"For godsake, who cares how you look?" says my husband, John, mopping up the blood pooling on the plastic tarp he's shoved under me. I am lying on my bed, leaking a little from my back, sides, knees - sites of small puncture wounds from my recent liposuction. "You're a writer, not an actress. Just spend a little more time at the gym!"
He continues muttering as I go to my Happy Place with the painkillers, content in the knowledge that I've done the right thing - for me. Of course I'm just a writer - and a lazy, slob-ola one at that. Of course I'm not judged solely (or maybe at all) on my looks. But I work for magazines, where the average editor's age is about 12 and getting younger - one day I expect to walk into a meeting full of fetuses - and where appearances clearly count. My goal in having a little work done wasn't so much to look fabulous as to avoid looking like a cross between a Berkeley therapist and a bag lady.
In a 2007 survey of 700 people, conducted by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 78 percent said that appearance is at least somewhat important in getting ahead at work. Presumably, not all these people were models, actresses, and strippers; they were regular Joes and Janes. While men are still more likely to say they're seeking cosmetic surgery solely for work (30 percent versus 14 percent), women are mentioning work more often than ever, say dermatologists and plastic surgeons.
And since the economy has taken a drastic turn for the worse, the fears have clearly intensified - as has the reality of age discrimination. "I've been thinking of letting my hair go gray, but I don't, because it could be a problem at work," says Elizabeth A., a tech writer in Silicon Valley. In her business, there's a pervasive belief that you have to be in your 20s or 30s to be up-to-date on advances and mentally flexible enough to learn new things. It's survival of the fittest - and the least wrinkly. "No one wants to work with someone who looks beaten down - especially now," says Sandra S., a 39-year-old real-estate agent who gets Botox and fillers.
Indeed, the most common reason cited for career-related nips and tucks is tied to aging. "First, people will come to me and couch it in different terms: 'I'm under a lot of stress, I want to look a little fresher.' But then, I'll hear about age discrimination at work," says Dr. Ellen Marmur, chief of dermatologic and cosmetic surgery at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. "People who were on the fence about big-ticket procedures are essentially buying time with less expensive ones. I have a top ad exec who still gets fillers and Botox despite sweeping layoffs. It's a vicious cycle for those whose appearance is part of their success: Look bad, perform badly, lose income, lose confidence, look worse."