Can ugly women succeed on the Internet?

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Recently a very respected, very established female copywriter participated in an informal Q&A on a public forum. Asked about being female in a male-dominated industry, she answered frankly:

“One guy said I needed to emphasize my strengths. And he defined my top strength as ‘being cute.’ I didn’t know what to do with that one.”

My first reaction was outrage. We’re in the twenty-first century, after all.

But then I had another horrifying thought.

If cuteness confers an advantage, what about those of us who cannot be called “cute” by any stretch of the imagination? Are we missing out on our most important asset?

When I look at the websites of many female marketers, and when my Facebook invitations come with headshots of people who could be Vogue models, I realize I made a huge mistake.

I never should have gone to graduate school. I should have gone to modeling school.

I should have learned how to apply make-up with a professional touch, which would be far more useful for my business than learning how to read a research report.

Recently I listened to a webinar about increasing opt-ins. The seminar leader — male — pointed out that both men and women respond to “an attractive woman” more than “an attractive man.”

But what’s an attractive woman vs. an attractive man?

For a long time, the home page of a successful male business owner showed him wearing a slightly wrinkled short-sleeve t-shirt with writing on the front. His clothing budget for the shoot? Maybe $10. Makeup? Gimme a break.

And getting down to bare basics, in a humorous how-to video, a famous male copywriter appears briefly (!) in boxer shorts to illustrate the importance of authenticity.

But have you visited marketing conference or mastermind meetings, back when we could attend live? Unless I was there, you’d find no women in jeans, shorts, sneakers, or real t-shirts with writing on the front.

One female coach posted about a conference she planned to attend. The host would be famous, female, and gorgeous. The life coach posted, “I’m working with a stylist to choose an outfit to wear to the conference.”

In my wildest dreams, I cannot imagine a man doing this…or even asking his wife or girlfriend for advice. He’d just go.

For my first website, I really tried.

I hired a professional photographer. He suggested we finish the session with some informal shots of me and my dog, sitting on the floor. Those shots turned out to be the only useable images from the shoot, so I put them on my website.

A few people congratulated me on showing “the real you.” Some wrote helpful advice, such as, “You deserve more than rolling on the floor in a wrinkled old t-shirt.”

For the record, we weren’t rolling and the t-shirt was not wrinkled. I appeared in a dignified pose with my dog, wearing a t-shirt commemorating a recent bike race.

I bet male business owners aren’t getting comments about their t-shirts.

And I can’t think of any woman who’d be photographed in a classic t-shirt, as compared to a fitted scoop-neck “tee” from a high-end store, topped with an expensive-looking piece of jewelry.

No way can I do this…

Just recently I just came across a gorgeous woman doing a talking-head video for her coaching program. She’s wearing a tiny sleeveless dress, her shiny hair doesn’t have a strand out of place, her teeth could be an ad for cosmetic dentistry, and she’s mastered false eyelashes and invisible make-up. She’s obviously successful.

My dentist told me, “You have too much work on your teeth for cosmetic dentistry.” My eye doctor said, “Given your eye situation, I’d stay away from the mascara and eyeliner for now.”

My hairstylist advised me to embrace the frizz as part of my personality. “Think of Phyllis Diller,” he suggested, seriously.

For a woman, fitness doesn’t help unless you’ve also got The Face. It’s only in the gym that you’re guaranteed to be assessed by the firmness of your butt, with or without false eyelashes on the other end.

It’s long been known that beautiful people come out ahead.

Juries acquit them more frequently. They earn more money, attract wealthier spouses, and even have more children.

My male friends tell me not to get too upset. “These women don’t really look like that,” they say. “It’s all Photoshop.”

They have a point, although I’m not sure you could Photoshop perfect, white teeth, and a wide, generous smile. When I try for the look, I resemble a prison matron. People don’t ask if they can hire me to write their case study, white paper, or website. They ask, “Who have you locked up lately?”

Marketing consultants tell me to see a professional photographer. Flash news: these guys don’t work miracles. There’s a reason professional models get paid the big bucks.

Photographers sometimes cry after doing a session with subjects like me. “I can’t understand what went wrong. You look so different in person.”

For a female, looking beautiful also requires a tolerance for pain.

Have you noticed that “stilettos” have become a symbol of female upward mobility? Books get titled “Success in Stilettos.”

“Success in sneakers” doesn’t have the same cachet. When a woman wears sneakers, some fashionista is always standing by to recommend “a nice little flat.”

It helps if you’ve got long pointed toes. My feet are shaped like little rectangles that fit better into shoeboxes than shoes.

I refuse to get a toe-ectomy. In fact, I’m too afraid of pain to pierce my ears.

If you’re a parent telling your kid, “It’s more important to be beautiful on the inside,” you’re lying.

It’s more important to have a great headshot.

If you’re wondering why it’s so hard to find a decently-written book these days, it’s because publishers demand to see an author’s photo before signing them to a book contract.

A female author’s agent advised her to look “cute” when she met with publishers. The author’s book was about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with travel to violent war zones.

Let’s take a stand in favor of non-photogenic people.

I know what I’m up against. In lieu of photos, I usually present a cartoon, which many people say looks more like the real me than a headshot photograph.

True, some gorgeous people are also great human beings. They don’t mind if they hire a copywriter, marketing coach, or career consultant who’s a disgrace to the world of fashion.

I just wish they’d publish photos of themselves, sans make-up, dressed in their wrinkled t-shirts for dog-walking. That probably won’t level the playing field, but it’s a start.

Originally published at on August 11, 2020.

Helping entrepreneurs and independent professionals grow their businesses one story at a time.

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