This fall, the top part of your on-trend face will be less Snooki and more Hope Solo. The X-Acto-knifed-worm eyebrow (think Christina Aguilera and Pamela Anderson) was a rare sighting at the recent resort wear shows and is rarer still in editorial spreads. Instead, fashionable brows are thumb-width and maybe even a little closer together, a furrier look spotted on celebrities such as Lilly Collins and Keira Knightley. Lindsay Lohan is playing Elizabeth Taylor in an upcoming TV biopic and leaked shots suggest a pair of prominent arched eyebrows may be doing the acting. Taylor's painted brows were as iconic as her eyes. When she was asked once what she would take to a desert island, Taylor answered,"Tweezers." If you are a black-haired white girl, you get it.
Not coincidentally, those little hairs are becoming big business. Brow bars are popping up in most cities, with the "brow sculptresses" at Vancouver's Bombay Brow bar promising online to provide a "natural mini facelift." Less naturally,the New York Times reports that bare-faced overpluckers are lining up for brow transplants. One Beverly Hills dermatologist will transplant hair from the back of the neck or the leg in a five-hour procedure costing $6,000 (U.S.).
Want something weirder? Try an eyebrow tattoo.
The fuller brow, it seems, is carefully cultivated, hardly natural at all – another contested zone in the female facial-hair battle. From a young age, North American women are encouraged to eradicate all hair on their faces by waxing, bleaching,plucking and threading.
While the female moustache and beard are stable taboos, however, the beauty ideal is ever-changing for the brow. We may be having a 1980s Brooke Shields moment, but, according to Victoria Sherrow's Encyclopediaof Hair: A Cultural History, the ancient Egyptians used kohl to darken their brows, while Greeks fashioned fakes out of dyed go at hair. The Elizabethans, meanwhile, went for a bowling-ball look, eyebrow-free.
The fear of the unibrow is fear of gender variation. Big brows are a physical attribute that's permitted on men, but not on women (too beardy?). A bushy brow can signal dreaded "feminine neglect" – it's an opt out gesture that might indicate the presence of political beliefs or, alternatively, laziness. Either way, ladies, the end result is exile from the land of hetero reindeer games, as spelled out in this old schoolyard taunt in Sherrow's book: "If your eyebrows meet above your nose, you will never wear your wedding clothes."
In 2010, the online feminist community Feminister launched"Decembrow" in response to the fundraising initiative "Movember," which involves men growing moustaches for prostate cancer research. For one month,women could grow in their brows for charity and, along the way, normalize facial hair (which is normal, by the way). Naturally, many huffy male pundits pronounced their disgust and the religious group Concerned Women for America made the requisite "hairy feminists" jokes, asking "How is [a feminist embracing facial hair] different from any other month of the year?" before tittering into elbow-length gloves.
But big brows are only a cultural taboo, not a biological one. To wit – Tajikistan. Ah,Tajikistan, where the pale and darkly unibrowed are celebrated, not shunned, and the brow bar is virtually unheard of. In Tajikistan, the unibrow reigns supreme (at least in rural areas). Under a dark single line, the women are at once strange and stunning, sporting bold, unwavering expressions. Often, they paint in any extra space with a crushed herb called usma.
It's hard to imagine North American women embracing the Frida Kahlo look. If I pitched the tweezers, it would take about an hour before I reverted to the full Burt. Still, I'd like to think that this shift to a thicker brow – even a symbolic shift, one that requires tending – is a small hint of bodily acceptance.
Fashion is nothing if not cyclical and perhaps decades of contempt for body hair are winding down. If we stop plucking around, it will be because we are too tired to keep up. The list of ways in which we are supposed to define our femininity is simply too long, exhausting and expensive: Pedicures, eyelash extensions, Brazilians – something's gotta give.
Caitlin Moran, in her new book How To Be a Woman, cheerfully ponders the delights of a hirsute pubis, but wants even more: "When it comes to hair – legs, upper lip, eyebrows, chin, nipple, pubic – the desirable outcome would be an expanding of the aesthetic lexicon … There are some women out there who are just going to look better with a moustache: That's statistics."
The goal is less constriction – an open space in which to play with our looks. When it comes to brows – and beauty – think bigger.
Katrina Onstad's new novel is Everybody Has Everything. Follow her on Twitter: @katrinaonstad.