Eyebrows: a discussion.
Scaachi Koul: I would like everyone to describe their brows and their power and their majesty, to begin with.
Arabelle Sicardi: I have anime protagonist eyebrows. They’re stick straight with no actual arch and kind of a begrudging curve at the end that often just peters off if I do not insist on them doing what I want via brow gel and the slightest amount of filling in. I think this is the perfect example of my eyebrows when they behave and are allowed to live their best life—I look like the cold science nerd in an anime team who only speaks when they’re suggesting a life saving scenario. I have my mother’s eyebrows. They’re straight up Taiwanese.
Natasha MH: Right now, they still have eyeliner from yesterday in them, because I decided to use my eyeliner pens to do my brows, as opposed to brow gel. So, they’re somewhat … severe, stained an inky black at the moment. They’re not shaped into anything in particular. They’ve got a bit of a curve—not much of a dramatic slope. Shapeless, sparse overgrowth is what I call them. I shaved them all off as a nine year old, and they just kind of grew back this way. There was a period where I was waxing them because I wanted them to look like a combination of Maleficent and Audrey Hepburn. Sadly, my brows were made for more delicate things. And for that, I will never forgive them. Although, with enough product, I can wrangle them into a messy Edie Sedgwick- (I know, I know—enough with the makeup reference cliches!) styled brow. Demented, imprecise—product sloughed on with an unsteady hand.
Gabby Noone: My brows are currently the bushiest they’ve been since I was a kid. Last summer, I had a realization that, after years of going by that old lady’s mag rule that you should stick a pencil next to your nose and tweeze your eyebrows off at the point where it hits, that I should actually stop tweezing the middle area between my brows. So I’ve been working on growing out that area and I think it makes my face look a little more dramatic. Periodically, I got them threaded throughout the year, but I haven’t done that in like five months now. Usually I fill them in with NYX brow gel to make them look bold and uniform. When I don’t do that, you can sort of notice the areas that grew back a little less thick after my middle school era of tweezing them into tadpoles. Both my mom and sister had these naturally really thick brows, but they tweezed them out of recognition for years so I am the one who stopped while I still had the chance! I like to think my brows are the only part of my body that I feel I don’t have to work on or maintain constantly to look good, but then again after typing that all out it sounds like I actually do put quite the effort into them.
SK: This is a true varied group of brows. Mine are thick and arched and pretty manicured; I don’t like leaving them alone because I still remember being teased as a kid for my thick brows—I was (and am!) A Brown so naturally my eyebrows are either very much in season or incredibly tacky. Depends on the year, I guess. I too use a few NYX products to keep them in line but I guess luck is on my side right now that full brows are IN and people want to TALK ABOUT THEM and the thing that made me feel marginalized is now SOMETHING FOR SEX.
GN: One of my best friends is really into early 2000s aesthetics and the other week she was like to me, “Thin eyebrows are going to be in soon at this rate.” And I yelled at her like HOW DARE YOU? This is definitely an irrational fear of mine. Like, eyebrows are fashion right now, but then what if they’re not. I used to loathe my brows and get made fun of for having them for years. Then the first time I filled them in a few years ago someone was like “Wow, you look like Cara Delevigne!” (Debateable, but, like, thanks for comparing me to a supermodel!!! Also, Cara Delevigne making brows “in” is a whole ‘nother can of worms). I also get really worked up anytime a magazine editorial decides it’s going to be totally conventional, BUT with BLEACHED BROWS this time. Which isn’t to say bleached brows are bad. It’s just, like, really goofy to me when it’s like a normal Kim Kardashian photoshoot, but with bleached brows and she’s like “We went with something edgy this time.”
