The Beauty Advantage: How Looks Affect Your Work, Your Career, Your Life

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Illustration by Paul Sahre

Most of us have heard the story of Debrahlee Lorenzana, the 33-year-old Queens, N.Y., woman who sued Citibank last month, claiming that, in pencil skirts, turtlenecks, and peep-toe stilettos, she was fired from her desk job for being “too hot.” We’ve also watched Lorenzana’s credibility come into question, as vintage clips of her appearance on a reality-TV show about plastic surgery portray a rambling, attention-obsessed twit, stuffed to the brim with implants and collagen. (“I love plastic surgery,” she coos. “I think it’s the best thing that ever happened.”) Creepy, yes. But for all the talk about this woman’s motives—and whether or not she was indeed fired for her looks—there’s one question nobody seems to want to ask: isn’t it possible Lorenzana’s looks got her the job in the first place?

Not all employers are that shallow—but it’s no secret we are a culture consumed by image. Economists have long recognized what’s been dubbed the “beauty premium”—the idea that pretty people, whatever their aspirations, tend to do better in, well, almost everything. Handsome men earn, on average, 5 percent more than their less-attractive counterparts (good-looking women earn 4 percent more); pretty people get more attention from teachers, bosses, and mentors; even babies stare longer at good-looking faces (and we stare longer at good-looking babies). A couple of decades ago, when the economy was thriving—and it was a makeup-less Kate Moss, not a plastic-surgery-plumped Paris Hilton, who was considered the beauty ideal—we might have brushed off those statistics as superficial. But in 2010, when Heidi Montag’s bloated lips plaster every magazine in town, when little girls lust after an airbrushed, unattainable body ideal, there’s a growing bundle of research to show that our bias against the unattractive—our “beauty bias,” as a new book calls it—is more pervasive than ever. And when it comes to the workplace, it’s looks, not merit, that all too often rule.

Consider the following: over his career, a good-looking man will make some $250,000 more than his least-attractive counterpart, according to economist Daniel Hamermesh; 13 percent of women, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (and 10 percent of men, according to a new NEWSWEEK survey), say they’d consider cosmetic surgery if it made them more competitive at work. Both points are disturbing, certainly. But in the current economy, when employers have more hiring options than ever, looks, it seems, aren’t just important; they’re critical. NEWSWEEK surveyed 202 corporate hiring managers, from human-resources staff to senior-level vice presidents, as well as 964 members of the public, only to confirm what no qualified (or unqualified) employee wants to admit: from hiring to office politics to promotions, even, looking good is no longer something we can dismiss as frivolous or vain.

Fifty-seven percent of hiring managers told NEWSWEEK that qualified but unattractive candidates are likely to have a harder time landing a job, while more than half advised spending as much time and money on “making sure they look attractive” as on perfecting a résumé. When it comes to women, apparently, flaunting our assets works: 61 percent of managers (the majority of them men) said it would be an advantage for a woman to wear clothing showing off her figure at work. (Ouch.) Asked to rank employee attributes in order of importance, meanwhile, managers placed looks above education: of nine character traits, it came in third, below experience (No. 1) and confidence (No. 2) but above “where a candidate went to school” (No. 4). Does that mean you should drop out of Harvard and invest in a nose job? Probably not. But a state school might be just as marketable. “This is the new reality of the job market,” says one New York recruiter, who asked to have her name withheld because she advises job candidates for a living. “It’s better to be average and good- looking than brilliant and unattractive.”

Remember the story about the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate? It goes to show our beauty bias is nothing novel. At the time, radio listeners thought Nixon had won, but those watching Kennedy’s tanned, chiseled face on TV, next to a worn-down, 5 o’clock-shadowed Nixon, were sure it was the junior senator. There are various explanations for some of this. Plato wrote of the “golden proportions,” which dubbed the width of an ideal face an exact two thirds its length, a nose no longer than the distance between the eyes. Biologically speaking, humans are attracted to symmetrical faces and curvy women for a reason: it’s those shapes that are believed to produce the healthiest offspring. As the thinking goes, symmetrical faces are then deemed beautiful; beauty is linked to confidence; and it’s a combination of looks and confidence that we often equate with smarts. Perhaps there’s some evidence to that: if handsome kids get more attention from teachers, then, sure, maybe they do better in school and, ultimately, at work. But the more likely scenario is what scientists dub the “halo effect”—that, like a pack of untrained puppies, we are mesmerized by beauty, blindly ascribing intelligent traits to go along with it.

