The Orris: A Cultural Journal

Big Brows


“Masculine observers, if the birth mark did not heighten their admiration, contented themselves with wishing it away, that the world might possess one living specimen of ideal loveliness, without the semblance of a flaw.”

 – Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Birth-mark”, 1843

Audrey Hepburn

BUSHY eyebrows are in. And to get the full brows I was bestowed with, you can buy brow oil, or use castor or rosemary oil. You can buy products to make them thick. You can get your brows dyed. You can shape them yourself with a stencil or color them in with pencil. You can get them permanently tattooed on your face. You can buy eyebrow wigs. Or you can even clone your eyebrows in an eyebrow transplant. You can do this to get the look I’ve tried to pluck, wax, tweeze, thread, get rid of, hide, deal and come to terms with my whole life.

Eyebrows protect your eyes from debris and salt. They wick away sweat. They shade your eyes. They show surprise, fear, anger, or frustration. And without them, a recent Internet post has shown that even beautiful celebrities like Natalie Portman look like Golem, with big foreheads and collapsing eyes.  “Eyebrows are the most transformative feature on a person,” said Maribeth Madron, a “makeup artist and eyebrow specialist,” to The New York Times.Eyebrows would just change their entire face.”

Eyebrows are points of conversation as well. When I was 22, I waitressed in a boutique Brooklyn Heights café. The people I worked with commuted from the cheaper parts of Brooklyn, wore blue streaks in their hair, played in bands, and had beards. In short, they were young, hip, and beautiful. The people I served lived in this upscale neighborhood and were always well groomed, with designer eyeglasses for the men and long graying hair for the women. They were, in short, old, hip, and beautiful.

One cloudy, but particularly busy afternoon, an older woman, a regular to whom I hadn’t paid much attention previously, motioned me over. Her wrists stuck out as she called to me. She could have been Joan Didion, wispy and thin, with a short bob haircut.

“You know,” she said, her voice full of concern, “you should really tweeze your eyebrows. It would lighten up your whole face. Make you less serious. Nice looking even.”

“Ok,” I said, “Thanks…Can I bring you more coffee?” I brushed her off and went back to the counter. I’ve considered my eyebrows before. The way they sit heavily on my brow, the way they wisp up with little coarse brown hairs. This wasn’t new to me. And yet it bothered me when anyone brought it up. She motioned me over again a few minutes later with another little wave of her hand.

“Really,” she said leaning in close to me across the counter, “it would really bring a lot of space to your face.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, and took away her half-eaten sandwich too early.

I dropped the sandwich in the trash and held my breath all the way to the bathroom to stop my eyes from welling up. When someone criticizes your face, there’s a moment when you don’t want to react, and then there’s the moment you can’t help but feel like your face is nothing and, at the same time, everything that is wrong in the world. I directed to the mirror every curt retort, every pithy statement— I rather like them, Thank You—washed my hands, and went back to work.

“You can’t listen to that woman,” my co-worker said, “she’s crazy, mean.”

She might have been, but it didn’t matter.

People often take a lot longer looking at my face. They often comment on the “strength of my profile.” It’s a backhanded compliment. If they’re not talking about my roman nose, they are referring to my eyebrows. My hair is lighter brown, with red in it, but my eyebrows are dark. They’re thick. Sometimes I shape them. Sometimes I don’t. I’m lazy, or perhaps I want to be both myself and in vogue. Often those two don’t meet. People started coming up to me in high school, confused, to ask if I’ve dyed my hair or to tell me that I should do something about my unruly brows. Even now, though less so than in high school, everyone who speaks to me about my appearance is incredibly perplexed.

“Your eyebrows,” they say, searching for words, “have you done something with your hair?”

My answer to this question at age sixteen was always part indignant/part defense. I don’t pluck my eyebrows because of the patriarchy of the system. I wear this sweater BECAUSE it’s ugly. But I could never hide my confusion or the pain of not knowing what I was supposed to look like. And I didn’t know how to get that look, nor why I didn’t have it, or what to do with the unique look I did have. Above all, I realized that I must have thick eyebrows for some reason, but I couldn’t articulate why I wasn’t so quick to get rid of them.

In high school I looked to my parents for explanation of my brows, but they couldn’t help.  My mother is from Austrian and Russian Jewish stock, but she takes after her father’s blonde lineage that swept over the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the 19th century. Her hair is thin and blonde. Her eyebrows are small. Their shade of brown compliments my mother’s complexion: light and soft. My paternal grandmother’s eyebrows are graying, but were once darker and longer, closer to my own, but not quite.

The closest I come to my own brows are my sister’s. But while mine are heavy, hers are just right, a light brown suitable to her freckles and red hair. For reasons I never understood, my sister always wished she had my eyebrow shape. But I always thought that her real eyebrows fit her. It was hard to imagine she wanted my dramatically arched eyebrows that stuck up from every angle and were so dark that my face in my freshman yearbook took on a pallid tone in comparison. I looked quizzical and overburdened.

I looked to pictures from childhood to find reasons for my brows. They were present there too; long, like a lee, a shelter, unaware of the years of reckoning ahead. The answer was: my eyebrows had always been long and thick, and mine. And yet, for the rest of the world, this answer was unsatisfying at best, inconsequential at worst.

On the train ride home from the coffee shop, I ran my finger across my brows. They were getting thick and untamed. But other people on the train, women, had all types of eyebrows: thin and totally plucked, penciled in, thick in the front and tapering out to the end – real nineties like. And yet, everyone seemed to have a problem with my face. It was like I wasn’t even a girl. What’s so wrong with my eyebrows?I wondered.

