". . . 'The golden hair' will not curl less gracefully outside the head by reason of there being brains within."

From "Emancipation Black and White" (1865) by Thomas Henry Huxley

IN MANY ways, the perfect hairdo is like the perfect man. Both can be trusted, need little or no care, look almost as good in the morning as they did the night before, give you psychic support, are natural and soft to the touch, adapt to change and get better with wear, hold their shape over the years, make you feel desirable, have a life of their own, allow you to hide behind them when you need to and forget about them when you don't.

Now although I have yet to find the perfect man, I did once have the perfect coif. My hair was long and straight and hung to my waist. It required no care, was all one length and didn't know from a split end. Everybody loved it. Women found it stunning, boys loved to run their fingers through it and I could even sit on it when I got bored which was quite often because I was 7 years old.

Then I turned 8. And Vicki Peterson, my best friend and everything I wasn't - short, blue-eyed, cute and popular - not only cut her brown hair short but got a Tonette to boot. Of course, everybody loved it, and it wasn't long before I had coerced my mother - tears in her eyes - into snipping off my own long locks.

Disaster. Not only did I not turn into Vicki Peterson but my hair has never been quite the same since. Nonetheless, out of the episode crystallized two important life maxims: a) your mother is smarter than you think she is, and b) when you've already got something good going for you, stick with it.

One woman who grasped this heady concept early in life was Gloria Steinem whose long, thick, liberated locks made you wonder if feminism was possible for someone whose happiness and well being depended on the availability of electrical outlets for blow dryer and electric rollers.

But, says Steinem of her trademark coif, "Whenever I stopped wearing a ponytail, I started wearing this.

"I really didn't pick it, it picked me. I never really thought about changing it because it's so easy - I just wash it, it doesn't take trimming, requires no setting and you can hide behind it - that's probably quite basic."

Still, says Steinem, even a perfect hairdo has its drawbacks. "The problem is that women are still judged by appearance. For instance, whenever I do a TV show, no matter what I'm saying, there is always someone who writes in afterwards saying, 'Why don't you comb your hair?' I don't think Ralph Nader - and I use him because he's single, about my age and somewhat public - I bet nobody sends Ralph Nader letters saying, 'Why don't you comb you hair?'"

A good hair do is a form of security which is probably why people like Steinem or Barbara Howar - who has worn her short curly hair much the same for years - keep it once they get it. "Will I keep my hair this way for the rest of my life? My dear, I don't even know if I'll keep my sanity for the rest of my life," says Howar.

Los Angeles Times reporter Marlene Cimons not only found herself when she cut her hair, she was practically reborn.

"Finding the perfect hairdo was the singularly most liberating, wonderful moment of my life," Cimons said flatly and went on to describe her switch from long, straight, blonde hair to a light brown Afro-like cut in terms worthy of a wrenching tale of personal courage.

"For years," she said, "I hated my curly brown hair. I thought: "To be beautiful you have to have straight blonde hair.' I was a total victim of society's image for me. I'd look at magazine ads and see these women with long, straight, blonde hair smiling out and think, "These are happy women and if I don't look like that men I am not happy.' So I devoted my life to looking like that.

"Every other night I washed my hair, set it in gigantic rollers and sat under the hair dryer for 40 minutes," Cimons said. "Then I took out each roller and blew dry the ends to make sure there was no curl before I wrapped my hair around my head for another 30 minutes or slept in it.

"I was crippled by my hair. Water was the biggest enemy so I didn't go swimming or go out in the rain. In summers I did all my interviews by phone. Some of the worst hours of my life were spent on Aug. 8, 1974, during the stakeout in front of Gerald Ford's Alexandria home the day Nixon resigned. It rained all afternoon."

Finally, two springs ago, the thought of yet another summer tyrannized by her hair drove her to the hairdresser where her locks were cut short into her present "perfect" Afro.

"I hated it for the first two weeks and then one day I loved it. I liked me in it and I was a free woman. It is my perfect hairdo. All I do is wash it and use my Afro pick. It is my perfect hairdo. And 20 years from now I'll still be wearing it just like this. I'll be that old wrinkled face with the Afro."

