Is Lil' Kim a rap star or a porno star? I'm confused. I saw her photo and she wasn't wearing much, plus her cut-off jeans were open in front and folded down on either side of the fly. The photo was obviously airbrushed, otherwise we1d be seeing a lot more of Lil' Kim. It reminded me of Janet Jackson's landmark Rolling Stone cover, with her arms lifted and male hands coming from behind and covering her breasts.It1s her identification photo now. Are either of these women talented artists? Apparently not enough to sell their product without a big dose of sexuality. Would Britney Spears be as big a star if her stomach was covered and her chest was flat? Why is it every photo I see of her, she has to raise her arms in the air so her little shirt will pull up? I see Faith Hill on television all the time now, doing commercials. The other day, I came across a biography of her on some channel and was surprised to see how ordinary she once looked, with short, curly blonde hair. Once she grew it out and straightened it, this tall woman became worthy of selling products on television. She's a Baywatch Amazon woman now, a walking Barbie doll, and oh, I guess she can sing. She probably always could sing, but we didn't notice it until she got the Playboy Mansion makeover. I was reading a letter in Brill's Content complaining about how three reporters had been described in an article. The two females were categorized by the way they dressed, by their hair and physical appearance. The one male was described by his work habits and personality. The letter-writer felt there was a distinction being made here.The author of the article's explanation was she knew the women better, had met them in person, while she had interviewed the male over the phone. So she determined his personality over the phone? I don't think so. Even women size up other women by appearance. Women are totally at the mercy of their looks, no matter what their field is. Nearly every night, Jay Leno gets downright cruel about Janet Reno's physical appearance, making crude jokes about how much she resembles a man, or that she's sexually starved. It is not funny, it's mean-spirited. And it's a no-win situation. If she dolled herself up, grew out her hair, lavished on the make-up and slutted up her wardrobe, she'd be razzed for that. At what point do women just get to be people? I write a weekly music column for a Web site which is mostly who's playing where when, but, occasionally, I make an editorial comment about the ability of a band to actually play music worth listening to. The Web site provides a bulletin board where readers can post comments about the columns, or messages about whatever they want No one ever questions my ability or qualifications to judge musical talent, and they should because I have absolutely none. I have no background in music, can't play a note myself. All I know is whether it1s pleasant to the ear or not. Instead, when they are displeased with my comments on a band or performance, they go for the female jugular. They attack my appearance, even if they've never seen me. The boys know exactly what trigger words to evoke to bring a woman down. They've honed them to a fine art since elementary school. And so my opinions are discounted because I am either flat-chested or fat, lesbian or sex-starved, can't get a boyfriend or am a slut who's sleeping around. I am the skag, the lesbo, the ho, the tanker of lard. I am jealous of everything and everybody or besieged by hormones making me crazy. I have never seen a male1s work discounted for his real or imagined sexual proclivities or his weight except for maybe Bill Clinton. Difficult men are just difficult men. Difficult women are bitches, witches, and demons on menstrual cycles, apparently the preferred transportation method of demonic women. It's no wonder anorexia is a disease little girls get and boys seldom do. It's no wonder we are so desperate for acceptance, we hook up with abusive, addicted philanderers and then call up radio therapists to look for shortcuts to changing them because we can't risk giving up even the poorest excuse for a man. We can't do better! This is all we deserve! We have that little self-esteem. We're all convinced that we really need to be constructed out of silicone or we have no value. The women's movement hasn't made a dent in trying to equalize us because at the same time, it set us free sexually with birth control and abortions, and fast-tracks young women into a life of sexual competition. Maybe we can sing, but we still need to show a belly button or open our jeans. Cosmopolitan magazine was supposed to be about being successful as a professional woman, but from the beginning that whole concept got confused with cutting a path through the office by sleeping with the boss. Despite 30 years of so-called women's liberation, you still have to work three times as hard to be considered half as good as a man in the same job, and for that effort, you're taken halfway seriously. I've seen incompetent men promoted just because they have seniority. There's no such free ride for women. There's still no level playing field, not for Janet Reno or Lil' Kim. Mariane Matera is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.