Earlier this week, Forbes.com’s blogger Susannah Breslin — who used to be one of The Frisky’s own! — wrote a piece called “How to Get a Job If You’re a Twentysomething Woman,” after a reader named Frances asked her for advice on the topic. Susannah’s first bit of advice — and the one that has garnered a whole boatload of varied reactions — was “be attractive.”
Naturally, this has gotten many people’s panties in a wad, though I’m not entirely sure why this point is so controversial. It may not be fair, but isn’t it true that being “attractive” or “pretty” is seen as a good thing? Although, I suppose if it were that simple, there wouldn’t be, as Susannah writes, “a million different articles, blog posts, and chunks of advice about what to do about your looks at work.” She goes on:
Play it down. Don’t be too sexy. Or they say it doesn’t matter what you look like. Or they say attractive people do better, but don’t be too attractive. Or don’t play that card, or play that card but don’t play the sexy card. It goes on and on until young women don’t know what to do anymore. … If you’re a twentysomething woman who is looking for a job, it really helps if you’re attractive. If you’re not, or you pretend it doesn’t matter what you look like, or you attempt to hide the fact that you’re pretty in some weird way out of feminist-induced anxiety over your sexuality, it’s going to make things that much harder for you. This is just a fact.
I’ve noticed a trend in the more negative responses to Susannah’s piece and that is the idea of questioning what “attractive” even means. Susannah doesn’t define what it means to her or in general, so some have assumed she means attractive and pretty in the traditional, Western sense. “Assuming that your frame of ‘pretty’ in this article is epitomizing media ideals of beauty which (if you hadn’t noticed) fails,” tweeted one reader when Susannah asked for feedback. “I think your piece is problematic and indirectly indicates that I, as a minority, will not have this advantage.”
Others have focused on “confidence” being the real asset, not looks. “There is no such thing as ‘pretty’ or ‘not pretty’ — only confidence. Self esteem is sexy,” tweeted another. And there have been those who’ve pointed out that being attractive doesn’t help if you have nothing to back it up. “It might get you in the door, but it won’t keep you there,” wrote one respondent. “There are plenty of pretty girls that don’t get what they want because they aren’t well-spoken, can’t network, write,” emphasized another. “I think it helps to present yourself with confidence,” yet another woman tweeted. “That is attractive. Physicality wears thin quickly without substance.”
Interestingly enough, I noticed that much of the push-back on this statement — that being attractive will help you get a job — was coming from attractive women. (I judged their attractiveness based on the tiny thumbnail avatar many of the Twitter respondents had and, of course, against what my subjective version of attractive/pretty is.) “My success has been down to being determined & proactive, knowing the right ppl & smiling! ‘Prettiness’ is for models,” wrote one pretty woman in response. Is there a fear that acknowledging one’s own attractiveness and recognizing it as an asset means that all your other assets — the confidence, determination, smarts, etc. — matter less or not at all?
Personally, I think being physically attractive — however YOU want to define that or the person interviewing you defines that — is an asset, in some industries more than others. I don’t think looks should matter, but I think they do and sometimes without us even realizing it. I also think believing in your own attractiveness makes a person appear more confident and confidence is also a major asset when looking for a job. I think being confident and pretty won’t get you very far, however, if you’re lazy or a dumb ass or a jerk or incompetent. Being attractive may get your foot in the door — hell, it may open the door wide open — but you’ll get kicked to the curb fast if the rest of your toolbox is empty. But I genuinely don’t think being attractive, when you’re hunting for a job, is ever going to be a liability.
I sent the piece to the rest of The Frisky staff and asked them — all attractive women in my view, by the way! — what they thought. Here’s what they each had to say.
I expected to be irritated by Susannah’s “you should be pretty” advice based on what little Amelia had told me about it in passing. Once I read it, though, I realized that I actually agree quite a bit, even though I don’t think it stops at being physically attractive. If I could tweak what Susannah had said, I would have said “you should be alluring.” You have to bring something to the table. You should make people want to be around you via some combination of your behavior, intelligence, mood, appearance, smell, and humor. Hardly anyone walks through life giving things away for free; everyone wants something in return. I think Susannah overstates how important it is for women to be physically attractive — although, to be sure, she’s totally right that it is important — when there’s a whole package of things that you need to bring to the table. Appearance only goes so far. We’ve all worked with ugly women who were funny; we’ve all worked with well-connected women who were lazy; we’ve all worked with intelligent women who had a bad attitude. Your knockout appearance (or your above-average intelligence, or who your famous dad is, etc.) should never be your overwhelmingly-strongest asset. – Jessica
I have mixed feelings about this. I used to be an actress and the entirety of my success was based on nothing BUT my ability to be pretty. The weird thing is, I am pretty, but I wasn’t pretty ENOUGH to be a leading lady. This made me feel like shit on the bottom of a shoe — not being valued one bit for my talent or intelligence. That is not the case in my writing/blogging/media career. My looks have probably helped me in ways that I’m not aware of. Maybe I’ve gotten opportunities I wouldn’t have if I was far less attractive. Maybe it has opened doors. Who knows. But I kicked those doors down with my spirit. My “prettiness” gave me the confidence to walk through those doors without having to think about my looks at all. My “prettiness” is just enough of a non-issue that it allows me to focus on being bold, on putting my ideas out there, on sharing my passions with the world. My energy and drive, I believe, are the thing about me that make me most “attractive” as an employee. – Ami
I feel like Susannah is actually making a meta comment on the fact that women are expected to be pretty — that pretty is just a prima facie fact of how women are judged in the workplace, and just in life. It’s how we judge each other–and whatever, men too. Good-looking, well-manicured people get further in life, because the understanding or expectation is that if you take good care of your appearance, you’re going to naturally be a diligent, hard-working person. There’s a strange psychological connection we tend to make as a culture. Yes, as Susannah mentioned, the subject of her story, Frances Bridges, has “something about her that probably drives young men her age insane with wanting to get at whatever lies at the bottom of Frances Bridges.” We all want to surround ourselves in life and in work with who are pleasant, and physicality — prettiness — is part of what makes up that pleasantness. Is it right? Probably not. But it strikes me as rather innate. – Julie
I have to agree with Susannah. I have always grown up in a family of strong women. The female role models outweigh the male role-models by 8 to 1. Throughout my entire life I was always encouraged to do my best, work my hardest, and never leave the house without earrings. The stubborn part of me has always wanted to rebel from this notion of having to be “pretty,” but in my 20s I realized there is no point in fighting against it. Interviews are based on first impressions. First impressions are based on looks and attitude. Whether conscious or unconscious, men and women first judge each other based on appearances. In this competitive job market, it is foolish to dismiss anything that can give you an edge. Dress for the job you want and perform above expectation to show you deserved it. – Sophie
So — what do you think? Will being attractive help you get a job?