November 15, 2019 06:46:17
Model Sophia Hadjipanteli and her distinctive brow. (Instagram: sophiahadjipanteli)
From completely shaved mounds to thick, furry lines, eyebrows are a part of the face we continue to experiment with. We seek to hide, exacerbate and embellish them. And today, every shopping strip and mall has professionals ready to assist us with wax, thread and ink.
Through thick and thin
In the court of Elizabeth I, to draw attention to the perceived focal point of a woman‘s body — her breasts — the monarch would pluck her eyebrows into thin lines or remove them completely, as well as shaving off hair at the top of her forehead.
Although the intentions were different, nonexistent or needle-thin brows had also been common in ancient China and other Asian cultures, where women plucked their eyebrows to resemble specific shapes with designated names such as “distant mountain” (likely referring to a central and distinctive point in the brow), “drooping pearl” and “willow branch”.
Rome idolised masterful furrows in men. (ABC News: Franklin Hood)
They are often represented in sculptures through expressive mounds devoid of individual or even vaguely suggested hairs: in men they are strong and masterful furrows above a purposeful gaze; in women, soft and emotive.
Brows as barometers
For much of the 19th century, cosmetics for women were viewed with suspicion, principally as the province of actresses and prostitutes. This meant facial enhancement was subtle and eyebrows, though gently shaped, were kept relatively natural.
Despite this restraint, a certain amount of effort still went into cultivation. A newspaper article from 1871 suggested intervention during childhood to thicken them:
If a child‘s eyebrows threaten to be thin, brush them softly every night with a little coconut oil, and they will gradually become strong and full; and, in order to give them a curve, press them gently between the thumb and forefinger after every ablution of the face or hands.
The fashion for very thin eyebrows was popularised by silent film stars such as Buster Keaton and Louise Brooks, for whom thick kohl was a professional necessity and allowed a clearer vision of the eyebrows — so crucial, after all, for nonverbal expression on screen.
In the 1940s, women began to favour thicker, natural brows after several decades of rigorous plucking to achieve pencil-thin lines. Considering the outbreak of World War II had forced many out of a wholly domestic existence and into the workforce, it stands to reason they had less time to spend in front of the mirror, wielding a pair of tweezers and eyebrow pencil.
The natural look was in vogue in the 1940s.
The post-war 1950s saw wide, yet more firmly defined brows and from the 1960s onwards various shapes, sizes and thicknesses were experimented with, accompanied by a firm emphasis on individuality and personal preference
More than mono
When Dwight Edwards Marvin’s collection of adages and maxims, Curiosities in Proverbs, was published in 1916 it included the old English advice:
Research undertaken in 2004 reported American women felt judged and evaluated as “dirty”, “gross” or even “repulsive” if they did not shave their underarm or leg hair, or pluck and shape their eyebrows. As the most visible of these areas, untamed eyebrows perhaps point to the bravest exhibition of natural hair.
Today, model Sophia Hadjipanteli sports a pair of impressively large, dark joined eyebrows, and has assertively fought back against the legion of online trolls who have abused her for this point of difference.
Giving a pluck
Still, plenty of people with eyebrows are dedicating time and money to their upkeep. In Australia, the personal waxing and nail salon industry has grown steadily over five years to be worth an estimated $1.3 billion and employ more than 20,000 people.
Over this time, social media has offered a diverse and changing menu of brow choices and displays.
One choice: the “eyebrow slit” — thin vertical cuts in eyebrow hair — has re-emerged online and in suburban high schools. It’s important to emphasise re-emerged because, with beauty as with clothing, what goes around comes around.
The eyebrow slit was especially popular amongst hip hop artists in the 1990s, and draws appeal due to its flexibility: there are no firm rules as to the number or width of the slits, which originally were meant to suggest scarring from a recent fight or gangsta adventure. More recent converts have been accused of cultural appropriation.
Facing the day
The “Instagram eyebrow” (thick brows plucked and painted to create a gradient, going from light to very dark as the brow ends) is inescapable on the platform and beyond. Makeup for brows is therefore also likely to continue, providing a clear linear connection through nearly all the eyebrow ideals since ancient times.
In a piece which ran alongside an interview with the man who had inspired Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer character, she advised that the appearance of one’s brow conveyed more than just grooming habits:
An arched eyebrow … is expressive of great sensibility … Heavy, thick eyebrows indicate a strong constitution and great physical endurance … Long, drooping eyebrows indicate an amiable disposition and faintly defined eyebrows placed high above the nose are signs of indolence and weakness.