The Beauty of Getting Ahead

The Beauty of Getting Ahead

Area women talk beauty and how appearance affects their lives.

| Published:

We’re bombarded daily with the message that beauty matters.

We see it in fashion magazines and in advertisements for cosmetics and plastic surgery that promise to make us look younger and more vibrant—a promise often made by models barely out of their teens. We see it on the Internet, with websites like BeautifulPeople.com that offer to help us meet our mate—but only if we’re deemed sufficiently attractive. We see it in surveys, such as one Newsweek ran last summer in which 57 percent of corporate hiring managers said they thought an unattractive job candidate would have trouble getting hired.

Recently, we asked area women to write about whether they thought beauty played a part in getting ahead, and how appearance had affected their own lives.

Carrie Morris, 52

Gaithersburg, freelance writer and language arts tutor:

When my parents first presented the option that it was the Sweet Sixteen party or the nose job, I came to some decisions about the significance and role beauty would play in my life. Growing up feeling attractive, but always aspiring for the next rung, I welcomed the doors that were opened professionally and socially. But when one’s identity doesn’t extend beyond one’s reflection in the mirror, trouble ensues. Gratefully, my own identity does. But I’ve witnessed some women I care about erase themselves one cosmetic procedure at a time. And given my own history, I know the seeds are ripe. I think Henri Cartier-Bresson said it best: “At a certain point, one gets the face one deserves.”

Dominique Paul, 37

Bethesda, writer:

When I was pursuing an acting career in New York and L.A., I was never beautiful enough. Then when I ditched the acting and began my career as a writer, suddenly I was “too pretty.” Entering pitch meetings, I was often greeted with dubious glares by those who assumed I’d gotten in the room because of my looks and not because I had written a great script. I found myself in the unenviable position of trying to convince everyone that I deserved to be there.

People would say to me, “Maybe your looks got you the meeting, but your writing landed you the job.” Deep down I always wondered if that was true and it caused me to doubt myself. In my 20s I doubted myself because of my looks; in my 30s I doubted my talent because of my looks. Beauty seemed to be this thing I just couldn’t seem to win at.

Then, when my first novel was published in 2006, a friend kindly pointed out that Simon & Schuster had bought my manuscript, edited it and published it—and that booksellers had ordered it—all without any idea of what I looked like. I was shocked by how proud I felt at that realization, and how utterly free.

Lauren Davis, 35

Chevy Chase, real estate agent:

Having just had a baby and being in a job where I constantly interact with the public, the pressure I put on myself to live up to a “beauty standard” is greater than ever. I hope that my reputation and track record are what counts, but I can’t help thinking that if I could just get back in shape, life would be even better. Now that I have a daughter, I think of the pressure our society puts on a woman to look a certain way. I am disappointed in myself for succumbing to these influences and will do my best to show my daughter that what counts is her talent, self-confidence and knowledge that she can do/be anything she wants.

Sarah Marx, 17

Bethesda, freshman at St. John’s College in Annapolis:

Sometimes I misplace my tweezers for weeks on end. I wish I could wear a fledgling unibrow with the grace of Frida Kahlo, and shrug off any reactions with a blithe “I wanna be me.” But no, when I misplace my tweezers it’s because I can’t find them in the shampoo-and-bikini-cream abyss of my medicine cabinet.

For the first week or so, I forget. A few light hairs speckling the bridge of my nose are hard to spot, especially given the more obvious flaws (potato-sack belly, bulging knees, ears that may as well be set at a right angle) that dog me. As the next week arrives and darker hairs find their way to the surface, I’m briefly proud of my stab at unabashed hairiness. I tell myself that despite the funhouse mirror I carry in my mind, I’m beautiful and liberated and unashamed. I am strong. My strength persists until I have to strain to hold it in my bones.

It’s around that point that I begin to see a down of fur curtaining the bridge of my nose, forming an elegant, hirsute V, and when I walk through densely populated areas I become convinced that the looks I get are not the customary distance of D.C. commuters but a tight-lipped blend of pity and revulsion. The day becomes a long, weighty slog in which I try to concentrate on my work while battling off the embarrassment of my bear-muzzle eyebrows until I can return home and pull myself clean.

