When Bernard L. Henderson, director of the Virginia Board of Commerce, proposed liberating hairdressers from some of the burdens of government regulation not long ago, the state's beauty lobby swung into action.

Angry beauticians, fearing new competition from "unqualified" hairdressers, bombarded state officials with letters of protest. Petitions began showing up in beauty salons around the state.

More recently, the rhetoric has grown pretty hot. The lobbyist for the state hairdressers' association has accused Henderson of threatening "the aesthetic welfare of the ladies of the commonwealth." A beauty school owner from Newport News argues that Henderson's policies could lead to an upsurge in female baldness.

"They want the legislators to know what an awful person I am," laughs Henderson, who bears the criticism with equable good cheer. "They're saying I'm being a dictator."

Dictatorial tendencies may be exactly what Henderson and other state officials need as they set about trying to deregulate the beauticians and other Virginia professions. An amiable 32-year-old former Democratic party activist, Henderson is on the front lines of Gov. Charles S. Robb's much publicized regulatory reform drive, an effort that this year has produced administration proposals to end state inspections of dog food, charcoal and house paint.

However modest to date, Robb has proclaimed that regulatory review will be among his principal initiatives, a goal that so far has played well in a state where politicians worship at the philosophical altar of free enterprise and limited government.

But Henderson and others in the trenches are rediscovering one of the fundamental truths of modern government: Deregulation in theory is universally praised, while deregulation in practice means eternal struggle with businesses and professions that benefit from regulation.

This is especially true among the occupations and professions, Henderson's domain at the commerce board. In Virginia, there are now more than 70 of them--ranging from doctors and dentists to hearing aid dealers, security guards and librarians--who are governed by obscure state boards that are for the most part dominated by the professions they are supposed to be regulating, according to a report prepared for the General Assembly last year.

While formally charged with looking out for the public welfare, most of these boards develop regulations that serve to restrict entry into the field and insulate the professions from the rigors of a competitive marketplace, critics say.

"The great truth that is never spoken directly, but anybody in the field with two Bourbons in them will tell you is that these boards work primarily to protect the practitioners and has little or nothing to do with protecting the public," says H. Lynn Hopewell, a financial consultant in Northern Virgnia who for three years served as deputy commerce board director under former Republican Gov. John N. Dalton.

"Anytime, anybody proposes deregulation, which means taking power and privilege away from the groups, those groups fight it and there's bound to be controversy," says Hopewell.

Henderson, for his part, is no revolutionary and, unlike reformers in some other states, has not proposed wholesale abolition of the boards. In fact, state officials acknowledge a proper role for state protection in such areas as public health or even real estate, where a state commission enforces condominium and fair housing laws.

"You're always going to have regulation just as you're always going to have fires," says Henderson. "What you have to do is minimize the damage."

In order to do that, Henderson and his staff are now culling the more than 2,000 regulations under the commerce board, looking out for the most egregious examples. There is, for example, the Board of Commissioners to Examine Pilots. It requires a five-year apprenticeship for aspiring harbor pilots at state ports, a program in which a state pilot association selects the candidates and most of those admitted are close relatives or friends of existing pilots, according to a state legislative report last year.

Yet the problem is often exacerbated by members of the General Assembly who find it politically convenient to cater to the requests of small constituent groups that ask for regulations or regulatory boards of their own. Last session, there was the "Barker barker bill." Sponsored by Sen. W. Onico Barker (R-Danville) at the request of members of the Virginia Auctioneers Association, the bill created a new Board of Auctioneers with full licensing powers, ostensibly to protect the public from underqualified and unscrupulous barkers.

A recent study by Henderson's office, however, found that the bill would set training and bonding requirements so stiff that it would probably throw most of the state's 300 part-time auctioneers out of business, a competitive boon for the remaining 300 full-time auctioneers. As for the consumer interest at stake, the study found virtually no evidence of public complaints about auctioneers.

"I've never heard of anybody being victimized by an auctioner," says Sen. Madison E. Marye (D-Mongtomery), who is now pushing a compromise bill drafted by Henderson that would roll back much of the auctioneer regulatory apparatus, but preserve the board nonetheless.

Of all the deregulatory wrangles facing the Robb administration, though, none has more symbolic and historical importance than Henderson's square-off with the beauticians and their loyal ally, the state Board of Examiners of Professional Hairdressers. In part, this is because of their skill at political in-fighting.

Nine years ago, an old board, consisting almost entirely of beauty school owners, adamantly refused orders from Republican Gov. Mills E. Godwin to modify requirements that aspiring beauticians attend 2,000 hours of beauty schooling before they were eligible to take a qualifying exam to receive a beauticians' license. Godwin grew so frustrated, he fired the entire board.

A new board was soon reconstituted, the industry regained control (six of the seven members are from the profession) and the regulations persist, regulations that stipulate the size of mirrors (30-inches long) in beauty parlors and that require beauty school students to be taught to display "a good personality." As for the notorious school hours requirement, it still stands at 2,000 hours or a full year of schooling in order to qualify to become a Virginia beautician.

"Two thousand hours of endurance in a beauty school doesn't tell you anything," says Henderson, who has formally proposed reducing the requirement. "It doesn't tell you how much the person learned."

It does, however, appear to benefit beauty school owners such as Evelyn Mapes, a board member appointed by Robb and owner of the Janmar Beauty Academy in Newport News. For each student who attends, Janmar collects $1,700 in tuition and fees.

Mapes, who as a board member has fiercely resisted Henderson's efforts, sees no conflict of interest. Her sole concern, she says, is safety--protecting the public from unqualified hairdressers using dangerous chemicals, the result of which, she argues, is baldness.

"There are more bald-headed people in the world today than there's ever been before and most of it is because of the misuse of chemicals," argues Mapes. "Statistics will show that there are more bald-headed women than men."

The baldness battle will come to a head within the next few months when the board conducts public hearings on Henderson's proposals -- an anticipated test run for more sweeping and potentially more controversial deregulatory activities that Robb and Henderson say they are planning.

The key question, though, is whether they will be able to muster the political will to tackle the special interest legions that are expected to oppose them, says ex-deregulator Hopewell. Dalton made similar noises toward the start of his term but eventually gave in to the interest groups "to avoid the adverse political fall out," he said.

"The Robb administration has so far shown more serious interest in getting rid of regulations than Dalton did," concludes Hopewell. "But it's still a little too early to tell."