And now consider the case of a student activit: "My hair was always lousy for peace marches. Can you imagine how incongrous it was for me to pack rollers everytime I whizzed off to Washington to march against the war? After all, as any of us flower children knew, peace marches were as much social as political events. So naturally, you wanted to look your best in the case the SDS president marching beside you turned out to be the radical of your dreams. . . "

Political reasons have never kept Esther Peterson, special assistant to the President for Consumer Affairs, from sporting the trademark crown of braids she's worn for more than 30 years. Yet there was a time when even Peterson thought she might waver from her perfect coif. "Years ago when I first applied to the White House, so much had been said about my hair that I called up my hairdresser and said, 'Fix me up and make me more modern.'

"Well, I went to see him and he took one look at me and said 'Esther, be yourself and forget about it. Those braids are you.' So I've always just kept my hair this way. My loved ones like it and all I have to do is wash it and pin it up. I am what I am. Sometimes, though, I catch a view of my hair from the back and think if I had to walk behind me, I'd change it."

Sue Mengers, a top Hollywood agent (pulling in well over $100,000 a year), had always worn her hair long and full. Three years ago Mengers decided she'd "better try to look a little more business-like. So I cut it short, just below the ear. But men didn't like it. If men had told me they loved it I would probably have kept it that way but I missed their compliments. So I decided if my business acumen had to be judged by the length of my hair I was in trouble."

If a woman have long hair it is a glory to her.

Corinthians 11:

"Looking for the perfect hairdo is like looking for love and happiness," says hairdresser Ury of Washington's Ury and Roberto. "You find a hairdo for the time and it's perfect for that time. But everybody is looking for something they don't have - round faces want to be long faces, flat heads want height."

One Washington woman who has found her perfect hairdo according to Ury is TV producer Sheila Weidenfeld, (former press secretary to Betty Ford) whose thick brown hair is worn in a sort of layered Dorothy Hamill look. "It's perfect," says Ury. No, it isn't says Sheila Weidenfeld.

"I'd love to have long hair," she says. "I mean on the one hand I like being one of the people with short hair but on the other I'd like men to come up and say, 'You look great in short hair,' but they don't.

"Do I wear my hair for men? No, I wear it for me. No, that's not true either because if I wore it for me I'd have long blonde hair. But then, I'd also be very tall . . ."

Now what happens when your perfect hairdo becomes a national symbol? In Steinem's case, she did not change styles because, "You never believe the image people build up for you anyway."

Louise Lasser, on the other hand, found that after leaving "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" it was impossible to walk down the street in her bangs and braids without somebody yelling at her.

"There was just no translation for them between Mary and me," said Lasser, who recently caused major headlines when she sacrificed her braids for a curlier coif.

"I was wearing braids long before Mary," said Lasser. "And I really like them especially before they become larger than life. Why braids? Well, I never really knew what to do with my hair and it was just a good non-look for me. I suppose part of the braids was to preserve the child in me, but I'll have a large part of that in me anyway. And men found them sexy - yeah, there was a definite sexuality involved there. During the show my hair represented to me every possible sense of symmetry - you know - a comfy job, comfy hair - they surrounded me like pillows."

Why, then did Lasser give up her perfect hairdo? "Well, it wasn't reflecting where I am now. So I went to Kenneth and asked him if I should try my hair natural. But he told me a very revealing thing. He said, 'Your hair is ready but you're not.' So right now we're just experimenting with different styles and just letting it go where it goes - just like I'm doing with my life now."

But, says Lasser, she will never understand the public fascination with her hair. "When people look at me now most seem to feel they're supposed to react as opposed to just reacting to the image. As for me, well, I feel very vulnerable in this hairdo - you can see my whole face, which is one of the reasons I can't quite look in the mirror a lot yet - only when I comb it."

