NARCISSISM MEANS having a love-hate relationship with yourself. And who isn't?

Once, narcissism was considered dangerous. Dwelling too much on yourself was a form of suicide, said the Greek myth in which Narcissus stares at his reflection in a pool till he falls in. Well, some people believed it was fatal to eat tomatoes, too, and risky to breathe night air.

Once, too, vanity meant emptiness and futility. Not that there was any less of it around, but it's hard to believe there was more. Pride, then, went before a fall. Now it comes, you hope, after a visit to the haircutter, the make-up studio, the spa.

You hope.

So we offer no justification for the hopes, despairs, excesses and outrages described on the following pages, except to say, as the old song said, that it be's that way.

There are reasons, but no justifications. We will now talk about all the reasons.

We can cite the quest for beauty, whatever that is. Or your desire to be the "natural" you. But as Karl Marx pointed out, it is the fallacy of every age to believe it has defined the natural man. You may want to appeal to the opposite sex, but why does it want you high-waisted this year, low-waisted ten years ago, thin now, and fat a century ago?

We can refer to studies of grooming behavior, and the psychological necessity of it, monkeys picking through each other's fur and so on. But then the cure for the madness of narcissism would be head lice and fleas. (Wouldn't it be nice, though, if we spent a lot more time brushing each other's hair?)

We can say we all want to be different. Or the same. We can go out and torture ourselves into a whole new look, citing Kurt Vonnegut's ever-tempting half-truth: "You are what you pretend to be." But how many people do you know, seriously now, whose lives were changed by a haircut?

In The Unfashionable Human Body, Bernard Rudofsky wrote: "The urge to alter his body is felt by man only; animals, enjoying the advantage of healthier instincts, do not share it." He went on to separate us from the savages, too: "Primitive man sets up an unvarying body ideal and sticks to it. Industrial man, on the other hand, has no clear idea of what he wants; his aims are erratic, his tastes ephemeral. Whatever the reasons for wanting to change his physique, whatever the relevance of his narcissistic or autoerotic inclinations, the factor that goes farthest to account for this unholy obsession is his boredom."

Fine. Just remember that a lot of people take this stuff very seriously, male female. The "everybody" we worried about in the social upheavals of a decade ago has now dwindled to merely your body. As Calvin Klein, the clothing designer, says: "After all, in the end, that's all you have." Unless you want to get into philosophy, or watching public television, or shouting back at Walter Cronkite ("No that's not the way it is, Walter . . ."). But they're so hard. Besides, you can't hire someone else to do the work for you.

Think, finally, of the other things that people consider important: the Redskins, the letters of Virginia Woolf, law-of-the-sea treaties. Does narcissism look so bad now?