While women often complain that they are judged in the workplace by the way they look, the truth is that we may be our own worst enemies.
According to a new book, "Looks: Why They Matter More Than You Ever Imagined," author Gordon L. Patzer says that research shows that even when a woman is alone, what she is wearing can "heighten her preoccupation with how her body looks -- usually at the expense of her critical mental performance skills."
So, that means it's not just the approaching swimsuit season that has us anxious and wondering how we can grow six inches by June, it's the day-to-day judgment of ourselves that is just as problematic.
How many of us have checked out our "rear view" in the bathroom mirror at work, or tried to catch our reflection in an office window to see if the new pants make us look fat? How many times have we asked a female co-worker: "Does my hair look OK?"
This constant checking of our physical appearance -- even the tugging of a skirt or adjusting of a strap -- diverts our mental energies, "making the individual temporarily unavailable for more challenging or vital mental tasks."
Still, Patzer goes on to point out that our obsession with our physical appearance has merit: Good looking people in the workplace are more likely to get desired jobs, be paid more and have higher-level positions. And while men don't have the obsession of always checking their physical appearance, they are affected by something else: height.
Patzer says that men standing over 5 feet 9 inches are perceived as better performers, get more promotions and earn more. In fact, according to one study, every inch over this height means an annual paycheck bonus of $789.
At the same time, looks in the workplace can become even more complex as we have a younger generation that has been more exposed to visual images throughout their lives, and are more focused with how they -- and others -- look. At the other end, aging workers are becoming more sensitized to their fading looks and diminished attractiveness in a youth-obsessed culture.
The hard reality, then, is that this "lookism" as Patzer calls it, isn't going to go away anytime soon. At the same time, he maintains that even if you're not the next Carmen Electra or Brad Pitt, "you're not defenseless."
"Don't do nothing," he told me in an interview.
So, while you may not want to undertake cosmetic procedures to improve your looks, you can do other things that will improve your physical appearance, or at least the "perception" that you're good looking. Some ideas:
* Practice good hygiene. Shower every day, use anti-perspirant and wear clean, fresh-smelling clothes. Make sure your hair is clean and well groomed.
* Update your wardrobe. Nothing can make you seem older or frumpier than clothes that are out of style. If nothing else, invest in black pants and a blue shirt with nice black shoes. This works well for men or women. Invest in tailoring to make sure they fit attractively.
* Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep not only affects your mental capabilities, but affects the healthy look of your skin and hair. Not getting your rest will also cause you to put on unwanted pounds.
* Eat right. A good diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, will take years off your face and help keep skin clear and bright.
* Take public speaking classes. Being able to present yourself with confidence, to speak clearly and have a well-modulated voice will boost the perception of your attractiveness. Standing and walking with confidence, as well as using hand gestures properly will help others to see you as better looking.
* Get more education. The more schooling you have, the higher others will perceive your status, and therefore, your looks.
While these suggestions may bother some people, the truth is that improving our physical appearance should be seen as just another tool to getting the career we want. Ignoring your appearance could be just as costly as not improving your skills or completing that big project on time.