It is completely possible to be attractively dressed and groomed, appropriate for the occasion - all set to make a positive impression - then ruin that impression with negative body language.

Dress and grooming contribute significantly to the first impression, but soon after, possibly within 30 seconds, attention may be drawn to the body as you sway back and forth, fidget with your ring, shift your glance back and forth, slouch down in a chair, pick your fingernail, nod your head repeatedly or cross and uncross your legs.Body language, then, is the third component of the visual image and refers to a wide range of silent or non-verbal elements of communication - the way you stand, the way you walk, hand and arm gestures, head movement, eye contact, facial expression and body positioning among others, or within the surrounding space.

The study of body language is an emerging science. It involves the study of kinesics - seeking to discover the meaning of messages communicated through body movement. It is the study of proxemics - seeking to understand the ways in which a person uses space around him; how he or she arranges and interacts with the environment.

Body language contributes to your total image and is critical to the way you interact and communicate with others. Taken as a whole, body language augments verbal messages. It provides insights to feelings, personality, attitudes and intent.

Of course, if you can better read someone else's message by noticing their body language, they can likewise read yours. With more and more people acquiring this valuable communication skill, you can't afford to remain uninformed.

The elements of body language are closely related and interdependent. For example, if your posture is rigid, it leads to stiffness in your movement, tightness in your voice and restriction of your gestures.

The general coordination of these elements with your verbal message is of prime importance. If people are distracted by body language that is out of sync, and especially if the body language is contrary to what you are saying, you become less believable.

You are usually held more accountable for your words than for your body language. Yet when one contradicts the other, people tend to believe the body language more readily.

"No, I don't mind," is not very convincing if the woman saying it is frowning. "Very interesting," sounds more like boredom when the speaker is yawning and glancing at his watch or the ceiling.

"Yes, I'd love to," no matter how loudly it is said, cannot be heard over the noise of a deep sigh, shrugging shoulders and drooping head. "No, I'm not mad at you," is less than believable when the person's face is red, eyes wide and neck veins bulging.

On the other hand, two individuals can be engaged in a heated conversation, but if their bodies remain relatively relaxed it indicates their relationship is secure despite their difference of opinion.

Most people are largely unaware of their own body language - unaware of the expressions, gestures and stances they use in everyday situations - and what it communicates to others. Body language is generally unconscious or subconscious, yet one can learn to control or modify it.

People with slumped posture can learn to straighten up and walk taller. Lip-biters and toe-tappers can learn to control these nervous habits. Individuals who regularly invade another's personal space can learn to keep their distance.

It's important to control your body language, to eliminate distracting or damaging messages. Since you're sending a message, it might as well be the message you want to send. It's up to you to control the cues, to make your body language say what you mean as you communicate with others.

Judith Rasband is a certified home economist and director of the Conselle Institute of Image Management. (C)1988 Conselle Corporation.