DOWD: The burden of beauty on the job

It's hard to feel sorry for a woman who frets about being too beautiful. Ordinarily, extraordinary good looks are an advantage for men and women — and even babies.

A research team at the University of Alberta conducted a study at a supermarket and observed that parents gave more attention and supervision to their pretty ducklings.

Aesthetic allure is evolutionary, after all. "Like lots of animals," said Dr. Andrew Harrell, the team leader, "we tend to parcel out our resources on the basis of value."

So it was unusual when a knockout in New York, Debrahlee Lorenzana, a 33-year-old single mother, filed suit against Citigroup, claiming that she was fired from a Citibank branch for looking too sexy.

"Plaintiff was advised that as a result of the shape of her figure," her lawsuit reads, "such clothes were purportedly 'too distracting' for her male colleagues and supervisors to bear."

Late-night comedians and tabloids have had a field day. TV and tabloids have run pictures, taken by a photographer who works with her lawyer, showing Lorenzana in the pencil skirts, turtlenecks, tailored jackets and stilettos that she says made her bosses at the bank concentrate on the wrong kind of figures.

"She has to manage her wardrobe so these men can manage their libidos?" said her lawyer, Jack Tuckner, adding that her bosses acted as immaturely as the boys on "Wayne's World."

As she prepared to appear on the morning shows, Lorenzana recalled that her supervisors obsessed over what she was wearing, "saying things are too tight, you cannot wear turtlenecks. Well, guess what? When you say my pants are too tight when they're not, then you must have been staring at me.

"The reality is, I'm a size 32 DD. I'm very skinny, and then I have curves. So, of course, on my body, the turtleneck is going to make it more noticeable. But I'm not showing cleavage. We wear jackets."

She said a co-worker who bought the same styles and designer brands never got in trouble, and neither did tellers who wore low-cut tops, snug pants and hot boots.

"I said, 'You are discriminating to me, because of my body type,'" she said with a slight accent and a breathy voice. "This is genetic. What am I supposed to do?"

Citigroup didn't return calls for comment.

Lorenzana's lawsuit says that her bosses told her that her female colleagues could wear what they liked because their "general unattractiveness rendered moot their sartorial choices." Her well-tailored clothes, on the other hand, emphasized what her lawyer calls her "hourglass figure." This case has caused such fascination because usually it's the other way around.

Attractive professors get better evaluations from their students, according to one study. A 2005 analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis confirmed what seems apparent, from presidential races to executive boardrooms: Good-looking people and tall people get a "beauty premium" — an extra 5 percent an hour — while there is a "plainness penalty" of 9 percent in wages.

Although people laugh at the idea of a babe in the office being as maddening as Tantalus' out-of-reach fruit, women do get penalized this way sometimes.

A male friend once told me he was looking for an unattractive personal assistant so he wouldn't be tempted. And when I was hiring a Grace Kelly blonde as a researcher a few years ago, a male colleague asked me not to because it would be "too distracting" to him; two girlfriends cautioned me not to because it would be depressing — and distracting — for me to work with someone so good looking. (It wasn't.)

"Sometimes, honestly, I wish I didn't look the way I did," Lorenzana says, "because people judge you right away. Other women have their guards up, they automatically categorize you as being conceited. I have to work three times as hard to prove that I earned this through my hard work."