It's not that I'd never seen her before.

Years ago, she'd been photographed outside of her apartment building, dressed in a fur coat and bra and panties. Since then she'd been found in similar attire in the theater and hotel lobbies. Usually, of course, you get used to this sort of thing if you live in a city long enough.

But it was a shock to see her in a hospital room. There she was, hair tied back primly, medical chart in her left hand, pen in her right hand, long white jacket over her shoulders, exposing her lacy magenta bra and panties. What was she doing dressed like that in the hospital?

Was it possible? Why, yes! Stop the presses! The Maidenform Woman Had Become a Doctor! According to the caption under this photograph, she was "making the rounds in her elegant Delectables."

At some point when I wasn't looking, everybody's favorite exhibitionist must have actually gone to medical school. I suppose that I had underestimated her intelligence -- this happens so often with attractive women. I always thought she was a candidate for a cold, not a medical degree. I can only imagine the difficulties she had getting accepted, what with her portfolio and all.

But now any number of magazines are featuring her personal success story. On their pages, the Maidenform Woman is willingly displaying her new bedside manner in living color.

Poised, concerned, even prim, young Dr. Maidenform is photographed looking down compassionately at her bedridden patient. We don't know exactly what the patient thinks of all this. Fortunately for her, his leg is in traction and he can't move.

The other doctors in the ad seem quite unconcerned about her outfit. Dr. Maidenform seems to have made it in a world that is entirely non-sexist. They aren't even glancing in the direction of her non-airbrushed belly button!

Quite frankly, I must admit that the Maidenform Woman cured me of a disease. She cured me of creeping complacency.

Until I saw her, I had become virtually numb to the advertising image of that handy creature, "The New Woman." We are now out of the era of housewife-as-airhead. We've even come a long way from the era of coming a long way, baby.

We are plunging into the "successful woman as sex object" syndrome. The more real women break out of the mold, the more advertisers force them back in. We are now told that, for all the talk, the New Woman is just the Total Woman in updated gear.

Under the careful dress-for-success suit of an MBA is a woman buying Office Legs for sex appeal. Around the briefcase of a lawyer is a hand shining with high-color nail gloss. Take away the lab coat, the stethoscope and syringe, and the doctor is just another set of "elegant Delectables."

The point in all this isn't especially subtle. As Jean Kilbourne, who has long studied media images of women, said: "It's out of the question that they would ever show a male doctor like that. She is aloof but available. Underneath she is still a sex object."

Kilbourne's favorite entry in this category is a perfume ad that shows the successful woman mixing business with, uh, pleasure. In the first frame we see the busy executive at a business lunch with three men. In the second frame, we see her under the covers with one.

Advertisers have a big investment in this new-old image. I'm not talking about the professional woman market. There are hardly enough women doctors to keep the magenta lace factory in business. But there are now an increasing number of women who see professionals as glamorous and want to identify with them.

The advertisers are betting that these women want, as the Maidenform ad puts it, "just what the doctor ordered." So the doctor is ordered to strip, literally, her professional cover. She is revealed in the flesh, to be--yes, indeed--just another woman insecure about her femininity, just another woman in search of sex appeal, just another woman who needs "silky satin tricot with antique lace scalloping."

Pretty soon, I suppose, she will need it in the Senate, in the Supreme Court, even in the Oval Office. The Maidenform Woman. You never know where she'll turn up.