Being a public persona on the internet means that my face is looked at almost constantly by strangers, leading to uninvited comments about one feature in particular: my eyebrows. On TikTok, the more viral my video, the more “feedback” my bushier-than-average, Ashkenazic brows receive. Reactions range from applause to truly unhinged amounts of anger and disgust.
I started wondering: Have people always been this weird about eyebrows? As the most easily mutable facial feature, women’s eyebrows have often been sites of intense scrutiny and have gone through seemingly endless, rapidly changing trend cycles around the world. So let’s take a quick tour of how these ideals have shown up in art across civilizations throughout history: from bushy, to bold, to completely bare.
No matter the gender, many people in Ancient Egypt took special care to bolden their eyebrows with kohl or mesdemet. Like other Northern African and Asian cultures, the face was understood to be sacred, and thus, it required protection: kohl and mesdemet both served to guard against infections around the eyes. Kohl is used by many to this day around the eyes, both for adornment and for spiritual protection or devotion. This preference for strong eyebrows combined with traditions of carved reliefs resulted in highly defined, expressive arches in many Ancient Egyptian portraits. This wooden Inner Coffin of the Singer for Amun-Re is a beautiful expression of this high-contrast aesthetic: Her vibrant hair adornments almost seem like an extension of her intense visage.
From 1500 BCE to about 500 CE, a culture in Nok, Nigeria left behind now-famous terracotta sculptures with particularly detailed faces. Researchers Peter Breunig and James Ameje observed Nigerian craftsman Audu Washi, who showed them how to make these terracotta features using traditional methods. A sharpened, sanded-down piece of wood is gently pushed into the clay to create fine details including the very distinct, graphic eyebrows. The arched outlines of the eyebrows in these sculptures are similar across the portraits, but subtle tweaks in their shape and the space between them conjure vastly different personalities.
Ancient Greece and Rome
While it’s hard to imagine with today’s inaccurate images of pristine white sculptures, many women in Ancient Greece and Rome were also unibrow fans! In some settings, a hairy unibrow was not just considered beautiful, but viewed as a sign of wisdom. Victoria Sherrow’s Encyclopedia of Hair recounts how Ancient Greek women used powdered antimony (also known as kohl) or even patches made of goat hair glued onto the forehead to achieve this look. A fresco of Terentius Neo and his (unfortunately anonymous) wife was a unique find in Pompeii because they are displayed as having equal status. Many may have been envious of her pair of prominent eyebrows — or really, just the one.
China, Tang Dynasty
Quickly revolving trends aren’t unique to 21st-century internet culture. Women of the Tang Dynasty in China (618–907 CE) painted their eyebrows in dozens of different fashions, long, short, thick, thin, and wavy, depending on what was in style that year. Well-off women would use qingdai, a blue-ish pigment made from indigo. The woman in the portrait below has her face painted with additional decoration on her forehead — huadian, or plum makeup. In 5000 Years of Chinese Costume, Xun Zhou writes that women would even decorate between their brows with luminous materials like “specks of gold, silver, and emerald feather.”
Medieval Western Europe
Women in late medieval art display a very distinct hairstyle; that is, no hair at all! John Block Friedman writes that “misogynistic scientific writing had made female body hair a psychic and physical danger to men.” So when it came to eyebrows, some women would pluck them until they were almost nonexistent. This plucking extended to thinning out hairlines to reveal large, bald foreheads. Petrus Christus’s 1449 painting “A Goldsmith in His Shop” shows a wealthy woman bedecked in sumptuous fabric. She may have even used harsh chemicals to help rid herself of unsightly hairs, which would often result in burned and blistered skin. But that’s just the risk you take for beauty … right?
Heian era of Japan
Eyebrow fashion had an especially unique moment in the Heian period of Japan (794–1185 CE) where, in a manner similar to Chinese trends, both men and women would pluck out their eyebrow hairs completely, drawing new ones an inch above the natural browline. One of these styles was known as hikimayu (引眉) in which both thumbs were dipped in black makeup pigment and then used to create mirroring prints far up on the forehead. This print actually comes from many centuries later in 1876, and is a part of Toyohara Kunichika’s dazzling print series titled Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties, which are portraits of “good and evil” women throughout Japanese history. And just as times change throughout the prints, so do their eyebrows.
