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Why we care so much about Elizabeth Holmes’s “bad hair”

It’d be easy to believe that the Theranos founder’s split ends were part of the scam. But there’s a simpler answer.

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes at the Forbes Under 30 Summit on October 5, 2015.
Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images

Elizabeth Holmes, we are told, has bad hair. This we know from the highly public years she has spent as the biotech visionary turned disgraced ex-CEO behind the medical startup Theranos, as well as the footage seen in HBO’s recently released documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. We also know because so many people keep saying so.

Holmes’s frazzled roots and bleached split ends have been the subject of much discussion ever since the Theranos founder saw her company implode, beginning with the damning reporting of Bad Blood author John Carreyrou in late 2015. Many on Twitter have wondered how, particularly as the head of a scientific company, Holmes allowed her hair to appear so chemically fried, and whether the look played into her larger grift. (Tavi Gevinson also posted a very on-point impression of Holmes, which included exaggerated flyaways.)

Part of this fixation is that we’re not used to seeing such a public figure neglect what we’re often told is the primary duty of womanhood: making herself attractive. It’s not that Holmes isn’t — as a thin blonde, white woman with a naturally pretty face, she doesn’t have to do much in order to be considered so. Her notoriously fried hair, however, is a far cry from the sleek, tidy styles that are typically expected of powerful women in the spotlight. We’re not supposed to notice these hairstyles — it’s why so many news anchors have the same one — whereas Holmes’s cowlicks and stick-straight flyaways attract attention.

But is the fact that we’re fascinated by Holmes’s bad hair because it defies our expectations of female public figures’ appearances too charitable of an argument? It’s an idea that becomes increasingly plausible as more evidence reveals the lengths that Holmes has gone to manipulate her image. The most obvious example is her baritone voice, which her family maintains is real but former professors and employees have claimed is put on in order to appear more commanding in male-dominated Silicon Valley.

There are other aspects of Holmes that can feel contrived, too. Holmes has said that her uniform of black turtlenecks, of which she said she owns 150 and used to wear every day, was a way for her to expend less energy on deciding what to wear and more on the company. “It makes it easy because every day you put on the same thing and don’t have to think about it — one less thing in your life,” she told Glamour in 2015. “All my focus is on the work. I take it so seriously. I’m sure that translates into how I dress.”

Yet in an interview for the podcast The Dropout, former Theranos employee Ana Arriola said that in the early days, Holmes wore “frumpy Christmas sweaters,” and that the black turtlenecks didn’t start showing up until Arriola told her about Steve Jobs’s famous uniform. She said that Holmes later stocked up on Jobs’s exact preferred brand of turtleneck, Issey Miyake, suggesting that her sartorial choices were modeled after the business icon.

Holmes at the Fortune Global Forum on November 2, 2015.
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Fortune

It might not be a leap, then, to suggest that Holmes’s hair was just another calculated component of her aesthetic. It is, of course, dyed blonde, an unexceptional quality for an American white woman to have, but made slightly more exceptional when noting that while just 2 percent of the population has naturally blonde hair, 48 percent of female CEOs at S&P 500 companies do, which could have been Holmes’s way, conscious or otherwise, of attempting to become one of them.

Even the natural damage that comes with artificially lightened hair may have been intentionally exacerbated. In leaving her sloppily straightened hair unkempt when it was either down or twisted into a low bun, seemingly sans any sort of oil or conditioning treatment (expensive, sure, but certainly not for a woman worth billions), it gives the appearance of someone with more important things to worry about than hair, and who has stated as much.

Like a uniform of black turtlenecks and black trousers and a falsified baritone, a few noticeable split ends may have been Holmes’s attempt at communicating seriousness. This, of course, only works if you’re white: As Bridget Todd notes in InStyle, “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.”

It’s a tempting theory, particularly because it draws a neat conclusion from someone who was able to defraud a lot of very intelligent people out of very large sums of money. Of course the hair was a part of the scam all along! As Amanda Mull wrote at the Outline last year, Holmes’s “self-consciously bland appearance” was optimized “in order to placate male investors perhaps more inclined to believe in the genius of other men.”

But as much as I’d like to believe that Holmes’s bad hair was an early tell of her many bad deeds to come, I don’t. In fact, to me, Holmes’s bad hair is one of the only relatable things about her.

It is entirely reasonable to me that someone could look at herself in the mirror and see visible roots and more than a few flyaways and still justifiably believes she looks good. It is even more reasonable when considering that Holmes has a history of questionable personal style. There were the “frumpy sweaters” she later ditched for turtlenecks. There is her awkwardly dark, often slightly askew makeup. Her (private) social media account also pictured the 35-year-old recently in a thin black choker — a perfectly cute choice, of course! — but a trend that’s most typically associated with girls around half her age who have yet to build billion-dollar corporations. But again, this isn’t exceptional: It is nearly impossible to meet the nebulous, ever-changing standards of female presentation while also appealing to every individual person’s taste.

Holmes at the Time 100 Gala on April 21, 2015.
Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Her appearances at fancy events, too, show someone who simply doesn’t know how to dress herself as a celebrity — which is to say, a perfectly normal person who does not employ a professional stylist. At April 2015’s Time 100 Gala, Holmes wore a simple black dress, her standard amateurish smoky eye, and straightened hair that looked like it might have been given a modicum more attention than a normal day, but not by much. At November 2015’s Glamour Women of the Year Awards, her hair was in a much sleeker lob, suggesting she had received a professional blowout. But this was a ceremony thrown by a women’s magazine where there would be other fashionable people around, and Holmes’s shiny hair was a one-off, like a prom-day spray tan that would fade within a couple of days.

Elizabeth Holmes supposedly did a lot of very bad things, which makes it far easier for us to delight in ridiculing her bad hair. But what’s harder to accept might be that this person who did a lot of very bad things also has the very relatable quality of often floundering when it comes to female beauty standards, which are endless in their contradictions and confusions. It would be a neater bow on the Theranos story to suggest that Holmes’s alleged sociopathy went so far as to have intentionally terrible hair, but I think the answer is the simpler one: Having good hair is hard work — work that unlike, say, white-collar crime, Holmes apparently wasn’t nearly as adept at.

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