Carolee Rova is 38, a mother who lives in suburban Oakton. The other day, she visited the Woodward & Lothrop store at Fair Oaks Mall, looking for a bathing suit to take on a Caribbean vacation.

As she picked her way through the racks, her eyes settled on a skimpy purple suit. "Now, this is what I'd want to wear," she said. "It's beautiful. But you'd have to have a mammoth bust and toothpick legs."

Starting each spring, a collective howl rises from the swim wear departments of metropolitan Washington's stores, as women (even the trim ones, such as Rova) confront the annual agony of having to buy a bathing suit.

"Indications are that a woman would rather go have a root canal done without Novocain than buy a swimsuit," said Lin Melton, president of Ocean Pacific, a California-based swim wear manufacturer.

There you are -- winter sallow, 10 pounds overweight, wearing sneakers and socks, and modeling one of the world's most revealing garments in the green glow of fluorescent-lit, panoramic mirrors.

"Have you ever spoken to a woman who enjoys it?" asked Warren Gaudineer of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., a major swim wear fiber producer. "Nor have I."

A Du Pont survey of 400 women nationwide reveals that four out of five women who walk into bathing suit departments, intending to buy, don't.

"This is not like trying on underwear," said an industry spokeswoman. "They know when they put that bathing suit on, they're going to have to walk in front of people."

Much anxiety centers on what the fashion magazines call "problem tone-up areas," and a Jantzen Inc. swim wear brochure refers to as the "oh-so-inevitable pull of gravity and of its less-than-cheering effect on the contours of The Eighties Woman."

"Usually, you'll just hear a scream from the dressing rooms," said Pat Hatterick, 50, a Woodward & Lothrop swimsuit adviser.

She tells customers they'll look better with a tan.

It is also her job to steer them toward a more flattering style, and to help negotiate the often-complicated world of swim wear "Dos" and "Don'ts":

*"Do aim for a perfect fit, so there's no unattractive overflow," suggests one fashion magazine.

*"Don't put the focus on belly bulge by wearing a belted style."

"The problem is just trying to find something that fits me, that's appropriate for my age," said a 41-year-old Fairfax City mother.

"Is this cut too high?" asked another woman, holding up a black suit for Hatterick's inspection. "I have those saddlebag things."

Several swim wear experts suggest that women wouldn't mind buying bathing suits, if only the experience could be made soothing.

For example, store mirrors should be rose-tinted to soften skin tones. And all salespeople should provide the same personal attention as Hatterick.

"Why don't we have fitting rooms decorated so they're reflective of travel, of palm trees, or beaches and water?" added Gaudineer.

"If people took their shoes off, they'd look better," said the industry spokeswoman. "Because if you're standing there in shoes and socks and a bathing suit, your legs get that much shorter, and that much fatter."

Maybe the problem isn't with the customers, but with the bathing suits; they're often cut high to reveal what many post-bikini women would rather disguise -- their thighs.

"Surprisingly, the manufacturers aren't really trying to embarrass the female population," said Ocean Pacific's Melton. "There is a broad range of vendors, and they really make swimsuits to cover just about every kind of situation."

"Putting a skirt down to your knees is not going to hide any figure problem you have," said Gary Nickelson, president of LaBlanca Swimwear, which is geared to customers aged 18 to 45.

Said Rova, who was last seen disappearing into a Woodies dressing room with an armful of bathing suits: "I just want something that's not cut clear to the waist at the legs. I mean, if I had toothpick legs, that would be fine."