Nobody stays pretty forever, so if you’re currently propping up your career with your looks, it’s time to slowly, gently, wisely transition into what I like to call a “brain-based economy.”
How can you tell if you’re propping up your career with your looks? The hostesses at my (otherwise) favorite Wall Street restaurants certainly seem to be — the more your effectiveness is predicated on your appearance, the more you resent when (oh no!) women customers arrive, and your not-so-secret weapon is no longer effective! Another good clue is whether you strongly prefer to do business in person to on the phone; while there are other perfectly legitimate reasons for such a preference, some attractive people dislike phones because, “Dammit, if they could just look at me, they would totally do what I want!”
I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with persuading people in person — far from it. I’m just saying that it probably won’t last forever. So, I’d like to talk about what to do with The Pretty while you’ve got it, and how to prepare for when The Pretty disperses like so much fairy dust.
When I was twenty-four, I woke up one day and discovered that my cheekbones had come in. That was nice. I appeared in an ill-fated charity calendar, modeled logo underpants for my friend’s business, and walked in a few indie fashion shows in Brooklyn. That year, I made $17,000 and also participated in medical studies for money. In my brief forays into attending casting calls, I met women much more attractive (and taller!) than I, and formed the conclusion from talking with them that beauty can be a magic ingredient that helps a career in some unrelated field, but beauty alone rarely translates into real money unless you truly are in the top 0.0001%.
Here are some better ideas:
Spend The Pretty Where It Has More Currency
Say you’re pretty good looking — not like a model, but compared to the people around you. If you try to make a living based on your looks, people will pick you apart. You will always be too short or your legs too fat or too generic or something else. Call yourself a “model” and other women will cut into you like Ginsu knife salesmen into a wooden block used as a demonstration tool to sell Ginsu knives. Do not try to compete directly on being pretty. If you make a big deal out of your appearance, people will look for your flaws, in much the same way that the quirky earlobes or oddly-shaped toes of your ex were once something you found endearing and, now that you dislike that person, are something that seems like a Gollumesque deformity.
So, if you find yourself in the position of being more attractive than average, and wondering if maybe you should try your hand at the entertainment industry instead of what you’re doing now, I’d suggest otherwise. The best piece of advice I ever heard on this score is: If you’re attractive, go into a field full of less attractive people, and pretend you don’t know that you’re attractive.
Know Your Audience
As a child, I read an Ann Landers column that I haven’t been able to find in any online archive, but as I remember it, a young woman wrote that she was just too beautiful for her job (in a law firm, I think): she felt the excessive attention from men and resentment from women, and it was holding her back. So she went to a department store makeup counter and asked how she could look more … plain. I think it involved a dusting of powder in the general eyebrows/eyelashes region, causing her features to not — as they say — “pop.” It worked, and everything was grand (and, of course, she could still look gorgeous evenings and weekends). After the column ran, a number of people wrote in saying they didn’t believe the story was real, and that is was very important to be as beautiful as possible all the time.
Is that true? In November, a study came out reporting that attractive women who attached photos to their resumes (a common practice in Europe and Israel) received fewer callbacks for interviews than applicants who had attached “plain” pictures or no pictures at all. The authors speculated that female HR workers were responsible for the discrimination (attractive men received more callbacks than “plain” or no-picture guys). However, once you get the job, the relationship seems to be reversed — attractive women earn 4% more than their less-attractive peers.
4% is actually a pretty small variation considering, of course, the much larger variation present across all different types of jobs and levels of experience. And in the photo-on-the-resume study, hiring managers reported that part of their reaction to a candidate was based on the decision to send in a photo in the first place; maybe a beautiful woman is fine, but a beautiful woman showing off isn’t. Those things are different.
But I also wonder if the effect is different based on job function — if you were hiring a woman to sit in the cubicle next to you and work on publishing rights all day, maybe you would be unduly annoyed if she were too hot. But if you were hiring a woman to sell enterprise software, and the success of the company depended on the performance of the salespeople, then dear god, you’d take her as hot as you could get her. In other words, maybe it’s possible to be inappropriately hot for an office — but be perfect for representing the company to the world. Let others make money off your hotness and your hotness is more likely to be embraced by your colleagues.
I also thought about women I’ve worked with and whether any had rubbed me the wrong way (not that I would act on those crotchets, but everyone has gut reactions). Two women came to mind. One was pleasant-looking and athletic, frequently found in corduroys and sweater vests, and didn’t seem to wear any makeup. I liked her instantly. (That sentence kind of sounds like the start of some lesbian erotica, but really, it was totally professional.) The other looked a bit like a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills — about 40, processed blonde hair. The thing that made me cringe when I saw her was her very high and brightly-colored heels. She was wearing them with businesswear and it wasn’t exactly sexy — just unnecessary. So much of fashion is a display of dominance over other women. Want to make other women dislike you? Wear Louboutins when you’re not at a party.
