Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so... welcome to The Flipside (as in the flipside of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society's definition of "beauty." Here, you'll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we'd love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation, too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here, on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.
The night of my eighth-grade graduation, I stood in front of a mirror wearing a beautiful strapless poplin dress from American Eagle that was held up by a generous amount of padding and an even more generous amount of fashion tape. I had just gotten my braces off. My skin wasn’t acting up that week. But something still looked off, and I couldn’t live with it: my eyebrows. They were too thick, too bushy, crowding my entire face.
As a Turkish-American girl, my natural brows stood out in bold contrast to the desired pencil-thin look, and over the years, I’d speed-dated all the tools trying to tame them: tweezers, wax strips, and various As Seen on TV paraphernalia, all to disappointing results. So I finally did what any reasonable teenager of the 2000s would do: I took a razor to my left eyebrow and did some mild shaping.
Things looked lighter, thinner, but as someone who had been relentlessly tormented about her natural brows by her peers in middle school (many of whom still wear cargo shorts and never moved out of their hometown), the act of just shaving it all away was so freeing that I didn’t really notice when I’d reduced my eyebrows to practically nothing.
Of course, my mother did, and she whisked me away to try every manner of penciling and brushing she had on hand, all while repeating the same tiresome mantra she had told me for my entire life—about how beautiful and natural my brows were and how lucky I was not to need to draw them in like lighter-haired women. Despite all the magic she was able to work, she was unable to grow half of an eyebrow back in the span of 30 minutes. Our family albums will bear the aftereffects of my doing forever.
But as it turned out, 13-year-old me was just a decade early for the bushy brow trend that bloggers and beauty gurus now obsesses over, not to mention the slew of products that exist to emulate the look I had spent most of my adolescent years trying to get rid of.
Apparently, the hair I had been working around the clock to wax, shave, and thread away was actually one of the most important features on my face—and not just superficially. A study at the University of Lethbridge in Canada asked people to identify 25 photos of celebrities without eyes and then without eyebrows; participants were able to identify 56% of them without eyes but only 46% of celebrities sans brows, proving that eyebrows are actually incredibly critical to human face recognition. But brows are emotional too: You can tell the story of your life just by looking at the transformation your brows have gone through across the years.
Women from all over the world have naturally thick eyebrows that they have been grooming for centuries through different methods of choice. I have Middle Eastern friends who swear by threading because it works better for fine hairs, whereas those who need to get their brows done more frequently go for wax. I guess it just took high-profile (Caucasian) models like Cara Delevingne flaunting dark, thick brows on the catwalk to convince the Western world that, hey, maybe women don’t have to tweeze their brows into itty-bitty lines of submission every two weeks.
Of course, I can’t say with certainty that models of color wouldn’t have ever had the same degree of influence, but it certainly seems like an interesting coincidence. It’s frustrating to acknowledge, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it is wonderful to watch something I once agonized over become an enviable feature. I can’t quite put my finger on the first time someone actually complimented my eyebrows, but I can tell you that it continues to take me by surprise to this day.
But here’s the ironic thing: At every scroll and tap, Instagram-famous makeup artists like NikkieTutorials feature in-depth brow how-tos for their followers, while artists like Sara Roberts tout drugstore brow routines that have no less than seven steps. That’s right, seven steps to achieve the natural-looking eyebrows that scores of women like me used to spend time, pain, and money trying to trim into submission.
Now influencers like Leandra Medine and actresses like Lily Collins are featured by brands and publications for their envy-inducing eyebrows. It could be because soft, thicker brows can make you look more innocent and youthful, or it could just be that one beautiful It girl rocked them and rocked them well, and that opened the floodgates.
In some ways, I almost feel like I conned the system. Like, “Haha! Here you all are, dropping your cash on Benefit Brow Zings and Boy Brow, and I finally don’t need to shell out for a trend.” (Confession: I actually do use Glossier’s Boy Brow in Clear and wholeheartedly recommend it to any person with thick, unruly eyebrows). But it’s a bittersweet triumph. What happens when the powers that be decide it’s no longer hip to have brows like mine again? Do I go back to tweezing day in and day out, or feeling like it’s my most undesirable facial feature?
It certainly feels like the reigns are in someone else’s hands, someone on a catwalk or on an editorial team who exerts a lot of control over how much money I spend on products and how some of my natural features are perceived by both myself and others. I personally feel that it’s wrong to go so far as to say Middle Eastern brows are being appropriated—“appropriation” is a complex idea, and using it incorrectly detracts from actual instances in which this is the case; plus, women from all around the world have thicker natural brows—but it is frustrating to have this particular trend seemingly take off only after earning the approval of the Western world.
And the bigger question: If the style pendulum really swings that easily, what kinds of features are girls working to eradicate from their faces and bodies now that will become socially acceptable later on? Maybe it won’t matter, and women will be more comfortable ignoring what’s en vogue in the spirit of what’s natural. But the other possibility is that the beauty and fashion industries will continue to hold those reigns, just as they always have. I’m furrowing my brows at the options either way.