Iran, Qajar Dynasty
At the beginning of the Qajar dynasty in Persia (1785–1925), male and female ideals of beauty grew closer and closer together, and so did the eyebrows! While unibrows may have been scoffed at in Western Europe, scholar Afsaneh Najmabadi has shown that women would darken their eyebrows and even decorate their upper lips with mascara to show a faint mustache. Men often took on stereotypically feminine features, sometimes appearing beardless with slim waists in paintings. In portraits of couples, clothing was sometimes the biggest distinction between the two figures of different genders.
Stereotypes of Jewish Women 1800s France
In mid-1800s France, some women’s large, dark eyebrows were read not as markers of a bold personality, but of Jewishness, through an antisemitic and misogynistic trope known as “La Belle Juive.” After visiting the studio of French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, L. de Geoffroy described an 1848 portrait of Baronne de Rothschild as “a most seductive muddle of brilliant fabrics,” dotted with “jewels of a thousand colors … two large eyebrows à l’orientale are outlined on her forehead.” French artists and writers included Jewish women in their fanciful descriptions of highly ornamented “harems” of women. But while the eyebrows don’t actually look too distinct in the Baronne’s portrait (maybe Monsieur Geoffroy was just carried away by the orientalist stereotype!), they’re much more pronounced on one of Ingres’s more overtly orientalist paintings like “Tête de juive (Head of Jewish Woman)” (1866).
The Victorian Era
In the Victorian Era of British history, every detail of a woman’s appearance went under the magnifying glass, and some believed that the shape of the eyebrow contained clues about a woman’s internal character.
Books and beauty manuals outlined the perfect brow with almost maniacal detail, many of which have been assembled by writer Mimi Matthews. Sylvia’s Book Of The Toilet: A Ladies’ Guide To Dress And Beauty from 1881 states that the ideal “arched eyebrows convey only an idea of childlike innocence and wonder.” But above all, the eyebrows should never, ever meet. A certain Dr. Thomas Sozinskey (yes, “Dr.”,) helpfully states in the book that the larger space between the eyebrows, “the larger the mind,” but also that too “much space and bagginess between the eyebrows and the eyes are ugly, and are generally met with in shallow persons of dissolute tastes.” He may have been drawing from phrenology, a pseudoscience that assumed that the shape of one’s head was indicative of intelligence — a popular subject in early Victorian Britain. T.M. Parssinen has pointed to the era’s dubious belief that the possession of a large, prominent brow was a sure sign of brainpower. What’s a Victorian belle to do?
What kind of an “eyebrow history” article would this be if we didn’t mention Frida? The eyebrow was her crowning glory, and had no small part in solidifying her place in the history of transgressive feminist art. Georgia Simmons writes that the “shock of dark hair on her brow is a statement rejecting stereotypes about what is and isn’t attractive.” However, as a member of the upper-class Mestizo culture in Mexico, she has been criticized for appropriating and homogenizing diverse Indigenous aesthetics. Kahlo used the eyebrow pencil as a tool for proclaiming her partially Indigenous heritage but she had greater freedom to experiment as a wealthy woman who was also of Spanish and German descent. Joanna García Cherán wrote for Hyperallergic that “the ‘nationalism’ that Kahlo promoted both in her art and personal style perpetuate the construction of a mythologized Indianness at the expense of Indigenous people.”
Robots from Present Day Cambridge, Massachusetts, or rather, “Kismet”
Did we save the best for last? “Kismet,” created by Dr. Cynthia Breazeal in 2000, is a machine that can communicate human facial expressions. Its eyebrows, resembling a cross between Cheetos and furry caterpillars, play a critical role in this task. In an article for the Atlantic, English Taylor noted how zoologist Desmond Morris claimed that the primary function of eyebrows is their central role in nonverbal cues, played out through intricate dances. MIT studies have shown that eyebrows are just as important as eyes when it comes to recognizing a face, if not even more so. Kismet, the daring portrait of human countenance, was featured at a 2016 Barbican exhibition titled AI: More than Human. Sure, Kismet’s descendants in recent models may be more “realistic,” but they’re missing the signature charm of flappy ears, buggy Furby eyes, and of course, levitating eyebrows.
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What a delightful and informative essay! Love it!
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