Who's Allowed to Be a Hot Mess?
When Elizabeth Holmes, the notorious engineering “genius” behind the now defunct blood testing company Theranos was outed as a scammer, I was fascinated. The way a mess always recognizes another mess, I saw a bit of myself in her.
In the opening credits of HBO’s The Inventor, which chronicles her rise and fall, an off-camera interviewer asks her to tell him a secret. Holmes pauses for a moment and I caught a familiar churning behind her intense blue eyes. I bet she was thinking, “The secret is I’m living a lie.” I know, because I have felt that, too.
In my early-20s, I spent my mornings going over my hair with a flat iron, coating it with glassy oil to smooth it into shiny submission. I wore lots of black clothing and kept my nails manicured. I was young, black, and edging my way into the glossy echelons of Manhattan media; I felt like polishing myself up to be acceptably fancy was the only way I’d fit in. The unwritten rules about who was allowed to appear messy at work were black-and-white: it wasn’t me.
Time and time again research has found that black women feel pressured to work harder in order to compete with, or be taken as seriously as, their white colleagues. Their hair, specifically, is considered “less professional,” by the white women they work alongside. This kind of bias takes a real toll on black women’s mental health and professional success, while tall, thin, blonde, monied white women like Holmes are rewarded for doing the least. Her unchecked success — at the risk of others’ health and safety, and a billion dollars — is another example of an unearned benefit of the doubt. In her world, looking like you couldn’t be bothered to choose a nice outfit or have your hair done were markers of a true genius.
In the documentary, Holmes says her go-to style is a page right out of the Steve Jobs lookbook, and she’s said to idolize the disruptive founder. Getting wealthy men to think of her as another Jobs was her goal, and dressing like him was a simple enough strategy. So she cultivated the aesthetic of an eccentric genius unbothered with aesthetics at all. Holmes often stood before her Theranos staff with her dry-looking, patchy-blonde hair sticking out from her head in a surprising anti-gravity frizz. Her drab black turtleneck and pants uniform — which she was never photographed without, and stocked a closet full of — was part of her fakery. The white male genius starter pack: female edition.
And the astounding thing is that it worked (at least until it didn’t). Holmes’ persona fooled white male power-players including Henry Kissinger and Rupert Murdoch into not just giving her their money, but breathlessly comparing her to Archimedes while doing it. She headlined tech and medical conferences; she covered Forbes magazine. All this really illuminates is the unbearable whiteness of her grift.
In a piece for The Outline last June, Amanda Mull explains how Elizabeth Holmes’ signature style played in her larger web of deceit: “[She] always wore the same makeup, and not only was it always applied poorly, but specifically in such a way that you noticed its poor application. She created problems with her appearance that weren’t really there — like the fuzzy hair of a bad blowout that could have been easily smoothed, or the slightly askew application of a neutral, easy-to-apply lipstick — and then she pointedly declined to solve them.”
For a black woman, undone hair isn’t read as a marker of someone preoccupied with Serious Work. Many black women aren’t even given the option of sporting anything less than perfect hair at work without scrutiny, let alone having it be read as capability.
As InStyle reported in August, black women are frequently judged as unprofessional or unkempt based on racist assumptions about hair. Messy, for some people, is not only not a power move — it’s not an option. Black women are denied jobs or promotions, or removed from school, when hairstyles like dreadlocks, braids, or natural curls are misunderstood by white people in power. And these are styles, not a disheveled lack thereof.
Take Brittany Noble, an award winning journalist formerly of Mississippi's WJTV who filed an EEOC complaint after being fired for not straightening her hair. In a Medium essay, she explains how her boss balked when she asked if she could stop straightening her hair and appear on television with curls: “I was told my natural hair is unprofessional and the equivalent to him throwing on a baseball cap to go to the grocery store. He said ‘Mississippi viewers needed to see a beauty queen.’” She told InStyle in 2018 that it was suggested to her that black journalists did better with straight hair. “We’re trying to look like a white person, basically,” she explained. “We’re trying to fit into their newsrooms. These newsrooms were not created for us.”
Earlier this month New York City took drastic action to link hair discrimination with racial discrimination, banning workplace bias based on how women of color wear their hair. Elsewhere in the country, black women’s appearances have been consistently policed in workplaces, schools, and even bylaws of the military dress code. New York is one city, and it's one that's already tough on discrimination. And simply banning discrimination is far from handing over a billion dollars because you’ve read someone’s disheveled appearance as brilliance. For black women like me, neatness is still required, and there’s no benefit of the doubt. If I showed up with Holmes Hair, my white coworkers would probably ask if I'd been out partying too hard the night before.
As for Elizabeth Holmes: Now that the coils of her scam have all unraveled, I can’t help but wonder how she’s wearing her hair.