Job Hunt Makeover: How Far Should You Go?

job huntABC News Photo Illustration
Thanks to our beauty- and youth-obsessed culture, buying a new suit is the tip of the makeover iceberg for some job seekers. Instead, some are turning to personal trainers, dermal fillers or facelifts.

When Victoria Zamensky decided to look for an office job this year after working for herself for a decade, she didn't just polish up her resume and interviewing skills. She polished up her smile and smoothed out a few wrinkles too.

Besides revamping her hairstyle, the 38-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, sprung for teeth whitening at her dentist's office and Botox injections from a cosmetic surgeon.

"I'm a single mom of two kids. I often look harried," Zamensky said. But since the Botox, she says she now looks "younger and refreshed."

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"It gives you a bit more of an edge," said Zamensky, who's always worked in appearance-conscious fields like sales and marketing. "That old adage of first impressions really is true."

Zamensky's no anomaly. Thanks to our beauty- and youth-obsessed culture, buying a new suit is the tip of the makeover iceberg for some job seekers. Instead, some are turning to personal trainers, dermal fillers or facelifts.

In April, the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reported that 75 percent of its members have patients asking for cosmetic surgery to stay competitive in the workplace.

Considering that study after study shows preferential treatment of workers with Hollywood looks, it's hard to fault those job seekers with financial means who are willing to try anything to give themselves a (sculpted, toned and tanned) leg up on the competition in this tricky job market.

But when you're in the interview hot seat, will a few less pounds or wrinkles really make a difference? Or can those of us who look more like Susan Boyle than Scarlett Johansson take solace in the fact that talent really does rise to the top?

Stay Out of the Tar Pit

Last Sunday, the fortysomething "Desperate Housewives" character Tom Scavo contemplated going under to the knife after blowing an interview for a marketing job because he didn't know what Twitter was.

"I am a dinosaur marching into the tar pit," Tom moaned. "My time has passed. I am no longer relevant."

Of course Tom's relevancy (or lack thereof) had less to do with his age than the fact that he wasn't up on the latest industry trends. And while it's easy to write this off as the silly stuff of prime time soaps, falling behind the times is a mistake that countless job seekers continue to make.

"If you don't come across as current, you appear less qualified," said Marion Gellatly, an image consultant in Pebble Beach, Calif. "And if you don't fit in, it could cost you the interview."

Dress like it's 1999 or carry a day planner instead of a mobile phone, and you too just might risk extinction.

Put Your Money Where Your Resume Is

By now, you've probably seen at least 75 articles about how you need to look your Monday best for an interview: from your perfectly coiffed hair to your freshly pressed apparel right down to your trendy, scuff-free shoes.

But before you consider giving yourself a nip here or an injection there, make sure your resume and interviewing skills are up to snuff. If you're going to spend your precious reserves anywhere, spend them on a resume doctor or a career coach who can teach you to knock an interviewer's socks off first.

"You have to get to the door before anyone's going to see what you look like," said Debra Feldman, an executive job search consultant in Riverside, Conn. "And if you're having trouble making contact, then the first step shouldn't be to go under the surgeon's knife, especially since most screenings today are by phone."

Ditto for networking, much of which is done by phone or e-mail, she added.

When the Clothes and Resume Don't Make the Woman

But what if you already have the sharp suit and recruiter-approved resume?

Such is the case with "Jennifer," a 54-year-old technology professional in New York, who has been out of work for more than a year and been on umpteen interviews. (Jennifer declined to give her real name for fear it would compromise her job search.)

"I have everything going for me -- good resume, good experience, good education," Jennifer said. "In the past, I've never had a problem being hired."

But, she added, "The demographics of the people at the companies I've been looking at are 20 years younger than me."

After seeing many of the jobs in her field go to candidates in their twenties and thirties, Jennifer, who never thought she'd get cosmetic surgery, decided in April to invest a few thousand dollars in a Y-lift -- a minimally invasive facelift that yields immediate results.

"I'm feeling more optimistic now than ever," said Jennifer, who's thrilled with her newfound spring-chicken looks. "Maybe this is what I needed."

Non-Extreme Makeovers

Atlanta-based personal trainer Susie Shina has been hearing from a lot of new clients motivated by the tough job market lately, but her customers are in their thirties and forties.

"I've recently had influx of calls from people wanting to be more fit to either improve their job image or be a better candidate to land a job," Shina said. "It's like, 'Well, I've been out there looking for a job in this body and it didn't work.'"

Troy Glick, 42, from Commack, N.Y., is one of several job seekers I spoke to who dropped a few pounds for the employment hunt.

"I've lost enough weight so my suits fit much better," said Glick, a telecommunications executive who's been looking for full-time work for nearly a year. "It's so easy to gain 15 pounds walking around the house all day."

Still, rather than go to extremes, he's more concerned with getting the details right: He avoids any carbonation three to four days before an interview (don't want to bloat and have the clothes look too tight) and gives considerable thought to his facial hair (goatee instead of full beard if meeting with a startup).

"Unless you have a great body or you're very attractive, most of this is purely defensive," Glick said. "You want to be remembered, but you don't want to be remembered for the uneven beard or a missed button."

What Makes You Sexy to an Employer

In other words, you don't want to be the job candidate in the Tide commercials with the giant talking stain on his shirt.

David Perry, managing partner of Perry-Martel International Inc., a headhunting firm in Ottawa, Canada, agrees that a winning appearance is critical but warns that it won't get you far if you don't have the solid skills to back it up.

"Looks will only catch their attention for 10 seconds," he said.

"What makes you sexy to an employer is how you can solve their problems: 'Can you make me money? Can you save me money? How you can increase my efficiency?'"

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.