Her head is bald--slick as a baby's behind.

Go ahead and stare if you dare. She doesn't need eyes in the back of her head to know you are looking.

Fill in the blanks of who she is. Without a strand of hair, you are going to have to look deeper.

Go ahead. Grit on her. She doesn't care.

Her hair--or lack thereof--says something to all those who would have the audacity to ask her what happened. Why she went to her hairdresser one day, sat in the swivel chair, looked in the mirror, then adamantly told her hairdresser to take it all off. "Just cut it all off," she had said. "I'm sick of it. I'm sick of this hair."

As her hair snowed around her, falling to the floor, she was liberated.

She no longer cares whether you like it or not.

Cutting off her hair is like pulling back a curtain. Now you can see her. But you don't.

Women with shiny heads--some bald, some nearly bald and some with an after-five shadow--are reveling in their own bareness without those so-called crowns. They are shaving their hair out of choice--tired of blow-drying and curling. Tired of trying to run between raindrops and of the voices of older generations who told them: "You bet-not leave this house with your head looking like that." Tired of trying to live up to an artificial standard of beauty. Tired of men. Tired of women. Tired of the pulling, the tugging, the chemicals, the straightening combs, tired of the weight of more than just hair.

Dexter Fields, owner of Millennium Barber Salon, is known for his expertise in shaving female heads. And when a woman is ready to go there, ready to wrap her head around a bare cut, he can see the resolution in her face.

She is weary. So she gets up one morning, goes to Fields and says to him: "I'm tired of doing my hair the way he wants it done. Take it all off."

"It's the truth," says Dani Dougan, 42, a dental assistant who lives in Capitol Heights. She is recalling the time when she made that same trip into baldness.

"I was getting rid of a man and I said, 'I can get rid of this hair, too.' And I cut it all off. I was trying to get rid of stuff. That's how I felt then," Dougan says. "I was cleaning up my life, and part of cleaning was cutting my hair."

When a woman finally reaches Fields's swivel chair in his corner of a salon painted egg-yolk yellow, she has usually reached a pivotal point in her life, when she knows who she is and doesn't care to wear her hair the way she thinks you may like it.

"It's like a mental evolution," says Fields, whose hair is shoulder-length. But he understands.

"I would say it's not a trend but it's becoming more popular. It's becoming more accepted."

In each of his female clients he sees something that is not different: A beam beneath all that hair is burning to get out.

"They have reached a point where it's like, 'I get it,' " he says. "A lot of women do it out of a sense of rebellion."

Russell L. Adams, professor and chairman of the department of Afro-American studies at Howard University, has seen the revolution in hair over the years and studied what it means. The baldness, he says, is just another extreme.

"This represents an ultimate of some kind," Adams says. "It's almost like the last word in a quarrel about hair. . . . It says, 'I'm as free as I wish to be with this hair. You all, whites and blacks, have been fussing about African American hair from Columbus to 15 minutes ago and I am saying, I do whatsoever the hell I please and I please at this point.' "

Hair Style With a History

The shaved head is an expression of self-assurance and defiance. In some cultures a woman's shaved head is a sign of mourning; in others, it is an ultimate punishment, an expression of oppression, the result of an evil hand holding a razor. Adams says that during slavery, "they used to punish slave women by cutting the hair off. But some women would suffer death rather than take that silently. It was an invasion of the person."

To be stripped of hair was a violation. Hundreds of thousands of women in Hitler's concentration camps were stripped of their hair and stripped of their dignity.

In convents, the shaved head was a signal of submission or humility, the leaving behind of worldly vanities. The modern age brought the trendy bald ones--like Grace Jones, Sinead O'Connor or Me'shell NdegeOcello. Then there were Demi Moore and Sigourney Weaver--who we know did it for millions and movies.

Jacqui Showers, president of the Capital Press Club, could easily put on a wig or paste tracks of human or synthetic hair to her scalp. But she chooses not to. She says going bald is a choice, and it is also not a choice, because she has a condition called alopecia that causes baldness. She is proud of her baldness, but says other women with alopecia suffer in misery. "I tell people I'm a baldheaded woman," Showers says. "I have no hair. I have no problems with it. I like it because it is what makes me me. But there are so many women sitting around and they want to come out, but they are afraid."

She says a lot of women who have alopecia are afraid of taking off their wigs or their weaves because of a stigma that society has placed on them. "I say this is what God has given me and I'm wearing it."

Leighann Niles, an acting intern at the Shakespeare Theatre, crossed over into a new world when director Joanne Akalaitis demanded that she and nine other actresses shave their heads for roles in Euripides' "The Trojan Women," which ended its run at the Shakespeare Theatre last month.

After a long search, Niles, 25, had just found herself, or so she thought. And now here was this director telling the actresses that if they wanted to be considered for roles, they would have to take off their hair.

At first Niles thought, "I'm not even getting Equity pay. . . . I said, 'Look, I want to do this if there is artistic merit in it. But if I'm just going to be sitting on the stage, I don't want to do it,' " she recalls.

They said, "It's part of your contract."

So she did it. But she was scared. "What it really came down to was I felt I was at a point where I finally dealt with the low-self-esteem issues and I was on my way to having some more confidence and here was this woman from New York wanting me to shave my head to do her show. I was scared. I was scared I wouldn't be able to hold on to my self-esteem."

