A friend of mine is going through an emotional upheaval. She’s in her forties, married, with two children. She is no longer effervescent. She tells me that she is incapacitated by sadness and fear. Things are happening in her life that drain her of her will to live.

“What kind of things?” I ask.

Family things,” she whispers.

Because she won’t tell me, I fear the worst. Though I’ve asked, she refuses to tell me exactly what is happening. She’s painfully shy, secretive about the things she cherishes most. To better cope with her inner turmoil, she’s taken up smoking again. Whatever happened has affected her for months, yet she cannot bring herself to tell another living soul about it.

In an email, she writes about the weight she’s lost since whatever happened happened—“down to [x lbs], my weight at time of marriage–but I look fabulous!” Because I know her to be sensitive about her appearance, I read this as a proud boast. I write back that this is good news, but what I really think is how profound her depression must be to have caused this loss of appetite.

A number of weeks ago, an article on MSNBC.com caught my eye. A woman who survived a lupus-induced stroke tells of how impressed her friends of her resulting severe weight loss.

“The crazy thing was people thought I looked great because I was so thin. They’d ask if I was working out and I didn’t have one muscle. You could see every bone protruding out of my shoulders, my elbows, my wrists.”

She tried to tell people how dire her weight loss was, how much it jeopardized her health, yet her friends prodded her for diet tips.

“It was like the skinnier I got, the more I heard about how great I looked. Men, in particular, thought my body looked fabulous. I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s really sick. I have to be anorexic to make you think I’m attractive.’”

Stories like this get to me. I’ve been writing a novel lampooning how obsessed we can be with false ideas of feminine beauty. Much has been written elsewhere about the psychologically damaging effects that our culture’s focus on body image can have on women, yet it still startles me to see how alarmingly short-sighted people can be. What’s the value of weight loss when it is achieved as a consequence of emotional despair? Or life-threatening medical conditions?

When beauty is concerned, misplaced priorities are rampant.

In August, Jane Fonda appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. The occasion? A new movie by the two-time Oscar-winning actress? A new political cause for this activist who has helped shape public opinion about crucial events for over forty years? Nope. Appearing in a revealingly sheer Stella McCartney dress, the 73-year-old Fonda announces to the world that she is still beautiful.

Fonda, who has an artificial hip and an artificial knee (“I set off as many bells and whistles at an airport as I did [at a Cannes fashion show.]”), freely concedes vanity. She still has the need to show off her figure. “I wear what will show off my best parts, which are my waist and my butt.”

While I have nothing against people taking pride in their personal appearance, it’s appalling that someone as accomplished as Fonda feels she can only assert her continued relevance through brash boasts of youthful beauty. Beauty is confining pedestal. One senses from reading Fonda’s comments that its pursuit has obscured her ability to take satisfaction from other facets of her life.

One needn’t be a cynic to suspect that a septuagenarian’s the outward appearance of beauty is maintained by a fair amount of make-up and, perhaps, cosmetic surgery. Beauty is a wasteful pursuit. Worldwide, the cosmetics industry raked in $170 billion in 2007 (the most recent year for which I can locate reliable figures). Anti-aging facial serums are the most expensive products. A 1.7 ounce jar of La Prairie “Cellular Cream Platinum Rare” will set you back a cool grand at Neiman Marcus.

Do these products work? A 2005 Forbes article suggests maybe not. While the cosmetic industry touts these products as “clinically proven” to reduce wrinkles, their studies lacked clinical control groups to test their findings. As Forbes writes, “If these studies were repeated using, say, olive oil, or even a generic lotion of any kind, it is possible that the results would be the same.”

Dollars are not the only thing that being wasted in the pursuit of beauty. Anxieties and false expectations are being needlessly thrust upon women.

I feel sorry for Fonda.

“I was raised in the ’50s,” Fonda says. “I was taught by my father that how I looked was all that mattered, frankly. He was a good man, and I was mad for him, but he sent messages to me that fathers should not send: Unless you look perfect, you’re not going to be loved.”

As a father of a six-year-old girl, I hope never to wittingly or unwittingly impart that same message. Yet some days, it’s a struggle. My daughter now has longish hair, hair that frankly gets untidy if not brushed. Am I sending her the wrong message every time I brush her hair before she goes to school?

As much as we like to believe that we’ve washed away the blatant sexism that has existed to subjugate or otherwise limit opportunities for women in our society, the expectations we place on women to maintain physical beauty place them at a tremendous disadvantage. Just think of how much time Fonda put in over the years maintaining the comeliness of her butt. Now think of all that she might have accomplished with that time had she devoted it to some other cause.

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton still fiercely contested for the Democratic nomination, Michael Kinsley wrote a Washington Post thought piece about how much time candidates spent each morning readying their physical appearances. Whereas a man can quickly shower, brush his hair, and toss on a suit, greater care is expected from women. Attention must be given to the color co-ordination of their wardrobe. They must apply make-up and style their hair. Sadly, appearances matter as much as policy stances. Should a hastily made-up female politician greet an audience or television interviewer, votes would likely be lost.

These extra preparations, Kinsley conservatively estimated, cost Hillary Clinton twenty minutes more each morning than Barack Obama.

“In most occupations this 20 minutes doesn’t make much difference — especially compared with the disproportionate time that women still spend housekeeping and child-rearing. It will make no difference after the election; no one will care if the president is well-coiffed when answering that 3 a.m. phone call. But in a close-fought election campaign, every minute counts. If you figure 20 minutes a day over a year and a half of 14-hour days and six-day weeks, it comes out to an extra two weeks of campaigning or sleep for a male candidate.”

Just as no one really cares what a president may look like at 3 a.m., I doubt anyone really cares about the state of an actress’s derriere. When a friend emails us at three a.m. with her emotional woes, we don’t really care if she’s lost a lot of weight lately. We don’t ask about the wrinkles that might be crowing her eyes, or the brand of lipstick she might be swishing over her lips. What we want is her emotional well-being, which seems to be the first thing we lose sight of when our thoughts turn to beauty.