Vanity and the Work Environment
It happened for the third time recently. Somebody I know, who I’m very close with, told me that they are going to get surgery. It wasn’t the type of surgery that was there to fix a medical problem or a life-threatening issue. It was a surgery purely for vanities sake. They were going to get that stomach realignment surgery that forces people to eat less so they lose weight. I know at least three overweight people who have had that surgery to change their personal appearance. In one case, my friend Cynthia, did it specifically because of the impact it was going to have on her appearance at work. Cynthia was in one of those oddball positions where she had to answer to a large board of directors as well as the public. She was advanced in her years and had gotten the middle-aged spread and then some. Because Cynthia had to deal with the board and because her job was also a highly visible public facing position she was exceptionally conscious of her weight and appearance. It’s not like she was lazy, Cynthia is one of the hardest working women I know. She simply has one of those bodies that gets big and wrinkly as it gets older (something I’m familiar with personally). There’s a whole lot of genetics at play in our personal appearance no matter how much the local gym recruiter and your doctor want to convince you otherwise. Unfortunately Cynthia got dealt a poor hand in this regard. So she told me that she decided to go for the nuclear option of surgery. An unnecessary operation done in the name of workplace vanity.
I always find it difficult to try and counsel others away from that surgery. It’s not the vanity aspect, it’s the fact that every single person I know who has had the surgery, ultimately reverts back to their pre-surgery weight within a short period of time. Like the famous line from Jurassic Park, life finds a way. Within two to five years, all that money and all that pain and recovery was for not.
I don’t blame them though. I understand the drive to lose weight. I’ve discussed my own struggles here before. A few years back, after a health scare, lost about a hundred pounds. I felt great, and I was finally able to wear off the shelf dress shirts that easily buttoned around my neck and didn’t make me feel like I was choking. Even though nobody really fully directed me to wear suits everyday I did. It was vanity at play. I was attractive in my suits and my thin face, well more attractive than I usually am. The occasional flirtatious comment was a huge boon to my ego. There was even one instance of an obsessive attraction that almost became a problem which I had to report. Most importantly, it worked. people definitely treated thin Mike in a well tailored power suit very differently than chubby Mike in khakis and a work shirt.
But like everybody I know who’s lost tons of weight and has a physique that’s naturally large, eventually the weight came back. When the weight came back, people started treating me the same again.
In my case and in Cynthia’s case, it was about weight gain and weight loss. Still, those are not the only issues that people deal with in their personal appearance. There is hair growth where there shouldn’t be any hair, no hair where there should be, skin imperfections like warts, and just a general shape of the body that people may find unattractive. This could be stuff like having too large of a nose or misaligned teeth.
The reason why all of this stuff is important in the work environment is because of the innate inclination of the human animal to be differential to highly attractive individuals. It’s a subconscious thing. I remember reading one study about how attractive people get a leg up in life from the earliest years of elementary school. The teachers, subconsciously, picked the attractive children more when interacting with the class. Over time, this creates a more engaging learning environment which means the more attractive people are better prepared scholastically for their life.
School, in many ways both directly and indirectly, is a microcosm of work. I’ve occasionally discussed the idea that many sales groups, especially those in male dominated industries have a tendency to have an attractive female on the team. I promise you that’s not for the sake of diversity. The simple fact is that some attractive women with half baked products can get in the door faster than a male sales rep with an amazing product. This, sadly and clearly illustrates the reality of the power of attractiveness at work. It also underscores the idea that vanity at work is useful. It’s not just sales. Let’s be honest, even in their later years, how many incredibly unattractive CEOs are there?
So if you’re playing the professional game of ladder climbing, should you go to extreme measures so you look good at work? It’s not that difficult to pull off. As we have described earlier, much of this can be taken care of with surgery or other procedures which are less invasive.
My personal favorite of the less drastic measures for weight loss is CoolSculpting. It’s a process where they freeze the fat out of you through never-ending sessions with a machine that’s designed to freeze very specific parts of your body. It’s definitely not as effective as liposuction, but from what I can tell it does have a minor effect. There is of course plastic surgery and other methods to clear up physical imperfections not related to weight. This can be very effective in very minute doses. There is no question that you can go way too far. The poster child for this was Michael Jackson. It’s always interesting to take a look at what he was like as a 20 something-year-old musical artist before the seminal thriller album, and then what he looked like years later. He’s not alone, many celebrities, who understand on a very deep level that their appearance is an outsized chunk of their value offering, start with a nip in a tuck and don’t stop there. They eventually end up looking like a completely different human being that falls squarely into the uncanny valley.
If you are unfamiliar with the uncanny valley, it is a term to describe when media characters or robots are designed to look like humans. Typically the closer you get the more people can relate to the artificial construct up until a point. As you get closer their appearance becomes disconcerting. When it’s really close to looking human, but not quite, then people start to feel very uncomfortable. Recent examples of this include the mass populace’s reaction to the movie version of the Cats musical or the animation in The Polar Express. Too much plastic surgery in a real human being can fall into this situation where they are creeping people out. I mentioned Michael Jackson, but Joan Rivers is another good example. A quick Google search will find many examples. Clearly, the slippery slope of surgery can be a quick fix, but it’s also a huge risk. Is any job or career worth it? I guess that depends on where you are with your personal priorities. If you want to get ahead at work, then looking attractive will help.
I will admit I have been tempted by these vanity oriented shortcuts. I made the decision to not use them for the simple fact that I’m very risk-averse. I just don’t like the idea of going under the knife, nor do I see value in paying good money to do better with the ladies or in my career. For those who feel like me, yet are still aggressively trying to get ahead, are there alternatives? I think the best alternative that works, up until a point, is the incredibly hard to get credential. If you’re a doctor with a heavily in-demand specialty or have some other form of licensure that’s damn near impossible to get, it doesn’t matter what you look like. It doesn’t have to be medical. If you have top secret clearance, every security certification under the stars, and are located in a place with extremely high demand and very low population of licensed employees your hired. It doesn’t matter if you look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame who just got out of a fire that burned 90% of his body. Getting the job, versus upward mobility are two very different things. so the credential can get you a job where you may not get it otherwise because of your personal appearance but that would be it.
The other option is to try and disguise what you can’t hide. It’s amazing how much weight a well tailored suit can hide. I know from experience on that one. Good hygiene and assiduous compliance to best practices relating to the company uniform are other examples. What do I mean by assiduous compliance to best practices and the company uniform? What I mean is if you have to wear a company shirt with a corporate logo, make sure it’s crisp, clean, and pressed. Same with your pants. Always look your best in your personal appearance where you can manage it. It’s not a perfect solution, but I can guarantee you if you have two relatively unattractive and overweight individuals in a room and one of them is sloppily dressed and the other one is neat, the person with the better appearance will get preferential treatment all other things being equal.
Ultimately, in the work environment, how you look is incredibly important. This means, as much as I don’t like it, having a high degree of vanity is important. This isn’t nice, it’s far from warm and fuzzy, but it is absolutely the truth. Ultimately this means vanity at work is a good thing unless you take it too far and start to look like the love child of Carrot Top and Courtney Cox. Now that I think about it, we should cast those two in a new sitcom that’s all about people who can’t seem to make it up the corporate ladder now matter what lengths they go to. They are good actors, but I have a feeling the sitcom would get canceled by the second or third episode when the test audiences all report how creeped out they are by the stars of the show.
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