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updated: 7/8/2012 6:29 AM

When 'you look so young!' gets old

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Q: I am a 37-year-old woman and a partner in a professional services firm. My problem, which is really only a problem in this context, is that I look at least 10 years younger than my age. Since my industry values experience above nearly everything else, I am constantly worried that my appearance conveys a lack thereof. I have tried dressing up, dressing down, more makeup, less makeup, different glasses, contact lenses -- nothing works. I've started to avoid in-person meetings and conferences, which is affecting my career. This is not all in my head; I've had clients and prospects remark on my apparent age in unflattering terms, one calling me a child who could not possibly help her. I also do not have the luxury of letting time work itself out, as I am in a "make or break" situation for the next two to three years. Any advice?

A: A moment while I finish tuning this teeny-tiny violin, strung with a few of my gray chin whiskers.

Seriously, I believe this is hurting your career. Yes, we've all been bludgeoned with studies showing that youthful, attractive people outearn less genetically lucky colleagues. But good DNA can twist both ways. The underside of attraction is prejudice.

Looking "older" is not the answer; otherwise, you could just take up tanning and unfiltered Camels. The real solution is to project a more polished version of yourself.

Think about the professional skills and experience that propelled you to partner before age 40. Condense them into a 30-second spiel that you can deliver as needed with a patient, heard-it-all smile that never quite reaches the (disgustingly line-free) skin around your eyes.

While you're rehearsing that speech, take a look in the mirror. Do you stand with confidence and move with purpose? Where do you focus in conversation?

And about talking with clients? Do you, like, sound, like, y'know, articulate 'n' stuff? Even subtler spoken and written tics -- unnecessary apologies, ellipses and parentheses, self-effacing expressions -- can undermine the self-assured image you're trying to convey.

Finally, consider looking beyond your friendly neighborhood smart-aleck columnist for advice. Books and magazines abound with tips on communication, grooming, fashion and behavior. Professional stylists and consultants can help with all of the above. The good ones aren't cheap, but at this point in your career, they're worth the investment.

For future consideration: Once you've moved beyond your up-or-out phase, is there a branch of your profession where youthful looks might actually be an asset, not a hindrance?

• Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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