Oct. 17, 2001 -- Remember how it feels to walk out of a salon with a new hairstyle? How about when you're trying on a new outfit, and it fits perfectly? They really can make you feel better, more confident. In fact, a small but growing body of research indicates that people who look good also are more likely to succeed.
A Cinderella Story
Luchia DeLara has never worn a suit before. In fact, if you ask her, she'll tell you that the image of herself in a skirt and jacket is something she's never really pictured. A single mother of three, she's struggled to raise her family on welfare. And yet, here, at A Miner Miracle, she is grinning back at herself in a full-length mirror, saying, "I feel like this outfit was made for me."
DeLara walked into A Miner Miracle's office wearing a tight orange tank top, ripped and faded jeans, 3-inch white platform sandals, and, underneath a tousled curtain of dark brown hair, a reserved smile. About an hour-and-a-half later, after her "makeover" is complete, DeLara is positively beaming. She is dressed in a knee-length tan skirt, a three-button blazer, a checkered silk shirt, and some simple black pumps. Where she was once shy and uneasy, she's now chatty and confident, talking about her children. As she twirls around, watching how the skirt swings with her, this petite woman seems to have just grown several inches. "I love it," DeLara says. "I feel great about how I look."
And that may make all the difference in her future. In this era of welfare reform, in which many women like DeLara have just 2 years to find sustainable work, the link between appearance and employment has never been more critical.
So a number of nonprofits like A Miner Miracle in San Francisco have begun free makeovers for low-income women. Kathy Miner, a former boutique store owner, ensures that her clients go to interviews with the right attire and with an attitude to match. She and her staff outfit women from shelters, rehab centers, and job training programs. Along with the clothes, they offer compliments and some practical tips on how to act in an interview. "How you dress is a reflection of how you feel on the inside," says Miner. "When it comes to getting a job, if you're a mess on the outside, how are you going to get someone to listen to you, let alone hire you?"
Look Good, Feel Good
Is feeling confident really as simple as wearing a suit?
For some people it can be, says Gordon Patzer, dean of the College of Business and Public Administration at California State University in San Bernardino, who has been studying physical appearance and its repercussions for 30 years. He's hoping to get funding to start a Center for the Study of Physical Attractiveness, where his ideas about how appearance informs attitude can be further developed. If a new hairstyle, for example, both brightens your face and makes you feel better too, then by all means, wear it. It will not only give your self-esteem an extra boost, but it may also affect how others perceive you.
People who are more attractive, says Patzer, are seen as more intelligent, happier, and more competent overall. One needn't look further than our society's obsession with the youth and beauty of Hollywood as evidence. We assume that Julia Roberts leads a charmed life. Of course, Patzer says, appearance can work against you, especially if you're a woman. If you're "too good-looking" others may see you as less intelligent. Just ask any supermodel.
T. Joel Wade, an associate professor of psychology at Bucknell University, says women's confidence especially tends to be tied up in the how-I-look/how-I-feel phenomenon. "There's simply still more value placed on looks with women than with men. Men are more pressured when it comes to status."
But Patzer and Wade are by no means suggesting you must be a stunner to get ahead in life. Instead, they're offering evidence that your overall appearance does not go unnoticed -- by you or by anyone else. In a 1997 study in The Journal of Esthetic Dentistry, Patzer concluded that altering a physical trait (such as straightening your teeth) "improves attitude, personality, and self-esteem." Another 1996 study in the journal Studia Psychologica found that people with higher self-esteem used makeup more frequently.
What's more, Patzer says, "improving physical attractiveness [defined by cultural standards] improves interpersonal interactions." In other words, you relate better to others and they relate better to you.
A New Look, a New Life
For Nancy Cook, her new look did all that and more. She went through a makeover at A Miner Miracle 3 years ago when she was 49 and unemployed. After her makeover, she noticed that "when I look nice, people are more respectful and nice. And when that happens, you feel good."
Cook soon landed a job as an intake specialist at a healthcare company, but her job was just the beginning. The makeover gave Cook the jumpstart she needed to lose weight. She dropped more than 50 pounds and, after attending a local rally for body size acceptance, was invited to introduce Rosie O'Donnell at the beginning of her television show. Cook was nervous that day, in front of so many people, but as the big moment approached she simply smoothed her hair, threw back her shoulders and smiled.
"Now, no matter how poor I am, I'll make sure that I have my hair cut how I like it," she says. "When I don't make any effort, I just don't feel that great."
Makeovers, of course, don't guarantee a job, and many critics say unemployed people are best served with increased job training. Still, watching the transformation of Luchia DeLara during her makeover at A Miner Miracle is convincing. After the makeover she stood taller; she smiled broadly. Sure, new shoes, a hair-do, and artfully applied makeup helped, but more than anything, her demeanor changed. She seemed to shine.
The improvement has had lasting effects. Soon after her morning at A Miner Miracle, DeLara was offered a position with a major San Francisco law firm as a records clerk. "Finally," she says, "I have my own office, and my own extension."