Niles thought about all the pressure in society. The pressure to be beautiful by socially constructed definitions, the constant evaluation of appearance. Was she ready? If she was going to get the role, all those other ifs didn't matter.

One afternoon, Karen Golatt, a freelance hairstylist hired by the theater, came to the costume shop. Golatt, her own hair worn short, had a special way with shaving women's heads. She had a calming aura about her. She talked the actresses through the process, told them the hair was their own but beneath it was who they really are. She raved about their natural beauty. Look how it brought out their features, their eyes, and their noses.

She clipped Niles's hair.

"It happened and it was like, 'Wow!' " Niles recalls. "Clarity."

After it was done, she stood up and looked at her reflection.

"And all that was standing in the mirror was me. I was more naked than I ever felt in the 50-odd performances [of this show] . . . where I had to be nude. It was like: 'This is me. Take it or leave it, world. This is me.' The things we try to hide had nowhere to go. My face became an open book. Without my hair I was vulnerable."

But then she started realizing: "There are strengths in vulnerability. It was a lesson in humility."

Until then, she had drifted in the world unnoticed. "I was 25. Single. A woman. A heterosexual. And white," she said. "I usually just walk through life."

But with no hair she met curiosity and confusion. People whispered, wondering whether she was sick or gay. On the Metro, people would leave their seats to get away from her.

She was suddenly different. "I was put in a category, and people were very quick to try to figure out which one."

The Test

There is a ritual in the cutting. Each head has its own signature, its own curl pattern. Fields is a master of the clippers and of women's heads. The method in the shaving is no easy process. He works first on what is going on inside the head before he touches the outside.

First, the question: Does the woman really know where she is going with this head?

"I ask them, 'How long have you wanted your hair like this?' I will not cut someone's hair on a whim."

Fields knows. There is nowhere to hide behind a bald head.

He remembers the time a woman came to him and told him to take off her shoulder-length hair.

"She said, 'Cut it all off.' I did it, and by the time I was finished, she started to cry. And she sat in the shop an hour crying. She had just broken up with her boyfriend, and he had said he hated women with short hair."

The woman cut for the boyfriend and not for herself, Fields recalls. "And she has never been the same since."

A bald head is something that a woman has to wrap her mind around.

"If you haven't done it mentally, then it can be bad," he says. "Because once your security blanket is gone, you can be exposed. If you are not ready to face the darts, it can be traumatic."

They must pass that test, and assure Fields that they can repel the darts. His rule? A woman must have thought about this cut for at least six months. And after that point, when she looks Fields in the face and still says, "Cut it all off," then and only then does he raise his scissors.

Leandra Crumpton breezes into his salon. She is right on time for her 6 p.m. appointment. She takes off her glasses, drops her purse on the floor and slides into the seat.

"Take it all off," she says smiling. Her hair is seven inches long, a dark honey brown, pulled back into a ponytail, and she can't wait to get rid of it.

Fields doesn't even bother with the speech, taking her through the phases of decision. Crumpton has been down this road before.

"I've never cared anything for hair," says Crumpton, a mother of two and a computer technician. "I don't have time to deal with this," she says pulling at a strand. "Just cut it," she demands, explaining that she had tried an "all-natural" perm and her hair was weakening under the chemical.

"I don't care anything about hair. I got my first perm at 16 and the first perm took it out," she says recalling a time when her hair fell out. "Since then, I haven't cared. I don't like braids. I don't like weaves. I like to be as natural as possible. I don't like no fake nothing."

Fields pulls a handful of hair. Clip. Clip. His hands move knowingly around her scalp.

Crumpton continues talking--fast and nonstop.

"I don't care for my hair. I don't want to worry with it. And I don't like women cutting my hair either. It's been pulled back in a ponytail for three months. Men like hair. I don't care about hair. Men say, 'Why do I want to be with a woman whose hair is as short as mine?'

"I say, 'This is the way I am. I prefer my hair being short. Love me for the way I am.' "

Fields is still clipping, first with shears. Now he picks up the electric clippers. Crumpton's hair is cut, but still it is there, like a jagged lawn in need of mowing.

She's talking about the stress in her life from the job and home. The stress has been breaking her hair. "Last week, when I washed my hair, it just fell out all over my body, and I said, 'It's time to cut it.' "

The clippers are now buzzing, hovering closer to her scalp. They have not quite landed yet.

"I get a thousand compliments when he cuts it. I don't get compliments when I have hair on my head. I feel prettier when I have less hair on my head. People don't notice I have a face until I get my hair cut. . . . Nothing feels better than those clippers."

As her hair falls, the inner woman begins to emerge. She is smiling more broadly. Her eyes seem wider.

Fields is molding. The clippers have landed.

He takes a boar's-hair brush and sweeps any hair off her face and neck.

Crumpton puts on her glasses. The inner beam that had been dimmed by her broken hair has broken through like morning peeping through a heavy curtain. She looks in a mirror. Her head is shining and smooth.

"Baby, this is right on time," she says.

She picks up a fallen lock of hair from the floor. "You can have this broken stuff," she says.

She hands the cut locks to Fields.

CAPTION: Leighann Niles, far right, with shaved head in "The Trojan Women"; below, Joe Robinson finishes Myra Ward's cut.

CAPTION: "I have no hair. I have no problems with it," says Jacqui Showers, president of the Capital Press Club.