Fashion-cosmetic mogul Diane von Furstenberg, who this summer let her long, formerly straight, hair go back to its natural curl, faced a similar fate. "To tell you the truth I got so fed up with the Diane von Furstenberg look that I had to have a change. It look me 30 years to admit I had curly hair and now that I've done it, it's wonderful to know that I can look different and still have what I do work.

"Is this my perfect hairdo? It's probably as close to it as I'll ever get, mainly because it's as close to natural as I'll ever get. As I get older I get freer and freer and my hair is now just one more manifestation of that."

A local reporter has worn her hair in corn rows for the last four years because, she says, "I want a more African rather than European orientation to my life and my hair is an expression of that." But, she adds, "There was a time when you had to wear a 'fro because of politics, so almost everybody did. But now that that particular phase has passed I think we are all rethinking our hair to find what's right for us both personally and politically."

Actress Cicely Tyson, who seems to switch her hairdo about once a week seems a good example for someone looking for that perfect style. But, according to her manager, Tyson doesn't consider it important enough to comment on. "Cicely," he said, "doesn't talk about peripheral items like hair."

Likewise Susan Clough, President Carter's personal secretary, dismissed the whole idea. "Finding the perfect hairdo has never been high on my list of priorities," said Clough, "I really hardly even think about it."

Which puts Tyson and Clough in the minority according to New York literary agent Betty Anne Clarke. "The search for the perfect hairdo is more important than the search for the perfect orgasm," said Clark.

CBS Newswoman Maureen Bunyan calls her, "an international dilemma. Everywhere I travel you see women struggling with the same problem."

Bunyan's predicament is compounded by her profession. "On air they watch my hair as much as they watch anything else. Plus, not only are you supposed to look nice on the air, but you're supposed to look nice when you're out in public, too."

Bunyan's quest has taken her from shoulder-length to pixie cut to modified Afro even thought she maintains she "was never conscious of wearing her hair a certain style because of my politics." Basically, I wear my hair for Maureen Bunyan because I'm the one I live with."

The ultimate political hairdo belongs to the wife of an incumbent President. The White House hairdo - regardless of party - always has the First Lady sporting some variation of an overteased, over-lacquered flip designed not to move an inch when the helicopter lands on the White House lawn. Jackie Kennedy wore it, Lady Bird Johnson wore it, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford wore it and now Rosalynn Carter wears it, even though according to Kenneth, who became famous for doing Jackie Onassis' hair (and still does), it isn't all the First Ladies' fault.

"Those White House hairdos are the fault of the American public," says Kenneth. "The First Lady is always involved in constant motion - she's always running here and there and often outside. Now God forbid if a wind hits and a photographer snaps a picture with her hair blowing and all out of place.

"You would not believe the calls about Mrs. Onassis when she was in the White House. If there was a picture of her with a hair out of place, it was chaos. So we had to overspray. It was public opinion. After all, out there somewhere in America women have immobile hair and that's what they want their First Lady to have, too."

And how does Kenneth rate Rosalynn's hair? "I think it's a very good hairdo. I think Mrs. Carter looks exactly as she wishes to look and will keep that regardless of everybody else's opinion on how she should look."

Ury, on the other hand, finds Rosalynn Carter's hair "a disaster. She should give herself another chance. She looks like something out of another era."

Alas however - the search for the perfect hairdo may not always end in success. Even the most devoted zealot may, after years on the beauty trail, be forced to concede, as does "Panorama" anchor Pat Mitchell, that, "I have the kind of hair that makes hairdressers humble. At this point I'm simply resigned - I just plug in my electric rollers everyday and hope for the best."

Last winter Marcia Wolf, a legislative assistant to Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.) thought she had at last found the perfect hairdo. The coif was a Dutch boy blunt cut with bangs that far out-perfected, according to Wolf, "my Sandra Dee bubble cut, my shag, my pageboy, my chignon and my pixie cut. My search is over. This is it."

Except that last Saturday Wolf surprised friends by turning up with her straight hair replaced by a headful of curls and waves.

"Well," sighed Wolf as she twirled a curl where formerly there had been none, "once I got it, I discovered that having the perfect hairdo was like having the perfect man - you get tired of it."