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What our eyebrows really say about us Add to ...

For the new 2014 Chanel Cruise ad campaign, Karl Lagerfeld put thin mustaches on some of the female models, prompting plenty of speculation.

Some commentators called it a nod to Movember. Or maybe it’s a comment on the fight for gender equality, one blogger offered. Then again, dear ol’ Karl might have done it just to grab people’s attention.

For my part, I simply thought: Why not? The eyebrow has long been manipulated for the sake of fashion – thickened, thinned, waxed, plucked, dyed, arched. Lagerfeld just moved one down the face a little.

The eyebrows – or “eyebrowns” as my youngest son used to call them – are one of those facial features you don’t pay much attention to until they are altered somehow – and then they take on as much significance as salt in soup. They can change everything.

Once again, it would seem, we are living in a Power Eyebrow Moment. There have been others, of course. In 18th-century Western Europe, full eyebrows were considered so essential to facial aesthetics that some upper-class women and courtiers would stick mouse hair above their eyes, according to The Encyclopedia of Hair by Victoria Sherrow. In fact, earlier this year, an eyebrow chronicler in the Financial Times wrote that brows reveal more about the economic climate than the ups and downs of hemlines. In boom times, the eyebrow is dense and thick (as it was in the 1960s and 80s). During recession, however, eyebrows turn thin and highly arched like the line of a stock market peak and tumble (see the 1930s, 70s and 90s).

And so, according to that theory, we must be in for a good holiday season filled with many gifts and credit-card bills that you’ll have no trouble paying off. Behold the thick brows of model Cara Delevingne, which look like the fierce wings of a crow. Keira Knightley sports a pair that seem more substantial than her reedy frame. Michelle Williams has dark statement brows under her blonde bob. Even that delicate beauty Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the new face of Bulgari, wears artfully bold eye framers that look as though they require as much careful grooming as her nails.

Pay attention to brows – on the street, on the runway, in magazines – and you’ll notice that they’re as individual as a ring size. Indeed, there are many people whose identity is synonymous with their arches. Marlene Dietrich had thin, higharched brows, pencilled in with the delicate stroke of an artist. “Instead of eyebrows she has limned butterflies’ antennae on her forehead,” Cecil Beaton is reported to have commented about the film star. Mexican artist Frida Kahlo had her signature unibrow. Elizabeth Taylor’s eyebrows, which have their own Facebook page, were perfect mountain peaks. Spock – well, his angled set is indicative of alien identity. And a major component of Brooke Shields’s beauty in the eighties was the fullness of her natural brows.

Interestingly, lest you think brows are only to protect the eyes from sweat or rain, scientists at MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences showed that the human visual system relies on the appearance of eyebrows for identifying people. They conducted a study whereby participants were shown faces of celebrities, some with eyebrows but no eyes and others with eyes but no eyebrows. (A control group was shown all the reference images with nothing erased in order to take into account the variability of subjects’ familiarity with the celebrities.) The study showed that the recognition performance for faces without eyebrows was significantly worse than that for faces without eyes.

It’s enough to make you think twice before picking up the tweezers. In addition, brows are important communication devices that express emotion and other social signals. In sign language, for example, facial gestures and eyebrow movements serve to complement and shift the meaning of statements made by the hands. Raising an eyebrow, for example, recasts a declaration as a question.

Cartoonists know the power of the eyebrow to connote anger, confusion, happiness or surprise. So do novelists and artists. The famous portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl by belle époque Austrian artist Gustav Klimt showed her with one slightly raised eyebrow. The subtle feature adds to conjecture about her character and the historical significance of the painting, which was begun in 1917 and never finished because of Klimt’s death the following year. It suggests uncertainty, a hesitation and doubt that disturb her otherwise serene composure. Did that one raised eyebrow foreshadow the subsequent collapse of her marriage or the instability of Europe in the aftermath of the First World War?

That thick brows suggest youth – they naturally thin as you age – also explains why some women have taken to putting growth serum, such as Latisse, which is marketed as an eyelash enhancer, on their (Botoxed) brows.

But statement eyebrows speak of more than youth and identity; they connote grooming standards, confidence and self-pride.

Along with blow-dry bars, waxing bars and nail bars have come brow bars. There is even an ultra-specialized subset of aestheticians who call themselves “browologists.”

“Eyebrows are an essential component of a person’s look,” says Kira Thompson, the Toronto entrepreneur who opened The Brow House five years ago. “I have seen women and men transformed through great brow design.”

But the strongest endorsement of professional brow shaping came from a friend of mine. “It’s like an instant facelift,” she said.

And to that, well, I raised a brow.

Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites

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