THERE's THAT ACTRESS again, The One With The Hair, swarming out at you from your TV screen.

Ahhh, that smile, as if she'd just bitten someone and rather liked it.

And oh, the hair.

It lolls. Glints. Cascades.

You want to kill her.


You want, shame on you, to be her. Which wouldn't be all that hard, she seems to promise. You listen. You keep hearing the same word: more .

She's just "done something exciting" to her hair to make it more soft, more manageable, more shiny, more natural.

And sure: "It costs a little more."

A saucy wink.

"But after all. I'm worth it."

Ten years ago, only Ralph Nader would have wanted this woman to tell America that her hair product cost more than the others. And only a California shrink would have thought that saying you're worth more than everybody else was a virtue.

Times have changed. And you . . . Well, no wonder you want to break her perfect neck. What that woman is saying is, you're still settling for being less.

I mention all this so that as I relate my most recent and blatant experience with reach-for-the-gusto self-extremism there won't be a lot of further explaining to do.

And because I know it isn't just me. Dr. Wayne Dyer, for instance, has sold over 700,000 hardcover copies of Your Erroneous Zones by saying that we're quite possibly infected with the "sepsis of low-esteem, and the only known cure is a massive dose of self-love." You were taught to think of others? Love thy neighbor? Wrong!

With me it all came so naturally that I thought I was being, well, natural. I was simply feeling the need to rekindle my womanliness, my sensuality. But more. What I wanted was something ultimate.

I would find the master haircutter-designer to locate the beautiful me lurking under my shaggy, overgrown head.

The important thing was to spare nothing.

I called to inquire. Bogart's on M Street looked good. Theater lights entice passersby - bright! creative! But only $20 for a first-visit cut and style. Hair Inc., another hot spot. But first-time rates were only $12-$18 (and they had moved to Capitol Hill. I had to have Georgetown). On to other prestigious establishments, Lucien et Eivind in "upper Georgetown," - shampoo, cut and set, $22. That's better. Still . . .

Then I call one more place because I've heard that the owner, whom I'll call Mr. Marvel, is very original, independent, creative.

"Does Mr. Marvel have your chart?" the receptionist asks.

I say no, I don't think so.

"Let me see if he has a consultation space available."

Thank you. He does. And he charges $40 for the first hair sculpting session, which includes a complimentary 30-minute consultation. Please be on time. And clear your schedule so that he may have adequate time. He like his people to be as relaxed as possible.

It is soothing and modern. Rust walls with orange accents.

"Change please. Go there," the lady says, pointing to three tiny roomettes. "Take off everything - except your panties."

I unroll the bundle she gave me and find a rust-colored outfit of near-ankle-length elasticized tube-top and a cape. It goes well with the walls. They motion me upstairs to the washroom. On the way, I see a woman emerging from the styling area. Her hair is fluffed out all around and she is walking strangely erect, a slight curl to her lips. Slung across one shoulder is the cape. She looks like Napoleon. I wonder if my cape will do that.

A slim young man with delicate hands washes my hair. "God, your hair is oily at the roots," he says, almost to himself. "You are definitely going to need some special shampoo and conditioner. We have some fabulous stuff downstairs."

I just bought Jhirmack shampoo and conditioner two months ago," I hiss, a little hotly. (It is loaded with "essential fatty acids and nucleic acids and selected amino acids." I know that.)

"Well, dear. That's the problem. Ours is soybean based. No oily deposits."

Mr. Marvel appears. He is friendly, more handsome than I expected, with dark, wavy hair. Expensive clothes. And a great smile. We be; gin the "evaluation."

He stares for several minutes. Then, he whips out two overlong chopsticks, points them at my face, makes all sorts of angles to my nose, my neck. Stand up, dear. Turn your face. Take off that cape. I have to see you. I stand. It is freezing. My skin is perfectly white - like a fish's stomach.

We stop once, when Mrs. Whosit, we'll call her, revolts downstairs.They bring her up. She has just had her hair frizzed and she is distraught. The shock is too great for anyone but Mr. Marvel to handle. They confer. She is sent back to re-shampoo and blow dry. In a while she is back and he puts the finishing touches on her bangs. "I hate it," the woman says simply. Then, she begins to cry huge tears. "All right, dear. Look at yourself. Give it a few days," he says, brushing the bangs over. It is better.

She is profusely apologetic, still crying. "Try it for me," Mr. Marvel says. "Let yourself think about it. Come back. We'll give you a free conditioning." All better.

Back to me. "Sometimes, they just need a little self-confidence," he says. He is sincere.

In an hour he has trimmed my sides and top. The design will "show off my face and bones." It is a refinement of the cut I now have, he adds, then studies me some more. Then, he wants to talk about my henna.

"Dreadful stuff. You need natural color. Henna sits on the hair like chalk." (Another hairdresser two months before had raved about the look.)

I acquiesce. After all, I am paying this man to extract from me that special . . . something.

He holds swatches - against my face, my eyes. "God, this is going to be fantastic," he murmurs.

He selects color and directs the girl to mix it. She pulls me into the chair and starts swabbing me down with red-brown goo. It burns like hell.

I think about the 17th-century women who would darken their hair by dropping a groat (sixpence) into a solution of aqua fortis, then sponging it onto their hair. Aqua fortis is nitric acid. Groats were silver. The dye, then, would be nitrate of silver.

Before that, the vain women would blond the hair with saffron, box shavings, wood ash, barley straw, cumin, or whatever, with an overnight soak, then rinse it off with lye made of cabbage stalks. If your hair remained on your scalp, you were a blond.

My own scalp is being pulled so tight from the dye that it feels like my face is being tugged over my ears.

In another hour, the new me emerges and the color is doe-soft.

Rinse-off. Dry. Mr. Marvel is summoned. He is ecstatic.The cut itself is short. It shows off my bones, though. Still, it looks rather matronly. He loves it. He is sincere.

I am exhausted. It is four hours later. It is $58. And he is prescribing for me both the shampoo and the conditioner. That is an additional $6.50. Luckily, though, I don't have to tip him - just the shampoo boy.

I leave the shop and catch a reflection of myself in the darkening mirrors outside. Why am I feeling just the teensiest bit depressed?

I'm thinking about those antique European women, the torture they suffered - at their own hands.

I wondered if they had still been doing that after the Age of Reason.