All this is to say that, despite my status as a child of the “post-feminist” age, my appearance follows me everywhere. It burdens me in classes, on the yoga mat, on the sidewalks where I feel either conspicuously ugly or invisible. It hangs like a mist around job interviews, where I can hear the implicit question—“Will the customers like how she looks in the uniform?”—or at theater auditions, where my looks are itemized as painstakingly as my performance. And, of course, the boys on the bleachers aren’t ogling my upstanding moral character or catcalling my impressive hummus-making skills. The culprits, manifold within a society that regularly values or devalues women based on beauty, have been named time and time again by brilliant third-wave writers; despite the fondest hopes of the generation that raised us, our work isn’t finished yet.

When I went away to college in August, I left my tweezers in my bathroom cabinet. We’ll see how that goes.

Michelle Jacoby, 44

Bethesda, owner of DC Matchmaking:

Physical appearance affects every aspect of our lives. In the dating world, it’s huge. The No. 1 deal breaker for men? A woman’s weight. And a common deal breaker for women? A man’s height. Sometimes the focus on physical appearance makes me sad because I come at this business from a very heart-centered place, and try to have a deeper, more meaningful approach based on many aspects of compatibility. But at the end of the day, if the person across the table from you doesn’t give you butterflies, it’s probably not going to work. My advice is to accept that looks matter and to make the best of your appearance. Are your teeth straight and white? If not, go to the dentist! Do you have an extra 20 pounds to lose? If so, get to the gym and start eating salads! First impressions are huge, so put your best foot forward. Once that foot is in the door, you can let your insides shine.

Heidi Coons, 30s

Olney, director of Development & Institutional Advancement, National Center for Children and Families:

While I do not think that a woman has to be attractive to be successful, I do know from personal experience that there is a beauty advantage in certain career fields, such as sales, marketing and nonprofit fundraising. I think that the advantage is that your looks can open the door to a meeting or a lunch (or two). I think that beauty gets a client’s attention, but you had better be ready to keep their attention with your job knowledge and intellect. Just like beauty outside of the workplace, there had better be something behind the curtain, or the deal is off.

Paula Whyman, 45

Bethesda, writer:

I don’t consider myself unusually attractive. The thought of it makes me uncomfortable. I like to think my skills are valued more than that. But have I had a leg up in the workforce because of my looks? Maybe. If you’re talking about men hiring me and supervising me, in that case I suppose there’s an undercurrent of meaningless flirtation that can occur. In my first job out of college I worked in a very conservative corporate environment, like IBM in the old days—except it wasn’t IBM. And one day my manager, who was a good-looking man in his 30s, called me into his office. I thought I was going be evaluated. I was, but not in the way I expected. Instead, he looked me in the eye and said, “My wife thinks my chin is my best feature. What do you think?” Wisely, I didn’t answer. I’ve always been a jokester, so I found a magazine ad that contained a cartoon drawing of Tarzan with a comically prominent chin. In the picture, he was beating his chest while swinging from a vine. I took a marker and added a quote balloon, so that Tarzan was saying, “My wife thinks my chin is my best feature!” I Xeroxed it and left it on the manager’s desk. He didn’t fire me.

On the other hand, I’ve had more female supervisors than male, and that’s a different story. I don’t see it as a problem to be attractive in that situation—but too attractive, that could be threatening. In my experience, the expectations for me were higher when I worked for women—even higher at times than they were for my male co-workers. I don’t know if that’s about looks or not.

For more from Paula Whyman, read her blog Semi-Charmed Life for BethesdaMagazine.com.

Kim Foley, 56

Bethesda, president of Professional Image Strategies:

If someone has the skills and experience for a position—and a powerful image that merges credibility with self-confidence—that will trump beauty any day. But with more than 30 years’ experience helping men and women look their best, I have countless stories of how opportunities emerged once an individual knew how to maximize his or her credibility. It is amazing how people’s personalities will change when they look in the mirror and love what they see. Ageism is alive and well, as is the beauty bias, which is why I am so busy. In this competitive marketplace, who wants to be passed over?

Ellen Maltz, 64

Brookeville, vice president and relationship manager for M&T Bank:

As a 64-year-old woman who has been in the workforce for 40 years and has changed careers several times, I believe that appearance plays a large part in getting through the door. It is not just looks but dress, the way one carries oneself and the confidence one exudes that all work together. My appearance definitely got me through the interview process and often through the clients’ door. But it takes more than those attributes to make me successful at what I do. I must be knowledgeable, articulate, hardworking and trustworthy. (It sounds like I’m describing a Boy Scout!)

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