Getting smug locks

When a hairdresser whispers words like ''nouveau'' and ''far out'' while he snips at the waves around your ears and attacks a crowning cowlick, you may feel that you're in a for a devastatingly stylish makeover. When friends use those same words to describe what's happened to your appearance, you begin to realize just how devastating the change has been.

Why do I get the trembles every time I approach the Art Deco doors of the high fashion salon? Probably because I'm so intimidated by the jargon that rebounds off every Naugahyde chair in sight.

My trepidation, I fear, began with the ninth grade prom. Terrified of being the only girl left in sixth period French class on the afternoon of the prom, I'd gotten off early in the day to have my hair done for the first time in my life. I didn't know what to ask for when I arrived for my appointment, so settled for ''the usual.''

Several hours later I emerged in tears and telephoned my mother at work. I didn't look like myself, I sobbed. They'd teased my hair beyond recognition and sprayed it stiff with lacquer. Would she please come home and do something, I begged.

On the drive home my mother says she counted the options. There wasn't enough time to repair whatever damage I felt had been done and she decided she would have to tell me my hair looked lovely, no matter what. She probably even practiced using phrases like ''the new you'' and ''becomingly bouffant.''

The ruse apparently worked, and I'm sure that once the tears were dried I had a fine time at the dance. But the experience must have sown some seeds of doubt because it was another twenty years before I returned for another ''do.''

Every June during my school years I chopped back the winter growth in preparation for eight weeks at summer camp. No matter that I looked like I'd been snagged in a high-voltage electric fence. If I'd gone to Klean Kut or Head Quarters, I reasoned, it might have turned out even worse.

During the three years I spent teaching in Asia, I likewise declined all offers to join friends for get-togethers at favorite beauty shops. I'd heard too many curling tales of hot irons and slick pomades to turn my head over to the local shamans. I continued to cut my own hair, assuring myself that it was a decision born of economy. Even though, deep down, I knew better.

I can't remember now what changed my mind, but there I sat one wintry night two years ago, fidgeting under a leopard-spotted plastic cape while a new hairdresser gave me a condescending going over. My hair looked like an ill fitting cap, he said. What it needed was lift, motion, sweep. In a word - style.

I emerged from our encounter with the feeling that perhaps I was making some progress. After all, I hadn't cried. I was only on the verge of tears.

I bravely kept the next appointment and several more after that. Inexperienced as I was, it took a number of visits for me to figure out that I was emerging with a different look every time.

Eventually, I transfered to a new salon in search of the old me. Even though the dressing gowns were flashier and the Muzak funkier, even though my new hairdresser had four rings in one ear and startled me on my first visit by showing me photographs of the current look in London (pink and green Mohawks), I had great expectations.

A year and a number of creative haircuts later, I'm beginning to think that the difficulty is one of communication, not design. According to a new hairstyling book I recently came across, which boasts an arresting chapter titled ''How to talk to your hairdresser,'' I've been using all the wrong words all these years. I've been agreeing to a ''subtle graduation'' when what I want is probably a ''bob.'' And it's not a ''diffusion dry'' I need, but a ''lamp dry.'' Not to mention the ''notching'' on my various ''reference points.''

Now that I've learned the language, however, another hurdle has appeared on the horizon. An item in our local paper this week shows a picture of an owner of a new hair-styling salon giving a client an ''aerocut'' while the client hangs suspended, upside down, above him in a metal platform.

That's what you get for feeling smug.

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