Working While Ugly
By Marty Nemko
Like beauty, “ugly” is in the eyes of the beholder. What I’m talking about here is anything in a person’s physical appearance that’s likely to keep him or her off a “most attractive” list. For me it’s my hair, or lack thereof.
Many years ago, I was all set to appear six times on a daytime-TV talk show. But the producers first had one suggestion: Get a hairpiece. “Market research indicates that a man with a full head of hair is much more likely to be watched by women (the show’s target audience),” I was told. So I got one.
Wearing the hairpiece helped me realize the power of looks. After we taped my six segments (in one day), I wore it for a couple more days to see what impact it had. While I was in an executive’s waiting room, I overheard someone whisper to the secretary about me, “He seems really important.” I’d never heard anyone say anything remotely like that about me before. I walked into a burrito shop and, for the first time in my life, the hottie behind the counter actually flirted with me—flipped her hair back, twirled her curls and made conversation with me beyond “May I take your order?” Later, when I wore the hairpiece for a play I was in, some friends of mine didn’t recognize me on stage.
If you’re unattractive in face or body, you probably learned early on that you pay a price. In school, you were excluded from the “in” group. When you wanted to date, few people were interested. On the street, people look not at you but past you.
And they look past you in your career. In a job interview, you may have experienced an interviewer’s flat affect and forced smile rather than a warm welcome that would have put you at ease. Once hired, you may have cringed as The Pretty People often got more than they may have deserved, based on merit alone. And that’s the ugly truth.
Advice for Employees and the Self-Employed
Being unattractive isn’t three strikes against you. If it were, the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Woody Allen, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Alfred Hitchcock and Kathy Bates wouldn't have succeeded. Lackluster looks are only one strike. It's up to you whether you become dispirited or motivated to make the extra effort needed to succeed.
Don't skimp on self-development. If you have mediocre skills, that’s strike two. Add a mediocre personality, and it’s usually strike three and you’re out. So self-development, while important for everyone, is crucial for you. Instead of watching TV on the treadmill, read a professional magazine. Instead of loafing around on Saturday morning, go to that seminar on executive deportment. And ask for 360-degree feedback from bosses, co-workers, supervisees and customers. (An easy way to get it free and anonymously is atCheckster.com.)
Celebrate the personal strengths that unattractiveness can breed. For instance, I find that ugly people, in general, are nicer because they know they can't use their looks to get by and because they've developed compassion from going through life unattractive.
Make an effort to look sharp. There are some physical attributes we can control and some we can’t. If you ignore the features that you could enhance, it sends the message that you don’t care—a message that may even give the wrong impression of your work. Ultimately, I decided not to keep wearing the aforementioned hairpiece—it required constant maintenance, and if people knew I was wearing it, they’d probably snicker. Instead, I groom the real hair I have left: I comb whatever hair I have to the back, rather than to the side or front—efforts to the contrary are transparent and widely derided. You should be sure to:
Dress well—at your boss's level of dressiness.
Wear a moderate amount of subtle makeup (women only!). Not sure whether yours brings out the best in you? Major department stores have an army of cosmeticians willing to make you over for free.
Don't smoke. If avoiding cancer isn't a good-enough reason, smoking also makes you uglier: It yellows your teeth, wrinkles your skin and makes your breath stink.
Manage your weight as well as you can. Many people find it difficult to avoid being overweight. Too often, they're fighting their genetics. So I'll skip the lecture and just say that if you’re unattractive, it’s especially important to do what works for you. I keep my weight under (reasonable) control by ritualizing. I eat the same thing most days: foods I like that are both healthy and filling (oatmeal, garlic, broccoli, big salads, etc.). I also keep tempting, calorie-dense items out of my house. My nemeses: cheese, nuts and ice cream.
Stand up straight. Helen Gurley Brown said, only half joking, “After 40, it all comes down to posture.”
Convey self-acceptance about your looks. Even if you optimize your looks, some people will still see “ugly” when they see you. Looks are an 800-pound gorilla in the room. If, however, you occasionally mention your looks in a self-accepting way, it will become less of an issue. For example, in a meeting, you might say, “Well, John, you're the studly one. Maybe you, rather than I, should be the public face on this project.” Or when someone says, “I'm having a bad hair day,” say, “That's one thing we baldies don't have to worry about.”
Advice for Employers
Hire ugly. All other things being equal, I'd give the nod to an ugly candidate. It’s not charity: They have less value in the marketplace and can be hired less expensively, even though looks have, for most jobs, little or no bearing on job performance. I've found that, on average, ugly people are more likely to be kind and to work harder because they know they're working at a disadvantage. And unattractive people are more likely to stay with me because they tend to have a tough time getting hired, in part because they generally don’t network efficiently. If I treat unattractive employees well, they’re usually very loyal.
Look out for “lookism.” I’m not suggesting that you should give unfair advantages to ugly people. Just be sure that your staff (and you!) treats your unattractive employees fairly. Gently nip lookism in the bud; for example, “Joe, I notice you seem to be giving plum assignments to Britney even though Brunhilde is likely to do a better job. Am I not understanding something?”
We are, indeed, a lookist society—but as an employee, you can, with effort, transcend that obstacle. And as an employer, you can strike a blow against this lingering ism while building your bottom line.
© Marty Nemko 2004-2017. Usage Rights