The Beauty Advantage: Do real feminists use their looks to get ahead?

An artist's take on plastic surgery offices. Cara Phillips

A funny thing happened late last year, as the health-care bill lulled in the Senate: the so-called Bo-Tax, a proposed (but ultimately rejected) levy on Botox, fillers, and other elective cosmetic procedures, was suddenly creating a feminist uproar. "It singles out women," surgeons roared. "It's hurting the middle class," others complained. Most surprising, though, was the voice of Terry O'Neill, the president of NOW, who suggested the tax was discriminatory toward women. "[Women] have to find work," O'Neill told The New York Times. "And…the fact is, we live in a society that punishes women for getting older."

It's hard to imagine this was the same NOW once led by Betty Friedan, or that these were the same feminists who, to protest the Miss America pageant in 1968, threw their high heels, girdles, and bras into a "Freedom Trash Can," claiming that women were "enslaved by ludicrous beauty standards." How could any woman who calls herself a feminist condone a patriarchal, plasticized beauty ideal? But maybe O'Neill is onto something. Sexism may be more subtle these days, but it certainly still exists. So does the reality of our beauty bias. If we acknowledge that we're being judged on our looks anyway—and that they're indeed crucial to our career success, as a new Newsweek survey shows—well, why wouldn't we use them, own them, empower ourselves through them? Wouldn't that be—dare we say it—the feminist thing to do?

Consider what's already stacked against us. Working women in this country make just 77 cents on the male dollar, whether we are entry-level employees or on the verge of retirement. We face the challenge of balancing motherhood with career, and whether or not we decide to have children, many of us struggle to scale the corporate ladder: women are just 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and less than a third of politicians and law partners. We are navigating the workforce, meanwhile, in a culture of plumped lips and airbrushed bodies that hold us to an unattainable ideal—and where, in a corporate culture that still largely excludes women, female competition is more cutthroat than ever.

Women may have surpassed men as the majority of American workers, but they're no less slaves to the beauty standards of the day than they were during the Mad Men era. So while feminists of the past may have blasted plastic surgery as shallow, today even Gloria Steinem has admitted to an eye lift. Of course, buying into the belief that we must keep up with the Joneses brings with it a double bind: at work, women can be too attractive, and whether it's by natural or artificial means, studies show they are faced with resentment, envy, often viewed as less intelligent or vain. In a corporate hierarchy still largely dominated by men, this is all the more exaggerated: women who reject the idea that they must plump and pull to get ahead resent the women who accept it; those women then resent those who don't need surgical enhancement. And many women who indeed benefit from looking good face their own cycle of self-doubt: Did I really deserve that raise/promotion/recognition, or did he just like the way my legs look in that skirt? Is that what the rest of the office assumes? It's insecurity at its worst, but it's surely not for nothing: as one male Newsweek reader told my female colleagues and me, after reading our story on sexism: "No matter how much I respect my female co-workers, I eventually think about putting my hands on their chest."

It's hard to eradicate sexism; but in the face of it, maybe there really is a case to be made for using what we've got. That's not to say we should tear off our tops in the name of "empowerment," or bat our eyelashes at every middle-aged male manager who hovers over our cubicle. (The last thing we want to do is alienate our respectable colleagues by being that person.) But making an effort to look good, because we know it helps us out professionally, and, well, maintaining that look, shouldn't necessarily be shunned, or nor should we be plagued by personal guilt. This is a conscious decision—and in an age where looks matter more than ever, it can be an economic one. Look at it this way: if you're doing your job, who cares if your boss wants to promote you because he thinks you're pretty? So what if you invest in a round of Botox because you believe—like 13 percent of women, and 10 percent of men—that it will help you in the long run?

When it comes down to it, people get jobs because they "know somebody" all the time--is embracing our beauty premium really any worse? It might be shallow and it might not be fair, but the reality is that whether or not we decide to buy into it, whether or not we spend a lifetime keeping up with an ever-changing, ever-more-disturbing, plasticized ideal, we're being judged already. So why not use what we've got while we still can? Cause we won't be beautiful or young forever—even with a round of feminist-approved Botox.

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