There are various forces to blame for much of this, from an economy that allows pickiness to a plastic-surgery industry that encourages superficial notions of beauty. In reality, it’s a confluence of cultural forces that has left us clutching, desperately, to an ever-evolving beauty ideal. Today’s young workers were reared on the kind of reality TV and pop culture that screams, again and again, that everything is a candidate for upgrade. We’ve watched bodies transformed on Extreme Makeover, faces taken apart and pieced back together on I Want a Famous Face. We compare ourselves with the airbrushed images in advertisements and magazines, and read surveys—like this one—that confirm our worst fears. We are a culture more sexualized than ever (Mad Men notwithstanding), with technology that’s made it easier than ever to “better” ourselves, warping our standards for what’s normal. Plastic surgery used to be for the rich and famous; today we’ve leveled the playing field with cheap boob jobs, tummy tucks, and outpatient procedures you can get on your lunch break. Where that leads us is running to stand still: taught that good looks are no longer a gift but a ceaseless pursuit.

Deborah Rhode, a Stanford law professor and author of The Beauty Bias, is herself an interesting case study. During her term as chair of the American Bar Association’s commission on working women, she was struck by how often the nation’s most powerful females were stranded in cab lines and late for meetings because, in heels, walking any distance was out of the question. These were working, powerful, leading women, she writes. Why did they insist on wearing heels? Sure, some women just like heels (and still others probably know their bosses like them). But there is also the reality that however hard men have it—and, from an economic perspective, their “beauty premium” is higher, say economists—women will always face a double bind, expected to conform to the beauty standards of the day, yet simultaneously condemned for doing so. Recruiters may think women like Lorenzana can get ahead for showing off their looks, but 47 percent also believe it’s possible for a woman to be penalized for being “too good-looking.” Whether or not any of it pays off, there’s something terribly wrong when 6-year-olds are using makeup, while their mothers spend the equivalent of a college education just keeping their faces intact. “All of this is happening against a backdrop of more women in the workplace, in all kinds of jobs, striving toward wage equality,” says Harvard psychologist Nancy Etcoff. “So we’re surprised—but we shouldn’t be—how this [beauty curse] continues to haunt us.”

Forty years ago, when feminists threw their bras into the “Freedom Trash Can” outside the 1968 Miss America pageant (no, they didn’t really burn them!), it was to protest the idea that women had become “enslaved by ludicrous beauty standards,” as the organizers put it. At the time, women still made up just a fraction of the workforce, and yet they were rejecting the notion that, in work or play, they had to be confined to the role of busty secretary—a mere office toy. A decade later, as women entered the workforce in droves, it was boxy suits, not bustiers, that defined their dress. But today’s working women have achieved “equality” (or so we’re led to believe): they dominate the workforce, they are household breadwinners, and so they balk at having to subvert their sexuality, whether in the boardroom or on the beach. Yet while the outside-work milieu might accept the empowered yet feminine ideal, the workplace surely doesn’t. Studies show that unattractive women remain at a disadvantage in low-level positions like secretary, while in upper-level fields that are historically male-dominated, good-looking women can suffer a so-called bimbo effect. They are viewed as too feminine, less intelligent, and, ultimately, less competent—not only by men but also by their female peers.

To add an extra layer of complexity, there’s the conundrum of aging in a culture where younger workers are more tech-savvy, cheaper, and, well, nicer on the eyes. Eighty-four percent of managers told NEWSWEEK they believe a qualified but visibly older candidate would make some employers hesitate, and while ageism affects men, too, it’s particularly tough for women. As Rhode puts it, silver hair and furrowed brows may make aging men look “distinguished,” but aging women risk marginalization or ridicule for their efforts to pass as young. “This double standard,” Rhode writes, “leaves women not only perpetually worried about their appearance—but also worried about worrying.”

The quest for beauty may be a centuries-old obsession, but in the present day the reality is ugly. Beauty has more influence than ever—not just over who we work with, but whether we work at all.

Jessica Bennett is a senior writer covering society and cultural affairs. Find her on Twitter.

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