Image Source: Getty/ Kim Kulish/ Timothy A. Clary
Since the premiere of real-life criminal drama shows “The Dropout” and “Inventing Anna,” America has become enraptured with the stories of Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Sorokin. Each series resulted in numerous hot takes on social media, with discourse around how two women managed to dupe the country’s “elite” and heads of multi-million dollar companies, using what turned out to be elaborate schemes.
We are not here to discuss whether the victims of these scams deserved their fates, or whether the consequences matched the crime, but rather illuminate one fact that has become clear with these stories: these women were only able to execute scams of this magnitude because of the way they look. It simply would not have been possible had they been Black.
No, it’s not that Black people should have an equal opportunity to be scammers. However, the reality is that Holmes and Sorokin were able to commit these crimes because they met the outdated criteria of societally accepted beauty standards that favors white, Eurocentric features. Historically, white women have been valued as more beautiful, more trustworthy, and more feminine than their counterparts. (It’s true: until 1940, the rules for Miss America – a pageant dedicated to valuing someone’s “beauty” – stated that contestants must be “of good health and of the white race.”)
As a result, both Holmes and Sorokin were able to fly under the radar as they committed large-scale fraud.
What it Pays to Be “Beautiful” in the United States
Because whiteness is considered the standard of beauty, that means Sorokin and Holmes could be perceived as financially reliable and of a certain socioeconomic class, simply by existing.
Studies show that beauty is directly related to financial success, with attractive people getting more call backs for job offers, better results when negotiating, and quite frankly the benefit of the doubt. In a study published in the “American Economic Review,” researchers not only found that workers deemed more attractive are considered more capable by employers, but also that physically attractive workers have oral skills (such as social and communication skills) that have led to higher wages.
Because whiteness is considered the standard of beauty, that means Sorokin and Holmes – despite their varied appearances and approach to their beauty rituals – could be perceived as financially reliable and of a certain socioeconomic class, simply by existing. The pre-conceived notion that they could be financially reliable or well-off never seemed too outlandish because they looked the part.
Along with the general privileges that come with fitting within certain beauty ideals, studies also show that people like people who look like them. One sentiment that was often repeated in “Inventing Anna,” the story about how Sorokin came to scam some of New York City’s wealthiest, was that Sorokin just looked like she belonged to the upper echelons of society. One quick Google search will show you that this phenotype is typically white and skinny.
In an interview on the “Call Me Daddy” podcast, Sorokin herself said that she found it easier to go into high net worth spaces and ask for large sums of money, because people already assumed that she was rich, so they were more inclined to give her what she asked for.
Holmes had fans show up to her trial wearing her signature low bun and black turtleneck, even after it was revealed that she scammed her investors out of money. This is just further proof that fitting the mainstream Eurocentric beauty standard grants you social capital that can ensure your success despite your criminal record.
Why Black Women Haven’t Had the Privilege of “Blending In”
When wealth in the US is divided among a fairly homogeneous group – white people – and the country’s beauty standards are equally Westernized, this leaves little to no opportunity for Black women to enter the spaces that these women did without the scrutiny that comes with being seen as an “other” both physically and socioeconomically.
The way that Black women have been displaced from conversations surrounding “conventional” beauty, as well as its accompanying advantages, is systematic. In the 18th century, Louisiana Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miro enacted the Tignon Laws requiring Black women in New Orleans to wear a tignon, a type of headdress or scarf, to completely conceal their hair. The law was enacted because white women complained that freed Black women could entice white men with their hair. The scarves would also serve as a social indicator, to not have light skinned Black women be mistaken for white women. It is only recently that the CROWN Act, a law that aims to ban race-based hair discrimination, has picked up momentum after being passed by the House of Representatives.
Historically, Black women have never been afforded the opportunity to “blend in” culturally, socially, or physically, because the canvas has always been white. The struggle for greater society to see and accept Black as beautiful – and to assign it the same social capital and benefits of whiteness – has cost Black women funding for their businesses, their lifetime earning potentials, and a host of other socio-economic advantages that their white counterparts enjoy.
At the end of the day, Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Sorokin are not outrageously beautiful women. Instead, they are beneficiaries of a racist society that allows them the gift of un-remarkability. This in turn allowed them room to be audacious – and borderline delusional – in the pursuit of their desires. These women used whiteness as their springboards as well as their protection.
Black people, and Black women in particular, are not afforded that luxury. Holmes and Sorokin represent the very racism that keeps Black people away from the opportunities that their counterparts are afforded, but also the society that accepts it as normal – so long as there’s a TV show they can watch afterward.