There's really nothing "wrong" with it. There's not all that much difference between a face lift and a nose job. Nor is there such a big leap to make from washing away that gray to scalpeling away those wrinkles.

The impulses are all those of self-improvement, I suppose, and if someone gets a psychological lift cosmetically, then what's the harm? Why, none at all.

Yet when I read about Betty Ford's surgery, it made me sigh. This woman has been through so much that she has become a kind of litmus test for the problems of women of The Age or of her age. She has spent so much of her life struggling against internal issues, and she still is at war.

I've seen her twice in the past 12 months. The first time was at the National Women's Conference in Houston, where it was painful to listen to her slowed and slurred speech. She was clearly not well. The second time, in Aspen in July, she was fragile but controlled and connected, as well as kind. To my eye, which has none of the subjectivity of a mirror, she looked wonderful.

But, she says, "I'm 60 years old. I wanted a nice new face to go with my beautiful new life." Perhaps, too, she wants to erase, from her throat and around her eyes, the evidence of what she had been through.

But, I am struck by how difficult it still is for women to age gracefully. How few can wear the wrinkles of their accomplishments - even the accomplishment of survival - with any ease, let alone pride.

It is still assumed that age gives "character" to a man's face and "ruins" a woman's. If you have any doubt of that, just list the number of women over 55 who are labeled "distinguished," or let flash through your mind the different male and female images that fit the word "experienced."

It's not that I blame Betty Ford for wanting to look "better" or younger. But I wish women didn't have to fight to stay young out of fear of turning ancient. There are so many years during which youth is unbecoming but old age is still premature.

There seems, in fact, to be a new awkward age for women that arrives when they are older than Jacqueline Onassis and younger than Maggie Kuhn.

Even 60 isn't what it sued to be. When our grandmothers were 60, they wore black tie-shoes and half-size dresses. When our mothers turn 60, they choose from the same racks as 40-year-olds, but more carefully.

They begin to wonder whether this outfit is ridiculously and that one makes them look old. They are an in-between, and as unlabeled as 15-year-olds were before the word "teen-ager" was invented.

They are technically pre-geriatric and post-menopausal. "Passages" ended without giving them a crisis to call their own, and the Grey Panthers look down on them. They are dubbed the elderly middle-aged, or the young elderly, or neither of them. But many are as vulnerable and sensitive to the changes in their bodies and lives as any adolescent.

In some ways, it's easier to be among the impressively aged. To be eccentric at 78 like Louise Nevelson. Or to be engraven at 90 like Georgia O'Keefe. We all seem to carry an image in our minds of the marvelous white-haired old lady we want to look like. But not yet.

If the cultural process were a gentler one, then women perhaps could grow ripe with the sense of generating rather than deteriorating. If they didn't have to struggle quite so hard, then the line between the ages wouldn't be as stark as white roots against Clairol-brown hair.

This, too, may change as so much of women's lives are changing. But it will be slow. Betty Ford says that her children "thought it was silly for me to do this, but I told them, when you get to be 60 . . ."

She assumes that then they will share her feelings and perhaps her actions.

Well . . . I hope she's wrong.