NMH: I weirdly love bleached brows, and really want to try them. Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, and, like, FKA Twigs are what really tipped me over the edge there. It’ll be tricky because of my skintone to get a bleached brow that I won’t hate, however—because while I do like that just-bleached, peroxide blonde brow on olive/darker skintones, I feel like it wouldn’t quite work on me, at least the way that I’m imagining my “ideal” bleached brow to look, where it appears more like a disappearance of the brow, as opposed to like committing to another colour. When done right (similarly to shaved brows), it draws my attention to the brow bone/the place where I feel like the nose “begins.” I pay more attention to the space between the inner corner of the eye and the nasal bone, in a way that I wouldn’t normally. Mostly because I deeply enjoy beauty looks from Medieval Europe for some odd reason. Partially because outside of certain fashion circles, I feel like some Medieval beauty looks are a little off-putting when contrasted against the dictates of current beauty standards. The high forehead, and the plucked out brows, as if there’s nothing there to frame the eye, or distinguish the face from the forehead. Because as much as we talk about how eyebrows frame the eye, they seem to also be one of the ways to frame, and separate, the forehead. Playing with hairlines and brows is something that I’m starting to really want to experiment with … but it could go really bad, really fast.
There’s that meme, celebrities without eyebrows, where—aside from showcasing Photoshop jobs of varying quality—the whole joke is “we would look so weird without eyebrows.” It’s supposed to feel off somehow, like a bit of mindfuck—an apparently humorous mindfuck, but a mindfuck nonetheless. Yet, when I’m thinking about disappearing brows, I don’t think it’s particularly “weird,” or “ugly” to be without them, on account of the fact that, like, aside from the fact that beauty ideals change constantly, sometimes you can get sick and as a consequence, your eyebrows can fall out. Brows also can thin out as you age. It’s absolutely not weird, or ugly, or something to be ashamed of to lose your eyebrows, just something that is. And the fact that it is, is one of the reasons why I can find it beautiful. However, I need to be careful with this line of thinking because, like, you don’t want to do the whole “glamourize an illness/ oh look at that consumptive beauty” thing, because even if something may be perceived as aesthetically pleasing either because it feeds into, or goes against the current norm of beauty, this doesn’t automatically mean that it FEELS good, or that it is necessarily good for you. Beauty and health are such minefields for me, especially if you think about how illness can become beautiful whether it’s in this “affliction-is-the-path-to-grace-suffering-for-your-metaphysical-fashion” sort of way, or like the Victorians being all: “consumption-is-chic-now.”
Browlessness seems to have this relationship (in ~*hai fashun*~, at least) with, as Gabby said, “edginess,” “weirdness,” and “oddness,” the kind which either consciously, or not, can be defined against whatever “normal” beauty is. It looks cool because it’s not something that you necessarily would see out on the street every day in most cities. Consider all the times on America’s Next Top Model, when during the Tyra makeovers at least one contestant has a beauty team disappear their eyebrows. So that they can look like an “alien.” That’s strange, because there’s nothing particularly “alien” about not having eyebrows. I feel like part of the reason that browlessness is such a novelty is because of how we expect a “healthy” face to look. As soon as faces deviate from that, it’s either comedy or tragedy or something that only a very particular sensibility can “appreciate” as beautiful.
AS: I’ve done every color of the rainbow on my hair but I haven’t done bleached brows and I don’t think I will? They’re way too high maintenance and that is coming from me, a person who regularly spends 24 hours at a spa and has a ten step skincare routine I do even when I’m super drunk. Even me!!! It’s too much!!! There’s a limit. I do think thin brows will probably come back maybe because I can see that the late ‘90s-early aughts beauty routines of pop stars are constantly being referenced and replicated. All things return. I said lip gloss and brown lipstick would return three years ago and now Kylie sells her lipkits in like six seconds and it’s all broooooOOOWWWWnnnnnnn.
SK: Oh god, is bleached brows becoming an actual thing? That stresses me out. I cannot carry that. The eyebrows are the bra of my eyes, I feel very comfortable with them, I want them to be very dark and very mean looking. I’VE SPENT SO MUCH TIME ON THEM, I CAN’T BLEACH THEM NOW, I’M IN TOO DEEP.
AS: Yeah just, the time! The time of brows feels like it is expanding. You got the instagram fade, you have people getting brows tattooed on, you have fiber brow mascara, you have brow gel…tattoo things, the temporary brow tints? Bleached brows require rebleaching every 2 weeks or something like that, not to mention the toning you may need to do. And the constant PLUCKING. Violence!
NMH: I feel like the plucking could be soothing at times? I am kind of curious about that relationship between pain, pleasure (both visual, and like … sensory) and beauty rituals like plucking your brows, or popping a zit. Not to mention the soothing quality … that in some cases, I’m not sure is pleasurable—I mean, define pleasure here—but kind of gives you something, whether that’s a way of calming oneself down, or something else entirely. I feel like that might be a different discussion, however – but it’s definitely related to how we begin to think about the relationship between beauty and pain. Well, the work of beauty/beautification too.
GN: I just want to say here I absolutely love plucking an ingrown hair. It is like winning the lottery.
SK: I find beauty standards that are linked with hair so complicated and so unpredictable. I feel like I think about this a lot, at least in recent weeks, because I’m noticing that all the hair trends that I was told were wildly unattractive on my body, my brown body, are now considered more and more attractive. Women are growing out their armpit hair and growing out their brows and letting their unibrows grow in a little bit—for me, there’s obviously a racial element but I’m still never clear on what we’re currently considering physically acceptable.
AS: I mean it’s very clear that hair is linked to white supremacy, I feel like we have a content farm circle jerk of cultural appropriation discussions surrounding Kardashian wigs et al all the time. I do think the armpit thing being linked to feminism is a distinctly retrograde idea of body politics and freedom and whiteness. And even a particular kind of whiteness, the risk of letting your hair grow out is so much “less” when it’s pale and fine and no one sees it. But if you have dark hair and are hairy, you’re seen as something else, and it’s, you know—its own thing. I think beauty is all about rewriting power and narratives; I don’t find it unpredictable, I just find it scary. There’s a Bataille quote I gnaw on a lot: “Beauty is desired in order that it may be befouled; not for its own sake, but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it.”
NMH: OMG BATAILLE. I literally have Eroticism (the book that contains his chapter on beauty) on my bedtable. Let me go get that. What he was really getting at there (partially anyways) was that relationship between beauty, cleanliness, and uncleanliness. My crappy super simplification of that essay: He’s talking more about beauty as it relates to sexuality/sexual taboos—and how eroticism transgresses all that. Why your reference to Bataille really interests me is because there is this relationship between hair and uncleanliness/disease/general foulness … because I feel like quite a few of our cosmetic rituals find their bearing in both health, and a culture’s view of the cosmos (whether it’s religious, superstitious, etc.) and that delineation between the “pure” and the “impure”—the impure being that which can cause illness or disturbance of a physical, or more spiritual sort. I’m thinking here of Ancient Egypt (I was reading this great intro of cosmetics in Ancient Egypt last night, so that’s been stuck in my brain) where the application of oils/ shaving the body, etc. helped to prevent against lice and what have you, but Egyptian priests would remove ALL of their body hair (not sure about the brows though) to present a “pure” image for the gods.
To try to bring this all back to brows/the topic of hair removal in general, I want to return to Bataille on beauty again. He writes that “any suggestion of the animal in human form is unquestionably repugnant … [and] that the erotic value of feminine forms seems to me to be bound up with the absence of the natural heaviness that suggests the physical use of limbs and the necessity for the framework of bone: the more ethereal the shapes and the less clearly they depend on animal reality or on a human physiological reality, the better they respond to the fairly widespread image of the desirable woman.” I sort of roll my eyes whenever I read that, for fairly obvious reasons. However, Bataille makes me think about a fairly pervasive line of thought wherein humans CONSCIOUSLY try to distinguish themselves from animals, and use one’s relationship to “animality” in terms of justifying all sorts of strange power relations and social classifications. That becoming “human,” or rather … becoming “civilized” is a matter of cleansing, plucking, erasing all trace of the animal in you. It’s a bit hilarious that this is the way that some people have chosen to run with this, considering the fact that animals have their own grooming behaviours particular to them … but whatever, humans are special broody snowflakes, let us carry on. How all of this relates to hair itself, however, I’m thinking a lot here about fur vs. skin and the protective/vulnerable qualities of each. Fur and hair ARE there to protect from the elements, as a barrier against diseases/insect bites, but they also can attract things that as humans, we’ve defined as not so great, whether it is B.O, trapping dirt and oils, or being a place for parasites and insects to hide in. In short, reminding us that we have less control than we think we do over the way our bodies interact and react to the world.
At this point, human hair feels more ornamental than anything else given the fact that clothes exist, as do forms of shelter, and technologies that regulate temperature (if we are so lucky). It exists as a statement. It’s here that I wish that I knew more about the biology of fur/skin and how these things evolved, so that this point would feel more grounded, less speculative. The way that we talk about “civilization” as this movement away from “nature” (which feels very much like a Eurocentric way of going about it, to be completely honest, and like the MOST impractical way of relating with the world/earth), it’s as if shedding your hair … or styling it (giving it form, structure, a reference point, and order) is the way you define yourself AS human. But where we move from “just a person” to “beautiful” is when one seems to escape/transcend the body as much as one can while still being housed in it. However, that’s a sense of the beautiful that seems to take beauty as too good to be “of the world” which, frankly, perplexes me a bit. It’s here where I start thinking about things like physiognomy and phrenology, where one could make these judgements about a person’s character, intelligence, or predisposition towards crime vis a vis their body/ their face/ the size and shape of their skull. I’ll try to keep it brief: If you look at old drawings/photographs of who was considered a “good person” vs. a “bad person,” you can see relationships between heritage, character traits, perceived attractiveness, and how a face can resemble an animal’s. It’s “the beautiful as the good” in this irritatingly myopic, and literal way. Under such a system, ugliness is the province of beasts and beauty is dictated by the powers that be. To be “ugly” under that mode of thought is to be unnecessarily hairy. It’s here where I think about where we inherit the words “highbrow” and “lowbrow” from those practices; those with “higher” browlines were seen as intelligent and sophisticated, whereas people with “lower” browlines were idiots. Even today, there’s research being done on how we register trustworthiness in faces, and it found that those with high eyebrows are ranked as more trustworthy than those with low eyebrows. One paper in particular looked at how the amygdala processes social information/ social cues in terms of how we vet faces even before we have consciously perceived them … which again, makes me think a lot about that relationship between beauty and goodness, the pure and the impure, the safe and the unsafe, and how that translates to people and how we choose to classify and categorize them … often against their will, or without them having a direct hand in the creation of such meanings.
As an aside: like, I don’t know what it is, or why it is, but a lot the Disney villains have the BEST eyebrows. Ursula has that drawn-in, pencil-thin swoop that was modelled off of the drag queen, Divine, but is something you see on a lot of deathrockers and Goths who were influenced by that look. Or Cruella de Vil who has that Joan Crawford waxing crescent moon of a brow. Or Maleficent with those arches. Even Scar. Almost always, Disney villains have better eyebrows. Better outfits, and better eyebrows. There’s something rather imposing and delightfully evil about a well done arched brow wielded by someone who knows how to use it. Or a brow that looks like it’s angry, even if it’s just a thin, diagonal line.
SK: I mean, it is predictable in that it’s still about whiteness of course, but maybe I’m not quick enough to catch what part of my body—and namely, my hair—is going to be considered beautiful, which was once considered grotesque. I remember when thick brows started to come back and I got really irritated because all this girls who used to be terrible to me in junior high because my FACE will not stop GROWING THINGS, were now very nice to me because my thick lashes, my thick brows, the darkness of my lower lashes were all considered beautiful and now, now I was worth talking to about my beauty routine. (Which is almost nothing, my hair is just rude and plentiful.)
