Cara Lee Macdonald's flaxen hair cascades across Page 132 of the September issue of Playboy magazine as she leans forward to look at a picture of herself. In the full-length photo, she is standing saucily in a field wearing nothing but a University of Virginia sweat shirt knotted scarf-like around her neck and a come-hither smile.

"My face looks fat," proclaims the 20-year-old budding lawyer selected as one of 19 "Girls of the Atlantic Coast Conference" for the magazine's annual back-to-school spread. She looks up from Playboy's "College of Carnal Knowledge," which she has just seen for the first time, and adds quickly, "But it's a real nice picture just the same."

It has been four months since Macdonald and the University of Maryland's Kerry McClurg bared all for Playboy photographer David Chan. The suspense, they squealed yesterday in the restaurant of a Washington hotel, rolling mascara-fringed eyes in unison, has been unbearable.

"Would you believe they spent seven hours shooting 15 rolls of film--that's nearly 500 pictures--and they couldn't say 100 percent whether I'd be in it or not?" said McClurg, 19, an aspiring actress and 1982 graduate of High Point High School in Prince George's County. "I didn't know for sure that I was in until they called me three weeks ago to ask if I'd do this publicity tour."

The biggest surprise for McClurg--a fudge-eyed brunet who is poised, bottoms up, with University of Maryland sweat pants pulled coyly down her thighs--is "that's not my hair. The makeup lady had a wig that I put on for a few shots because they said they needed more long hair in the section. That's the picture they used."

But everything else--all 5 feet 5, 115 pounds, 36-26-34 of her--McClurg contends, "is me. There's no body makeup. They made up my face and did my fingernails and toenails. I felt like a queen, so pampered. But I do wish they'd warned me about panty lines. I had to sit there for 45 minutes, waiting for the lines to disappear from my body so they could start shooting."

Despite the student protests sparked by Playboy's ads in the college newspapers last semester--asking interested female students 18 and older to mail in two photographs, a head shot and full-figure shot--both young women claimed their right to freedom of the flesh. Dressed nearly identically--"just coincidence"--in demure white blouses, solid-color skirts and white pumps, they considered it "an honor" to be chosen from the nearly 200 respondents at each of their schools.

"It's not exploitation," maintains McClurg, who said her boyfriend, parents, friends and boss at the video store where she works part time "think it's terrific. It's an even exchange. They got someone to pose and I got, excuse the pun, the exposure.

"I've wanted to be in Playboy for the longest time. I've been interested in acting since sixth grade when I saw 'Pippin' at the Kennedy Center. I knew that if I was in Playboy a lot of people would see my face, among other things."

The $300 fee, both agreed, was "just a tiny part" of the attraction of posing. For Macdonald, the reason was simply "the kick."

"It's sorta like a chance to realize a fantasy," explained the self-described Amazon (5-11, 134 pounds, 37-26-37), who first saw the ad soliciting models last winter while waiting for her class in The Cinema as an Art Form--"we call it Cinema as a Gut Form"--to begin.

"I have a lot of fantasies about things I want to do with my life, and whenever I have a chance to live one of those I go for it." Her other fantasy: "Being a lawyer . . . My mom wanted me to be a doctor and make a lot of money and have all sorts of things she never had. But I don't like science and math too much, so I thought being a lawyer would be real exciting."

After noticing the ad, Macdonald mailed in a photo her mother had taken the previous summer "wearing shorts and a camisole, all nice and tanned," along with a list of her hobbies: "I lift weights, I swim, I bicycle, I do karate." By April, she said, "I'd given up hope. Then they called."

The shooting was done "at someone's home near Charlottesville" in the spring. "I didn't eat all day," she said, "because I was afraid my stomach would poof out."

Macdonald had planned to surprise her parents by casually showing them the published magazine, but when Playboy called her home in Tazewell, Va., several weeks ago, she was at her summer job as a lifeguard and her mother took the message.

"They're real excited," Macdonald said. "They're 58 but not inhibited . . . And my mother was a model, so she was especially proud." Her father, a retired Air Force major who now works as a building contractor, "took it great. When I went in to tell him, 'Dad, I have some news,' I think he was afraid I was going to get married or something. He was almost relieved when I told him it was posing for Playboy and not getting engaged or something strange like that."

Her boyfriend, a 26-year-old teacher, was less enthusiastic. "We've been dating for two years, and we've almost broken up over this. He just doesn't want the world to see me with no clothes on. He's jealous. He's trying real hard to deal with it, but he's real upset. I think he's afraid that I'll meet some millionaire or something and leave him."

Would she? "I don't think so," she says, flashing tanned legs through a slit in her yolk-yellow skirt. "But you never know." As to her father and two brothers seeing all of her, she shrugs, "They see me naked all the time. I sleep without anything on and when I go into the bathroom I never bother to put on a robe. It's no big deal."

McClurg, who lives with her father and stepmother in Olney, says her family and her 26-year-old fiance' were "pleased at the doors this might open . . . Especially my mother who lives in Beltsville and she's a very strong feminist. She's subscribed to Ms. since it started."

It's not surprising that neither considers herself a feminist, although Macdonald said she believed in "equal pay for equal work, and abortion rights and all that" while McClurg nodded agreement. "But that's just common sense," McClurg said. Their definition of feminist: "a real extreme person who makes a lot of trouble."

Despite the protests Playboy's feature sparked in College Park last semester, McClurg said she was "very relaxed" at the photo session, held in a house in McLean. "In the theater you get real used to having three minutes for a costume change," she said, "so you don't worry about who's there. You just drop 'em."

The session reminded her of when her high school boyfriend took a roll of nude pictures of her. "The Playboy photographer made the same 'Ooh, ooh, you're so sexy' noises that my boyfriend did," she said. "It makes you feel pretty and very special."

Both Macdonald and McClurg are hoping to be selected as centerfolds--which pays $15,000. McClurg would use the money to get married. Macdonald says she'd pay her tuition and bills.

But even if they never have the chance to boast of staples across their navels, the experience, they agree, has been worth it.

"I got to take my first taxi ride and second plane trip," said Macdonald, who was flown in to Washington by Playboy for the two-day promotion. "The hotel room was more beautiful than any I'd seen in pictures. There was this nice bottle of wine and a real flower. I took eight pictures just of the room."

As to possible negative repercussions, both are taking their names out of the phone book and McClurg is having a friend follow her home from work "for a few months until the excitement blows over."

"By the time I'm ready to apply to law school no one will remember," said Macdonald. "And if they do, so what?"

The one negative, says McClurg, is "the thought of some of the creepy customers at the video store where I work seeing me . . . But it's worth it because of the confidence it's given me. I've never had much self-confidence about my looks.

"So it's nice to know that I have more going for me," she said, pointing to her brunet curls, "than just what I have up here."