The media, and its consumers, generally keep conversation about plastic surgery and careers pegged on a couple of figures: The aging Hollywood idol and the would-be Hollywood idol. Cosmetic surgery is de rigueur in the movie and TV business--pretty understandable given how much looks matter on-screen and in career trajectories.
But there's increasing research that says looks matter in jobs beyond the silver screen--that beautiful people make more money and have more opportunities for advancement. So it's no real surprise that plastic surgery is being deployed as an instrument of career advancement by men and women in office suites far from the glare of the klieg lights.
"In the corporate world, there's a lot of emphasis on image, and image goes with self-confidence," says Antonio Armani, a Beverly Hills, California, cosmetic surgeon who specializes in hair transplants. "I think a lot of people do invest money in improving their looks because they feel this is one way they can go up the corporate ladder."
The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reports that, among last year's most prominent trends, about two thirds of its members reported seeing men and women who requested cosmetic surgery because they wanted to remain competitive in the workplace.
In his nine years of practice, Armani says there has been a growing desire among corporate men--often working in finance--to look younger. But as a career investment, a youthful hairline doesn't come cheap. Armani says a typical transplant procedure costs from $15,000 to $35,000. While his patients are often wealthy, many younger men are financing the cost.
Recently, a Marine coming off active duty took out a $25,000 loan for his surgery, Armani says, because he "wants to look good" as he heads into law school. "When we look at people, we are naturally attracted to people who are more attractive," Armani says. There's research to back up that claim.
Gordon Patzer, author of "Looks: Why They Matter More Than You Ever Imagined" (Amacom, 2008) and a longtime researcher on the impact of physical attractiveness, can run through a laundry list of study results that point to the advantages of being good looking. Cuter newborns in a nursery are touched, held, and talked to more than less attractive babies. Elementary school teachers unknowingly tend to hold higher expectations for better-looking children. Parents may be less protective of less-attractive children.
Then, when people reach working age, good-looking college graduates are more likely to get hired. Employees themselves tend to be willing to do more for better-looking bosses. Attractive supervisors are perceived as more credible and more persuasive.
So what does this mean for those of us who want to get ahead but don't look like Brad or Angelina? Well, higher education can improve physical appearance in others' eyes. And Patzer recommends working out, eating well, practicing good hygiene, dressing nicely, and--although it may be cringe-inducing--correcting flaws with plastic surgery.
"It's a good investment for the workplace," he says, noting that investments that improve your physical appearance and make you appear younger can ultimately delay the decline of your workplace effectiveness as you age.
Certain cosmetic procedures can offer the most bang for your buck. Men have been turning to eyelid surgery, which was the fourth-most-common surgical cosmetic procedure last year, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Also, teeth whitening is a great investment, because teeth turn gray as we age, Patzer says.
Patzer does not particularly enjoy the results of his research and often says "beauty can be ugly" because society puts entirely too much emphasis on physical attractiveness and the widespread bias in favor of good looks is so discriminatory. But he does not believe there will be a change in our preference for physically attractive people any time soon.
Attitudes, social norms, and technological advances are going to make cosmetic surgery increasingly common, Patzer says. He predicts it will become a tool in career advancement--just like clothes or education.
Penelope Trunk, a careers blogger and author of "Brazen Careerist" (Tantor Media Inc., 2007), predicted in a blog entry earlier this year that plastic surgery will become a tool "for the go-getters and career-minded" and will even be a routine procedure for college grads.
Executive coach Judy Jernudd helps her corporate clients improve their body language, appearance, and clothing, often using a video camera to show a slumped posture or unenthusiastic delivery.
"Almost all of us, if we would admit it, and it may not be conscious, we do make pretty quick impressions of people," she says, noting that good-looking people tend to have a universal appeal that attracts everyone. Jernudd believes there's a lot that people can do to improve their looks.
"I'm not encouraging everyone to go out and get cosmetic surgery," Jernudd says. "I think there are people that can go overboard on cosmetic surgery. But I do think that you can see people--if it's done correctly--where they can look 10 years younger."
History is, of course, full of very successful individuals who weren't much to look at: Think Napoleon or Albert Einstein. But these are the exceptions, and they don't disprove the rule, Patzer says.
There is, of course, one other option. People could all rise up, armed with the awareness of their discriminatory tendencies, and make a conscious effort to start treating everyone equally. Even newborns.