dropped' skin have benefited greatly from this technique." They do not claim to reduce weight, merely the ever-threatening flab.

A Food and Drug Administration report concerning a Wrap method it has investigated says that wrap technique could be dangerous and could cause stroke or heat exhaustion. While FDA has not heard specifically of The Body Wrap Inc., a spokesman said, other wrapping enterprises have opened and closed quickly -- and sometimes reopened under other names -- after the FDA filed a complaint.

"It [The Body Wrap Inc.] was thoroughly investigated in Colorado," Marcus said, pointing out that since the bandages in this operation are soaked with the "special solution," there is little danger of dehydration. "I have letters from a chemist certifying that it's safe."

Whatever it is, customers have been piling into The Body Wrap in such numbers in the more than a month it has been available here that Marcus has had a hard time keeping help. It takes time to train wrapper, she sighed.

The 90 minutes pass slowly, agonizingly. Teeter, squish, teeter, squish. The hips ache as though they have been twisted backwards; the interior organs feel crushed like passengers on a subway at rush hour.

It is reasonable to assume that after several thousand years of civilization, the search for physical beauty has produced some answers. It may be reasonable to assume that, but it isn't true, because in fact the search has only produced new and different methods of torture, each of them eagerly greeted by hordes of women anxious to suffer discomfort in the service of Venus.

The Wise Woman is asked why she has undertaken such torture. "I like to try new things," she says brightly. She pauses. "Let's face it. The real reason is that I'm vain. And I think that's fine. It's good to be vain, as long as it doesn't become an obsession. You should always be able to believe that you could improve yourself."

How wise. This sane, accomplished, handsome woman, who is also my mother, has permitted herself to pay $35 to be wrapped in wet Ace bandages and teeter around a room for 90 minutes in Gaithersburg. She lost, according to the measurements, a total of 11 1/4 inches of unsightly flab in her first wrapping, and swears she has kept it off.

We told my father we did it for a story.