Even standing next to a bunch of tulips this time of year can be humiliating. They didn't get out much either in the bad weather but they've emerged gracefully, supple-bodied and slender, while we emerge from winter with gray skin, cellulite and shortness of breath.

Everywhere, like a constant mantra, you hear this season's resolve: Gotta get in shape. You hear it in department stores near the new white suits and in front of closets where the sizes range from autumn 7s to holiday 9s to Washington's Birthday Sale 13s. You hear it in the Safeway on the aisles with the Diet Delight peaches and the Figurines, the water-packed tuna and the lite beer. When shoveling the last of the snow or taking the first hike causes heavy breathing worthy of an obscene phone-caller, you hear it again: No kidding -- this spring -- Gotta get in shape.

It has always seemed appropriate that Lent comes at this time of year. The entire effort to shape up and make over falls upon me like a particularly heavy penance.

I've never exercised voluntarily; I have to be forced. As a child I had some notion that being nearsighted and reading a lot automatically excused you from most forms of physical activity. The others like me, some of whom wore arch-supports, felt neither superior nor inferior to sportier classmates. We were just two entirely different breeds, slightly puzzled by one another's penchants.

Butterfingered and dreamy, a shameless gym-class cutter, I was convinced by my elegant grandmother of my frailty, and furthermore that "horses sweat, men perspire, ladies glow." Exercise, one presumed, could cause one to either offend or drop dead.

Today sweat is glow. Sweat is in. Victorian fragility is out.Medical science has declared me hale and hearty, and for several years I've been trying to make up for my softy past. Too shy to go outside, I used to spend March running around the cellar, past the Maytag and the dusty suitcases and the clothesline hung with pantyhose. This time of year I'd always sign up for tennis, or yoga, ballet, aerobic dancing. And always by May I was cutting class again till I was once more a lapsed exerciser, sitting on the couch with a book. Never mind. The cardiovascular system would get in gear next March. In the meantime there was a whole other dimension to getting in shape, more widely and specifically discussed than sex: Diet.

I used to be able to listen to diet-talk in a relaxed, objective way while licking the wrapper of a Hershey-with-almonds. As long as I can remember I was thin; a picky pokey eater, a trial to adults who watched me push peas and carrots around a plate, and later a source of distress to dinner dates who watched me rearrange pasta and prime rib. Until dessert. Whatever I did to the main course, I could always eat the mousse and maybe a slice of that Black Forest cake.

This consumption of sweets has always been a reliable skill, something I could do and do well; they could call me Four-Eyes but never Tubs. Until this year. This year the Hershey bars aren't melting away like they used to. Even "real food" is beginning to stick, literally, to my ribs. The contents of the refrigerator symbolize my panic: cases of Fresca, six-packs of Carnation Slender, a pound of kelp. An over-reaction (for now), and perhaps this is the reason why: I have been forced to join the ranks of the spring shape-uppers, and I may have forever used up the alloted number of class-cuts.

It's fortunate for the novice that people are extremely verbal on this subject. They confess, confide, testify: how many pounds, meals, miles, calories, how much sweat and, God knows, tears. From her own lips has come the saga of the young single woman who's been shopping for a year at Lady Madonna Maternity Boutique, until she can drop 25 pounds. "I keep telling them I'm late," she says. There's the man who eats everything with an escargot fork, and the executive who brings seaweed sandwiches into long meetings, and there are the peppy wide-eyed folks who talk to you rilly-rilly-fast about pills. I have familiarized myself with the Brussels-Sprouts-and-Raw-Liver Regime, Dr. Stillborn's Quick Weight Loss Plan and the Prune-Juice-and-Rainwater Fast. I remain confused.

The choice of exercise systems is just as baffling. Some are appealing because they seem to require no effort at all. You don't do your exercise -- you wear it. A man I know wears a belt filled with iron filings under his Gant shirt; aside from a tendency for all the paper clips in his office to fly toward him, he says he's doing quite well.

A couple I know has opted for His and Hers WaistAways: rubber corsets which sweat fat off while you go about a normal day, the WaistAways covered by normal clothes. And at home, the wife confides, they can add a new dimension to a relationship. Another benefit: once the desired weight-loss is achieved, WaistAways make excellent non-skid bath-tub mats.

Then there are the purists who go to spas in town, the places with weights, wheels, whirlpools, where the talk is of "good pain" and "bad pain," and how to keep yourself from playing human cat's cradle with the block-and-pulleys. To me, no pain is "good pain," and so I'm looking elsewhere.

Perhaps a luxury spa is the answer, the kind you go away to for a couple of weeks, as if on vacation. The best ones all cost twice the yearly grocery bill. At one you're issued a pink bathing suit and invited to make out your will. Weights are then attached to your entire body and you're dropped into a 16o degree jacuzzi from which you cannot emerge until you've lost five pounds.

Not quite the right thing for me, I feel. However, I have not given up the quest.

There are the exercises dictated by tape casettes: "Lie on a flat surface, touch tip of nose to left buttock and s-t-r-e-t-c-h till you hear spinal column snap."

Or the highly touted "buddy systems": Place your left foot over your right shoulder, place your right foot over your left shoulder, while grasping the soft flesh of your partner's inner thighs . . ."

And then of course the old favorite, the group exercise class, but with a new twist, three times a week, three hours of non-stop Ethnic Wedding Dances. Try the polka marathon and watch pounds melt away.

With all these opportunities, and the brisk March air encouraging action, courage still fails me. I simply mustn't have found precisely the right exercise-and-diet program for me. Maybe if I throw out all the old leotards and sweatsuits, all that Sego and Liquid Slenderizer, I'll have a better attitude and can start anew.

Some ideas in the works:

Eat only airline food on grounded planes.

Omit from diet all lean meats, leafy vegetables, fruit and whole grains, and go on the Ultimate Chocolate Sauce Diet which includes full meals and in-between snacks.

Buy that chic black-and-white Bill Blass jogging suit with matching shoes.

And maybe then, outfitted, equipped, and on a structured eating plan, this year, this spring, the new me will emerge to answer the eternal call, Gotta get in shape. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Gloria Marconi; design by Richard Whiting; Chart, ABCs for Vitamin-Poppers; From The Bronx Diet, Copyright (c) 1979, Richard Smith. Reprinted courtesy of Workman Publishing Company.