Despite appearances, the bodacious Brazilians spilling from their bikinis like so much steam from a cafe con leche this season aren't all T&A. Designers have picked up on a fact that scientists can't stop studying: It's all about the waist. Males, their stated preferences for breasts, legs, et cetera notwithstanding, are all actually waist men, the studies show. When scientists digitally alter photographs of models, the ideally waisted versions win out over everything else: digital boob jobs, elongated legs, liposuctioned, thighs. Accordingly, at fall collections from Celine to Chloe to Donna Karan, waists were cinched, belted and even, at Michael Kors, encircled with diamonds in maximalist ode to the tennis bracelet. There were Gucci belts like double locks, in red with thick beige stripes; wild Fendi metallic belts; big belts with chains, outsize buckles and thick stripes (horizontal!).
"The focus on the waist is about a return to femininity, about an appreciation of the feminine form," declares Karan, who belted thick black cashmere coats with whippet thin lashes of leather.
"Jackets look great again," says Kors. "Fall is about more-tailored pieces - and as clothes become more tailored, the waist plays a larger role in how women get dressed."
Scientists are far more exacting than fashionistas when it comes to the waist, having discovered the waist-to-hip ratio, an odd mathematical reality that governs the rules of attraction to a rather startling degree: Women who score around .7 (their waists are 70 percent the size of their hips) are invariably rated as more attractive by men, no matter what the culture. Twiggy, Marilyn Monroe, Kate Moss, Sophia Loren, and the Venus de Milo all have ratios around .7. Such a ratio, scientists say, signals fertility. As women age, their waists thicken at about the time their fertility declines.
But the ratio isn't simply about age: A study in the Netherlands found that even a moderate increase in waist-to-hip ratio dramatically reduced a woman' s chance of conceiving through in vitro fertilization, regardless of her weight or age.
At the same time, plastic surgeons are reporting a surge in what John E. Sherman, M.D. of Cornell medical school in New York City, terms "abdominal body-sculpting procedures."
"Two or three years ago, the majority of the liposuctions we were doing involved the lateral thighs, otherwise known as saddlebags," Sherman says. "These days, it's the stomach, the back of the waist - even, for heavier patients, that little roll under the bra line."
Surprisingly, the waist-defining plastic surgery of choice is liposuction, rather than the traditional "tummy tuck," which Sherman says is a much more complicated procedure, involving general anesthesia, greater scarring, and much longer recovery times.
"Tummy tucks are really now only for people who've lost a great deal of weight and have a problem with extra skin, or those who have a muscular problem- women who've had babies, several kids and stretched out their muscles to a point where exercise can't do much," he says. "Liposuction makes more sense for most people. We'll do an abdominal liposuction on someone on Friday, and she's back at work in the middle of the next week, sometimes even on Monday."
As far as the won't die rumors about movie stars (Rachel Welch, Cher) having their lower ribs removed to make for a smaller waist, Sherman insists that he's never heard of such an operation actually taking place. "I'm sure, because people always bring it up, that someone's done it, somewhere," he says. "But there's never been anything published about it; no one has ever owned up to performing such a procedure, much less to having had one. To risk your life - your ribs are right there up against your lung tissue - for what would be a relatively minor change in aesthetics would be crazy."
Before you rush off for liposuction, however, it's wise to note that the black, double-clasped belt from Gucci functions a bit like control-top underwear. Indeed, the new looks coming down the runway will make you appear thinner, Karan says. "The most flattering part of the waist is a little higher on the body than most people think," she says. "I love a belt right at the thinnest part of you torso. It's all about accentuating the positive: Focusing high on the waist elongates the leg, which makes you look taller and leaner." Kors's belts ride just a tad lower. "You don't want it to look like the fifties, or even the eighties," he says.
Nonetheless, a renewed program of crunches at the gym with the likes of Linda Santos - one of the team of elite trainers in New York's Equinox Fitness Clubs who are known for whipping models, rock stars, CEO's, Internet gurus, and finance wizards alike into bikini-perfect shape in record time- is definitely in order. Like Sherman, Santos hears a lot from her clients about their stomachs. "When women come in, they prioritize two areas, the waist and the lower body," she says. What she tells them is that they can get beautifully toned muscles - but that without cardiovascular exercise and diet changes, no one will ever be able to see them.
Of course, she - and any other decent trainer on the planet - has a simple prescription for achieving that critical .7 measurement: (A) Eat less; (B) exercise more; (C) sure, you can do crunches, but the only real route to a flat stomach is to lose fat, period; (D) accept your body, and stop obsessing.
"Twenty-eight percent fat?" As in practically one third of my entire body? Isn't 80 percent of your body supposed to be water? Perhaps fat has water in it. Even so, between non-negotiables like bones and hair, there isn't a lot of room for much else. Twenty-eight percent of me is nothing but fat. A double-clasped belt is going to make me look like a giant ant.
It turns out the ideal ratio is around 18 percent fat (depending on your age), so I'm 10 percent off. Which doesn't sound so bad, except for the look of pure horror that's still flickering behind Santos's brave smile. "We have a lot of work to do" is all she says.
Of course, for those - such as myself - who've had the "several kids" Sherman so casually refers to, six-times-a-week workouts involve a completely unrealistic time commitment (for that matter, so does the tummy tuck). And while a friend of mine claims that every woman he knows who's had a baby has ended up with a better body ("Curvier but thinner! More defined!" he insists), there is one area of the body that pregnancy absolutely does not improve, and that would be the waist. "Yes, your stomach can stretch out," says Sherman, "though it certainly doesn't happen to everyone."
The mini-baby boom among young socialites and top models has increased demand for trainers like Sarah Williams, who specializes in pre- and postnatal training at Manhattan's exclusive Casa gym. William's svelte clients - including Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer and Sloan Lindemann Barnett - are all the advertising she'll ever need.
"Allover weight loss gives you a flat stomach," she says. "There are a million ways to do crunches, and we do them, but the focus has to be on overall fitness and nutrition." Diet for expectant or nursing mothers is critical, Williams says. "If there's ever a time to visit a nutritionist, pregnancy is one of them. I urge clients to see one."
Postbaby, Williams says, she gets the best results with running. "Or if you just hate running, jumping rope," she says. "It gets people to bounce back the fastest." Williams also focuses on keeping expectations realistic: "Not everyone is going to end up with the exact waistline they had before they were pregnant - your skin can be a little loose, things may never be precisely the same."
A week or so later, I'm at the John Frieda salon in New York, tucked away in Sally Hershberger's secret styling corner, when Courtney Love suddenly bursts in.
Hershberger is designing a look for Love's latest role, Claire in Julie Johnson. Love has one of the most incredible bodies ever, and a particularly tiny, firm, curvy waist, accentuated with pin-striped, high-waisted (she's already on the bandwagon) pants and a lace-up shirt in clingy hot-pink chiffon. Has she heard of the cereal bowl? Does she work out six days a week?
"Oh, she's got a yoga stomach," offers Hershberger, who herself - skinny-yet-curvy, Gucci-jeaned and concave-waisted - is also in possession of a yoga stomach (both work with Hollywood guru Gurmukh). "It's nothing like that awful, worked-out look - it's centered; it's sexy."