You could say that, in donning her hootchie mama get-ups--the pastel wigs, the sequined pasties, the breast implants, the blue contacts--rapper Lil' Kim is making an ironic statement, subversively taking on oppressive images of women found in white patriarchal society.

Or you could say that Lil' Kim just wanted some breasts and some hair.

So she bought 'em.

It's just a scant three weeks into the year two-triple-O and we've already got some exceedingly convoluted notions about what the post-20th-century woman should look like. Beyond Lil' Kim serving up sexuality on a platter, there's Madonna and her multiple make-overs. Linda Tripp and her $30,000 overhaul. Britney/Christina/Brandy/Mandy doing Barbie doing Lolita.

These days, the line between self-enhancement and self-mutilation is literally razor thin. Venture too far into the pursuit of beauty and you become a freak. Pop culture images flit rapid-fire through our living rooms, acting as a measuring stick against which we judge and are judged. And those images have made us all a little cuckoo. We don't blink at the bountiful breasts filling up the cover of Maxim but get all squeamish when a woman nurses her baby in public. We buy Britney's bubble gum pop records in droves--and then annihilate her in goofy games on hate-Britney Web sites. Because, like, you know, she sucks.

It's obvious: We don't know what it means to be a real woman, let alone look like one.

And just who gets to decide what a real woman is, anyway?

Take a stroll through Annie Leibovitz's "Women" exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the questions start to get a little complicated. Is the bearded lady any less a woman than the face-lifted Texas ladies who lunch? Is the athletic bravado of Venus and Serena Williams any less feminine than the languid lankiness of Gwyneth Paltrow and Blythe Danner? Is the Las Vegas showgirl more herself when she's offstage, wearing schoolmarm glasses and no makeup--or when she's onstage, decked out in her topless regalia, complete with false eyelashes and fake hair?

Is there a way to define womanhood beyond an accident of birth that leaves you with one set of equipment vs. another?

Traditionally, men have been the arbiters of feminine pulchritude, standing at the ready to give the thumbs down. But these days, all too often, it is the women who have become the beauty police. Like hostages suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, women have so internalized restrictive notions of female beauty that they've begun to identify with the oppressor.

There isn't a woman out there who doesn't know the terror of playground politics: passing through a gantlet of prepubescent judges armed with invisible scorecards, assessing your hair, your body, your clothes, your face, your shoes . . . your zits. The scrutiny continues into adulthood, at parties and in spinning classes, with women sizing each other up with a none-too-subtle once-over.

And so, women obsess. The feminine pursuit of the perfect, idealized chassis, one that does not ever smell, gain weight or age, can take extreme measures. Take, for example, the new Brazilian bikini wax sought out by chic women who flock to a certain New York salon and pay good money to have their nether regions waxed until they're literally bare as a baby's bottom--save for a microscopic "landing strip." Those seeking to take their quest for genital beautification even further can now opt for surgery to make their genitalia look just a little, well, prettier.

As if women needed another body part to obsess about--let alone one that most folks can't see.

But they're not obsessing in a vacuum. Every year, fashion magazines enthusiastically trot out the latest array of "new beauties" that its editors deem the women of whatever decade it is that we happen to be in. In '00, the girl du jour is Gisele, a busty, hipless Brazilian wonder. Of course, this deification of one type of beauty--usually young, thin and white--is nothing new. But lately, even the smartest of fashion mags have become fanzines, breathlessly detailing the fashion, grooming and exercise habits of the rich and publicized. Think Gwyneth. Think Winona. And then, don't think.

Of course, it's too easy to blame Vogue and In Style for women's woes. And yet, are the female readers who write in complaining that ultra skinny models aren't real women any less complicit in cramming the definition of womanhood into one narrow box?

When it comes to beauty, it is the rare woman who escapes its tyranny. Witness the black-and-white picture of Oprah Winfrey at a photo shoot: She sits as a hairstylist and a makeup artist attend to their ministrations. It doesn't matter that she's one of the richest, most powerful women in the world. At this moment, vulnerability is frozen on her face. She is Everywoman, wondering, "Am I pretty enough? Do I pass muster?"

This is real. Consider that editor Anna Wintour told Winfrey (and wrote about it in an accompanying column) that she would have to lose 20 pounds before she could pose for the cover of Vogue. Consider that Winfrey, in an effort to publicize her 1997 film, "Beloved," complied with Wintour's request.

And then imagine some editor at Esquire telling Donald Trump he'd have to lose the comb-over and the inner tube around his waist.

It ain't gonna happen.

Like Winfrey, the quest for beauty makes women vulnerable because to admit you care is to set yourself up to be judged. To be judged is to be found wanting. And who, ultimately, won't be found wanting? Beauty, by its very nature, is ephemeral. Its definition shifts constantly. Trying to keep up is like standing on the edges of a beach as the tide comes in. If you have it, you worry that you're going to lose it. And if you don't have it, well . . .

Just ask Linda Tripp, arguably the most pilloried woman of the last decade. Betraying a friend is problematic, to be sure. But Tripp compounded her offense by committing the additional crime of being long of nose and wide of girth. Actor John Goodman donned drag and mocked her mercilessly on "Saturday Night Live." Editorial cartoonists depicted her looking like Witchie-poo. And last year, Mr. Blackwell put Tripp at the top of his "Worst Dressed" list, dubbing her "a shaggy sheep dog in drag."

Such reactions pose the question: Which is it that we hate more? Tripp's actions--or her looks?

In the midst of such venom, Tripp followed in the footsteps of Paula Jones, spending tens of thousands to have her face and bod nipped and tucked. (Funded, like Jones, by a "benefactor.") Perhaps, in going for regular features and a toned chin, Tripp was seeking to escape the vitriol that's been hurled her way. To reassure us that yes, she really is, as she once asserted, just like us. To assure us that a nicer face equals a nicer person.

Except we're not buying it. Her surgery earns her only more mockery.

Which begs the question: What man, when faced with a public relations debacle, gets a make-over? Vice President Gore might have switched his wardrobe palette from somber grays to just-us-folks browns and greens, but ultimately, his attempted metamorphosis into an alpha male has more to do with moving to Tennessee than with trimming the little wattle under his chin.

This is because there is no Anna Wintour for men. No boy mags extolling the virtues of the male version of the Brazilian bikini wax.

Lucky them.