Photo Credit: Georges Biard

FASHION and its history of brows changes constantly. Full brows one moment (today), peroxide blonde the next (yesterday), and shaved from here to eternity (antiquity). A few years ago, no eyebrows at all were the thing. One proponent of this trend, Lauren Boyle, meticulously plucked out her eyebrows every day and described it this way to The New York Times in “Where Have All the Eyebrows Gone,” “It’s unifying. There is an asexual element to no eyebrows. We are much more accepting of the ‘other’ nowadays…. It’s an exercise in modernity.” But if she had Brooke Shields eyebrows, she said it wouldn’t have been necessary.

In fashion, there is no middle ground. You respond to the world around you—to the trends or the fashion shows or the news—or you don’t. Perhaps Ms. Boyle’s dramatic reactionary eyebrows were an expression of the technological androgyny of a people in an unending war. Erasing your eyebrows is an expression of modernity as much as it is an exercise in transferring the ephemeral styles of the catwalk to modern life. It makes a statement, but it’s never long lasting. No matter the appeal on the runway, popular fashion also has its tastes and, often, it does not side with modernity, or post-modernity. This was and remains especially true for the very full brow and overreaching arch.

In the nineties and 2000’s as I was growing up, and ever after Audrey Hepburn or Jackie O (with the exception of early nineties grunge and Brooke Shields, heavy brows’ cover girl), it was a taboo to have lustrous brows. But the fates have changed, and now on the runway and online, bigger brows are becoming the biggest thing.

Why all of a sudden does my face do well in the spotlight? In the history of the coldness of technological modernity, perhaps we’ve always taken comfort in the familiar matronly figure. Our transition to fuller, softer, bolder, in eyebrows and in fashion, can been seen as no less a reaction to the world falling apart than Frida Kahlo’s uni-brow in the early thirties.

Photo Credit: Carl Van Vechtan

Fashion Week happens every year in New York; designers roll out their new collections and inspire magazines and stores to follow. Last year, like every year, there was a difference from styles past, a new trend. The models swished down the runway the same way as always, dresses slinking, legs shining, lips tight. But above their focused eyes and penitential glare, instead of the peacock blues and blood reds of the spring, their eyelids wore little makeup, bathed instead in shimmers of more neutral colors like gold and beige. The most surprising: above their eyes were actual bushy straight eyebrows, meticulously groomed, soft and mousy.

I imagined myself on the runway. They wouldn’t have to do anything to me. I’d walk out there, and people could applaud my heavy brow, my long hair pinned back. They would not mind my petite height. They would call it fitting. And in the front row, my knobby wristed café patron would clap brazenly with everyone else – as impervious to the contradiction of my show-stopping new style as I was.

At the same time as Fashion Week, I began receiving magazines and catalogs where the models looked similar to those who had walked the runway. As they leaned on Moroccan white stone steps or faded dirty blue Colombian doors, they exuded a natural, normal, calm, and an effortless grace: brown wavy hair extended beyond their breasts, they wore little makeup, and they looked pleased under heavier brows.

With their thick eyebrows and hair (but not their gracefulness) they all, quite surprisingly, looked a lot like me.

I was relieved, at first. Finally, I could be myself. I didn’t have to worry endlessly over whether to pluck my brows. I could just not do it, let them grow wild, and call it fashion. I don’t think it’s any easier this way.

If thick eyebrows are in, they don’t give me a free pass to walk the runway. This isn’t about being our woman-selves in all our hairy laziness. Instead, according to Style magazine, this trend is stolen from the boys. Their article “Girls Will Be Boys heralds the day of the “full brow.” It equates androgyny with looking mannish. The introduction reads, “It was only natural that a borrowed-from-the-boys beauty look prevailed backstage,” click on for some “gender-bending tricks.”

I’m all for bending, but for now I’m content with just being me with my unruly bushy brows. The friends I have whose styles appear more androgynous make a choice, but their choices are defined by something deeper, not by the runway. They are a reaction against an industry that declares femininity waif-like, the same one that declares androgyny hip. This declaration is just another way to objectify an exotic beautiful other. I don’t think I’ll ever fit in, or if I’ll ever want to. I consider it convenient that my style is hot-to-trot and I’ll enjoy it while I can. I know it won’t last long.

Zoey Farber

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5 comments on “Big Brows

  1. Laura Louise Plummer
    March 14, 2012

    Expertly crafted, my friend. My mom always recounts her first dates with my father in the 80s, and how her full brows were part of what made my father attracted to her. Stand tall, sister!

  2. Sarah
    March 14, 2012

    Are we twins? People used to comment on “the strength of my profile” as well, because of my roman nose and bushy brows. There was nothing I could do about my nose, but I began plucking my eyebrowns when I was 11, and now there’s nearly nothing left – pluck ’em for enough years and they stop growing back in. I wish I had had your strength of conviction back then!

  3. Heather
    January 4, 2013

    Gahh!! My eyebrows are not too thick and a little arched and I’d really LOVE straight broad brows like Audrey Hepburn. Any way to make this possible? xo please reply!

    • The Orris
      January 9, 2013

      We’d say embrace the eyebrows you have! But also a good eyebrow pencil can also do wonders.

      • levitra
        July 31, 2013

        What a pleasure to find someone who thinks through the issues

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