This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
We’re familiar with makeover montages where the eyebrows of an aloof young woman are meticulously tended to like a Japanese garden—plucked, threaded, tinted, sculpted—to reveal a strong female protagonist who didn’t quite realize she “had it in her.” We've seen this montage as far back as 1924’s Now, Voyager, and as recently as The Princess Diaries, but in both cases eyebrows acted as a gateway to a better person.
There’s a certain guilty pleasure in watching these fictional transformations unfold. Maybe it reminds us of not quite fitting in as adolescents, and the reassuring thought that growing into one’s own could be so simple as picking up a pair of tweezers.
We’re also used to the stereotype of the woman with hyperbolic, bushy brows that connect at the bridge of the nose. She’s uncouth, an outcast, or just plain evil. She’s Blanca Flores in Orange Is The New Black, and Olga Pataki in Hey! Arnold. Referred to medically as the synophrys, her unibrow exists outside the confines of acceptability in contemporary Western culture. And thanks to eyebrows’ central position on the face, challenging this directive marks her automatically as loud and intentionally provocative.
“Pluck those little blonde hairs in the middle of your brows, even if you think no one can see them. Because we can see them,” a blog called Valley ominously warns fellow females. “If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the eyebrows are the curtains that frame these windows. Make them nice.”
The practice of “making them nice” originated in ancient Persia, where eyebrow maintenance was used as a marker of womanhood. As Encyclopaedia Iranica explains, before becoming a wife, a young woman would have her hair removed—including having her eyebrows threaded, which involves a thin thread used to extract multiple hairs at once. While the practice doesn’t carry quite the same sense of ceremony today, according to anthropologist Massoume Price, hair removal is still a contentious subject among some Iranian parents and their teenage daughters living in the West because of this legacy.
Under Iran’s Qajar dynasty (1785–1925), beauty ideals shifted and the female unibrow had a defining moment. Afsaneh Najmabadi, an Iranian-born Harvard professor specializing in gender and sexuality, has researched the blurring of male and female beauty ideals towards the start of this period. The best-looking young men had delicate features and slim waists, she notes, while women wore thick, dark eyebrows and mustaches, sometimes even enhancing the hair on their upper lip with mascara.
A princess named Zahra Khanom Tadj es-Saltaneh sums up the ideal of the time. With eyebrows veering to meet in the middle, a mustache, and a heavy-set figure, she was considered so desirable that 13 men supposedly committed suicide after she rejected them.
Zahra’s appearance is clearly at odds with typical white-washed representations of royal, wealthy, attractive Middle Eastern women, but her look encompassed the cultural feeling of the time, as the abrou-ye peyvasteh—or "continuous eyebrow"—sat firmly on a pedestal. According to General Introduction to Persian Literature, many female love interests were described to have conjoined eyebrows, with the unibrow drawing comparisons in poetry and prose to cupid’s bow, the new moon, and prayer.
The female unibrow was similarly revered in Ancient Greece. As Helena Jenkinson, a resident physician at the University of Texas, writes in medical journal JAMA Dermatology, women naturally lacking one would fill in the space using kohl or soot. Some Greek women used dyed goats hair to create fake unibrows, affixing them with tree resin, Victoria Sherrow documents in Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Other ancient cultures also used natural resources to make eyebrows appear thicker and conjoined, like the Babylonians (antimony) and the Celts (berry juice).
The female unibrow had another shining moment in the Byzantine era. Theodora was a powerful empress of the Eastern Roman Empire and her likeness was rendered in tiny tiles, the mosaic never complete without her signature unibrow.
But aside from these few examples, the female unibrow has been largely ignored in more recent history. It fell out of favor in the Middle Ages, when it was believed that the forehead was the most prominent female feature; eyebrows were thinned or removed altogether so as not to steal the limelight. Elizabethan England saw a similar lean towards eyebrow removal, which was in part involuntary: many skincare products at the time contained toxic substances that led to hair loss. This continued into the 20th century, with the practice of hair removal gradually becoming more gendered.
“The role eyebrows play in framing the face—notably the female face—means they play a central role in appearance and are expected to be tended to in order to look most conventionally appealing. This burden is placed on women far more strongly than men,” says Dr Lauren Rosenware, a senior lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.
“Feminists have argued that men are expected to have body and facial hair to demonstrate ‘virility’, while women are expected to pluck and maintain these same areas as a sign of their sexual passivity and docility,” says Hannah McCann, a lecturer in gender studies at the University of Melbourne.
While eyebrows have had different incarnations over the last hundred years—from pencil-thin whispers on the silver screen to harshly stenciled Audrey Hepburn brows—the female unibrow as a symbol of beauty has been pushed to the edges of society. But a small, dedicated group of eyebrow activists have taken to Instagram to reclaim this once-revered feature. Led by model Sophia Hadjipanteli, whose unapologetically conjoined eyebrows made headlines earlier this year, the #UnibrowMovement seeks not just acceptance but celebration.
Twenty-year-old business marketing student Janelle Mayo is a member of the movement. She stopped removing hair from her eyebrows last year after the acne medication Accutane made her skin more sensitive. She’s off the medication now, but kept the unibrow. “I have never felt more beautiful and empowered,” she says. “It gets boring living in a society where everyone looks the same. So if you’ve got one, wear it with pride. Grow them out, take a pic, show the world that you have one whole-ass eyebrow!” she tells VICE. “Your eyebrows are nothing to be ashamed of.”
Beatrisa Avdalyan, an animator/illustrator, is another cohort of the #UnibrowMovement. After plucking her unibrow in high school, she began to embrace it after coming across a photo of her Armenian grandmother who had one too. “It was so purely beautiful and natural, so I wanted to keep mine,” she says.
Artist Shari Loeffler is involved in the #UnibrowMovement in the hope that young people will see her Instagram and feel more informed about their decisions when it comes to their body hair. “Perhaps it will allow them to make a conscious choice and not a decision that society and their peers made for them. That level of consciousness—whether they want to pluck, wax or tweeze—is one that I hope they make for themselves,” she explains.
Despite the #UnibrowMovement, we’re still seeing the unibrow erased in wider popular culture. Mattel’s Frida Kahlo Barbie was announced for release last month as part of a line showcasing “inspiring women” alongside pilot Amelia Earhart and mathematician Katherine Johnson. However, the doll was without its namesake’s famous unibrow, a missed opportunity for Mattel to be both historically accurate and honor this point of difference, which represented the artist’s rejection of societal norms—one of the key reasons she was inspiring.
Mattel’s erasure of Kahlo’s unibrow carried with it the inference that its presence would deter sales. And the Kahlo family weren’t happy—not only did they accuse Mattel of using the painter’s image without permission, they also protested that the company whitewashed her appearance.
"It should have been a much more Mexican doll," Kahlo’s great-niece Mara Romeo told AFP, "with darker skin, a unibrow, not so thin because Frida was not that thin... dressed in more Mexican clothing, with Mexican jewellery.” Two weeks ago, a court banned sales of the Barbie in Mexico—a win not only for the artist’s legacy and the female unibrow, but also for beauty conventions at large.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, and especially within the last decade, women in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe have been embracing traditional styles of dress and beauty sentiments—including unibrows. In this high-altitude, landlocked country women either leave their unibrows as they are, or will use Usma, a herbal remedy, to enhance the brows they were born with: joined decidedly at the top of the nose. In the West, it can be said that female beauty is still largely defined in terms of what isn’t there: fat, acne, scars, hair in certain places. Until this ideal shifts, the female unibrow will continue to be worn as a transgressive statement, flying in the face of accepted female beauty standards.
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