May 27, 2008 -- One went for a face-lift. The other settled for a Botox treatment.
Both were patients of Dr. Malcolm Roth, a plastic surgeon, and both were looking for work after recently losing jobs in the health and financial sectors, respectively.
Roth, the director of plastic surgery at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, said they turned to him in an effort to look more attractive -- literally -– to prospective employers.
"They were hoping this would help them get a better chance getting a job," Roth said.
"Even if you may be sharp mentally, if you don't look it" that can affect how others perceive you, he said.
Roth and other plastic surgeons agree that it's not uncommon these days for people to seek cosmetic procedures to bolster their careers. Darrick Antell, a spokesman for the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, said business at his New York practice is up nearly 20 percent from last year, and he has come up with a theory on why: As the tough economy leads to layoffs, the newly jobless are "buffing up their appearance" as well as their resumes.
"I think that in this day and age, with such a competitive environment, particularly with people losing jobs and being downsized, it's very important for people to look as good as they can and to look fit and healthy," he said.
Though treatments can cost thousands, Antell said that those who seek his help are more concerned with long-term benefits than short-term costs.
"It ends up being an investment in their career," he said. "Unlike an investment in the stock market that takes years to appreciate, this is something that gives an immediate return."
Different studies have shown that looks do matter in the workplace. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis released an analysis of such research in 2005, concluding that attractive people tend to earn more money and are promoted more often than their peers.
Still, it's debatable whether plastic surgery specifically benefits a person's career. Some also question the motivations of those supposedly seeking surgery for job reasons.
"I think saying it's for career reasons is a big excuse for saying, 'Oh my God, I'm starting to age and I have to do something to slow this process,' " said Debbie Then, a Los Angeles social psychologist. "It's trying to hang on to your youthfulness."
The Telltale Turkey Neck
Marie Peters is 76. The Pittsburgh investment adviser said she was in excellent health and plans to keep working for a long time. Still, she worried about clients questioning her longevity.
"People were beginning to look at me like when she's going to go croke or something," she said.
So last year Peters had surgery to remove the sagging skin beneath her chin, or as she put it, her "turkey neck."
"I'm very pleased with it," she said. "I thought I would look younger, and I do." And looking younger, she said, impresses upon her clients "that I'll be around to manage their money."
Antell, the New York plastic surgeon, said that procedures popular among professionals include chin enlargements and blepharoplasty -- surgery that improves the appearance of eyelids. Larger chins, he said, give a more authoritative air, while eyelid work can make someone look more energetic.
"If you look better, people will perceive you as being healthier and being more well rested," he said. "It's the same as if you wear a pressed shirt, a nice tie and a clean suit as opposed to having slept in your clothes the night before."
(A list of average prices for the procedures appears at the end of this story.)
Then acknowledges the pressure to look good in the workplace. The Los Angeles psychologist, who opposes plastic surgery, said one of her colleagues elected to have a face-lift so she wouldn't look so much older than her young co-workers.
But Then also said that many just feel it "sounds more acceptable" to say they're having work done for career reasons rather than concede that they're concerned about their own vanity.
That's especially true for baby boomers, she said.
"I think a lot of them are realizing that they've lived half of their life already and it's like the alarm clocks are going off: Wow, I've got to do as much as I can now with the time I have left and boy, am I going to look good," she said.
Stigma or Saving Grace?
Then argues that those who undergo surgery in hopes of getting ahead could see their efforts backfire.
"I think if you're going to stay at the same company where everybody knows you and everybody sees you and you come back after three weeks with a new face, I don't think it's going to get you promoted," she said.
While Then conceded that more people are getting plastic surgery overall, she said there's still a stigma associated with having work done that can stir gossip among co-workers. Some, she said, might assume that low self-esteem was what prompted the surgery.
"It might actually undermine you because people are thinking 'Oh, gosh, she doesn't have confidence in herself. I don't want somebody in this high-level leadership position who really doesn't have confidence in their skills alone,'" she said.
Vito Quatela, the president of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, disagrees.
A survey by the academy found that two-thirds of surgeons said they'd treated patients seeking to remain competitive in the workplace last year. Quatela said he has heard from patients who initially experienced negative reactions from their co-workers but later -– especially after the patients had fully healed from surgery -– found acceptance. Some, he said, even had co-workers come to them seeking advice about getting some work done themselves.
Quatela and other plastic surgeons argue that the self-esteem boost that stems from improving your appearance means that surgery and other cosmetic procedures can result in more professional success.
"With increased self-esteem comes increased self confidence and we know that's a good thing in the workplace," he said.
But Then warns that people with self-esteem problems who look to surgery for help will find themselves disappointed.
"Unless you address an underlying self-confidence issue, you could be made over to look like Barbie, but you're still going to carry around negative thoughts about yourself," she said.
Peters, the Pittsburgh investment adviser, said her surgery has improved her self-confidence. Still, her surgeon, Dr. Leo McCafferty, a board member at the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, stressed that nips and tucks won't cure all of a patient's ills, career or otherwise.
"I think if someone comes in specifically with that desire -- that it's going to change their life in a dramatic way -- that would tend to be a little bit of a red flag," he said. "I think it's important for people to realize that beauty comes from within and plastic surgery can't change that inner self."
Average cosmetic procedure prices in 2007:
Blepharoplasty: $3,093Chin Augmentation: $2,196Botox: $463Face-lift: $6,696
Source: American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery