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Mysteries of the Eyebrow

BG Essay

5 29 2012



The eyebrows are the semaphore flags of the face. The slightest gesture from these small ribbons of hair signals a vast range of emotions, and yet, the brows also lend themselves to more fickle statements. Fast-growing, altered in minutes, and capable of dramatic effect, the hair on our foreheads belongs to personal whim and seasonal fashion more than anything else on our bodies.

Few things do more to transform a face. Brows add definition to eyes and proportion to facial structure. They can balance out prominent features and accentuate minor ones. They emphasize expressions from the clownish to the vampiric and suggest attitudes anywhere from the innocent to the professional. A little like salt, the eyebrow brings out the character around it.

"Mysteries of the Eyebrow"Still, for all its effect, the eyebrow rarely calls attention to itself. Often, it’s only when they go wrong, or go missing, that we notice them at all. Change them in any way, and people are guaranteed to register a difference, but without guessing what was done. On days when I’ve shaded them darker, people have asked if I’ve lost weight or dyed my hair. When I don’t groom them, I get asked if I’m tired. But remove them entirely, and we start to look alien, asexual. In the movies, the brow-less are monstrous, moribund, antisocial and occasionally hyper astute — as though the absence were a sign of some searing internal intensity.

In China, where face-reading is a popular form of fortune-telling, dark, smooth, full brows are considered a sign of good nature and strong moral fabric. And, as the proud owner of dark ones, I tend to agree. I admire fine, featherlike arches, but I generally prefer a bolder pair. There is something irreproachable about the professionally cured — like good cashmere, a neat twinset above your eyes will cover just about any occasion. But the natural look strikes me as womanly. I think a full pair suggests thoughts brewing beneath, and maybe some mischief. The gently groomed seem youthful and carefree — spontaneous when paired with a look that’s more put together.

You might not think you have a strong eyebrow ethic, but try setting yours to words, and you’re bound to stir up discussion. In fact, every culture has its eyebrow philosophy, and in comparison, ours is historically tame. In ancient Rome, where brows were considered a sign of intelligence, they were darkened and extended almost clear across the middle. In pharaonic Egypt, whenever cats died, their owners shaved their eyebrows in mourning. Brows were highly valued in Greece, and the brow-bereft wore goat-hair “falsies.” In Japan, until the mid-1800s, women typically plucked them off and smudged two cloudlike ovals at the top of their foreheads. In India, they were tamed with dexterously manipulated thread. In Persia, where little of a woman was seen behind her veil, they were celebrated in poetry. In Europe, from the Middle Ages through the Elizabethan era, when a clean brow was considered pious, they were plucked entirely. And in the eighteenth century, when powdered wigs were in fashion, women briefly took to gluing on gray mouse hair.

Whatever your approach, it’s likely you have a coming-of-age story. Though I keep them minimal now — tweezers on the wayward strays, a little pencil to even out the rest — I was more ambitious in my youth. At thirteen, I was sneaking mascara and wearing cherry-flavor ChapStick®, but I remember the moment I realized I needed less, not more, to achieve a grown-up- Catherine Despont look. I noticed them one weekend, while watching the Turner Classic Movies channel — flocks of elegant arcs like razor-thin birds flying in the distance, and boldly tweezed away. The move was considered radical in my ninth grade; it provoked comments from classmates and teachers alike. They were puzzled, skeptical. Did I actually think they looked good? I couldn’t say they were an improvement. The shape itself wasn’t so bad, but as anyone knows, you can’t judge an eyebrow out of context. Maybe I didn’t look better, but I was definitely transformed — and I never took their power for granted again.

Since then, I’ve experimented with dark Italianate arches and feathery flower-child patches. I’ve grown out caterpillars worthy of a natural history museum, but I’ve also had them professionally trimmed. My moods, my jobs, my current wardrobe, all get paired with eyebrows. Even if I go out without makeup, I make sure to brush them.

There seems to be a renaissance in brow awareness at the moment. They get regular mentions in beauty routines. And few people will raise one if you tell them you’re going to visit a brow “guru” for the price of a very respectable haircut. In fact, you’re much more likely to be admonished for taking things into your own hands. If it’s hard to pinpoint a generalized trend, you could say that brow style has joined the cult of the individual and entered the arena of specialists, like custom jeans and one-of-a-kind vintage. All expertise aside, nothing’s more original than the natural. BG

Catherine Despont considers history’s most memorable eyebrows. 

Catherine Despont
CATHERINE DESPONT, who writes about eyebrows in this issue, likes to keep her look natural (within reason). She writes about art, design and clothing. She just finished her first novel.



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