AS: RUDE AND PLENTIFUL! What a delight, though, what a combination of things to be.
SK: Thank you; I am very bushy.
GN: This is something I am grappling with because I am like, ok, yes everyone loves thick brows but do they love sideburn hairs, chin hairs, my mustache? Like, maybe one component is trendy, but not all at once. Did your guys’ moms ever use those tools for removing face hair that are like lowkey sand paper? Do they still make those? I got in trouble for rubbing one all over my mustache because I saw my mom do it. I always saw removing facial and body hair as this maturity thing. Like, the height of elegance and glamour. Maybe I should blame the Skintimate shave gel or Nair commercials which looked like so much fun. But at the same time it’s all so risky! One time in middle school I tried the Nair at-home wax strips on my mustache and brows and then had to go to school with band aids on my face from the burns they caused me.
AS: Yeah, they still make them. My mom doesn’t have body hair, she’s Taiwanese, she was also a tomboy so she would yell at me when I wanted to start shaving my legs in school and didn’t get why I was so adamant about it. Me and my high school freshman best friends would gang up on my other best friend to pluck her eyebrows. Vanity and enforced femininity as bonding and power! We wanted to “save” her into beauty. It was gross and when she cried I would smile. Sorry, Abigail.
SK: My mom is a wolf so yes, I am familiar with literally all hair removal processes. When I first started shaving, my mom told me I would have to shave every day and I was like, “Ho ho, okay, Mother,” but no, she was right, I too am Wolf. But, I’m fine with it now, just takes some time to get over the inevitabilities of your sideburns and wispy neck-hairs.
NMH: I never really inherited any beauty rituals from my mother, I never really SAW her do beauty. She’s pretty private like that. I have more memories of my dad shaving his beard, and hanging out while he did that. Beyond Haircare (on your head) 101, she never really taught me anything—I just figured it out from reading the internet/being interested in style from a very, very young age/figuring it out for myself. For me, beauty has always been this very solitary, experimental activity that is just influenced by the sheer amount of STUFF that’s out there.
SK: My mom passed down a bit of anxiety about body hair. Leg hair, armpit hair, facial hair all needed to be tended to, like it said something about your character if you let it grow. I think she’s unclenched a bit on it as she’s gotten older, but perhaps because after four decades of tweezing and plucking, her hair doesn’t come back as thick as it used to. But I’m still pretty dedicated to hair maintenance. I find it soothing, somehow, maybe not necessarily powerful but predictable. Like, I know this is what I have to do to feel okay about my body. I know this is the routine. My eyebrows are part of that, I suppose, because I know that I have to separate them and clean up the edges. That will make me cute. It’s the least I can do.
GN: I think certainly my mom tried to put off me removing my body hair and tweezing my eyebrows because she was so aware of the maintenance factor of keeping it up once you start. But I was so eager to begin because I was the hairiest girl in my elementary school (which, obviously, this is RELATIVE, it was because I was…Italian…in a sea of blondes). Also, the makeover montage scene in The Princess Diaries I think profoundly influenced (maybe even traumatized?) me as a child to think bushy eyebrows and frizzy hair were something to be dealt with. Like, “If Groucho Marx and Brooke Shields had a baby, she would have your eyebrows” as an insult in a Disney movie! But then the “mainstream” thick brows trend was becoming a thing when I was in high school, so that’s when I feel like I started to take heed of warnings from my mom and older sister of being careful when I pluck. But it’s also like, what were they so afraid of? What would happen to me if I messed up my brows? Ruin my face maybe?
AS: Yeah I think beauty is so much about inheritance: from mothers and sisters and people who have been left behind, and the people who had power over those people, and on and on.