Everyone prefers to look at people with symmetrical features and clear skin. But beyond that, know your audience. For a variety of perspectives on dressing femininely (or not) at the office, see this post on The Glass Hammer.
Get Out of the Office
When it comes out that a “normal” woman has spent an absurd amount of money on laser eyelid resurfacing or something, people are often derisive. She’s vain, spoiled, frivolous. (I don’t think this, mind you. I think that if you earn your own money, you should feel free to spend it as you please, such as by creating jobs in the eyelash-extension industry). But when a celebrity does this — for instance, when Cyndi Lauper is photographed living the aftermath of what looks very much like a chemical peel — the same people often leap to the celeb’s defense, noting that “In her industry, you have to do that stuff.”
Similarly, when you are an employee, it’s all about wearing neutrals and looking sharp without standing out. (If you’re in sales, you have license to turn it up — once I noticed my real estate broker’s implants, I couldn’t unnotice them, and neither could any man on Wall Street. She did fine, plenty fine.) In many work environments, employees are expected to blend in because they take a backseat to the company and its products. But if you are an entrepreneur or freelancer, you are both worker and product. You can be a total hottie or fashionista: everyone understands that you need to advertise.
Your entrepreneurial drive is probably strongest when you’re young, and it’s much easier to take risks when you don’t own anything big and don’t have kids. Balls-out, ladies.
Develop an Undeniable Work Portfolio
I wrote about the idea of a work “portfolio” in How to Win When the Workplace Runs on Feelings:
Even better than a resume, create a work “portfolio,” especially if you are young and have only one real job on your resume. Give every project, initiative, marketing campaign, etc., that you work on its own page or Powerpoint slide in this portfolio. A resume with one job on it makes you look like someone a new employer doesn’t have to pay that much. A woman with twenty pages of easy-to-browse documentation of twenty projects she worked on in that job is a force to be reckoned with. Quantify everything.
Resumes are necessary, and you should update yours every few weeks, and possibly keep several versions around for different types of opportunities. A resume is also is kind of a test of whether you bothered to research the rules for writing resumes and whether you’re conscientious enough to have bothered to tailor yours to the particular position being offered. But resumes are also a bit of a holdover from the pre-Internet era, when people actually fretted over what type of paper to print said resumes on (they actually sold “resume paper” and “resume envelopes” at Staples) and whether it was unprofessional to use “Love” or Christmas stamps.
The idea that you should pitch yourself for a job based on one page of plain text is quite silly, especially when it’s entirely likely that the hiring manager is just going to Google you or look you up on Facebook anyway. It is bizarre to send a resume over the internet without actually using the internet to better express the information on the resume, such as via your portfolio website.
A portfolio website should have a simple domain name like yourname.com (stick a middle name in there if you have to) and should contain a businesslike headshot of you (anyone can look nice in one photo — incidentally, standing in a park is way less cheesy than the arms-folded, white-background shots real estate agents use in the ads they post on benches). Keep it staid — it shouldn’t be so aggressive that it looks to a current employer as though you’ll be jumping ship any minute. Such a site should contain a few helpful and informative blog posts about developments in your industry (I think putting up the first three posts and then posting even as little as once a month is fine), and any articles you’ve published elsewhere, or actual samples or photographs of whatever kind of work it is that you do. It’s very easy to offer your writing to someone who will publish it if you don’t expect to get paid (for instance, I wrote this for a website about college and graduate school admissions). Or, simply publish a whitepaper (“print to PDF” is an excellent feature) and announce its presence to the world. I wrote this around 2002 (!) and I’ve left it online just as a sort of writing portfolio piece. Yet, people keep finding it; it made its way into a business school course reader one time, and one of my GMAT students used it in a presentation in 2010. People lose their shit over whitepapers.
What does this have to do with appearances? Whether you’re so hot you must be guarded by eunuchs, or whether you fear you are less attractive than would be ideal, having your name on a whitepaper kind of trumps all that. Even on Mad Men, where almost all of the women in the office are secretaries and the women not beautiful enough to be secretaries are relegated to working the phones in a windowless back room, there has been exactly one successful-yet-not-terribly-attractive woman, in Season One: Dr. Greta Guttman, Sterling Cooper’s “our man in research.” She is German, she has a Ph.D., and everything she does is quantifiable and exists in weighty research reports.
If you are currently twenty-four and floating along on a rose-petal-lined path of male attention and general goodwill, enjoy it! But realize that you’re probably getting “extra credit” fairly regularly, and will have to do 110-200% as well later, when you no longer get that automatic extra credit. Thinking now about the future will give you plenty of time to make the transition into thriving without such a pretty face making your first impressions.