Eyebrow-Raising Trends from North Korea to the Catwalk

Long plucked, waxed, and trimmed into obedience, our furry little face frames have a newfound freedom of expression

Recently the world’s favorite whack-job dictator, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, brought an enduring human concern back into the news cycle through his crazy antics. This perennial topic has nothing to do with censorship, nuclear proliferation, or Russian foreign affairs (although Kim is certainly bringing those issues to the fore too), but it has everything to do with eyebrows:

Kim Jong-un testing the waters with his shortened brows and new ‘do. Image via KCNA.

A few weeks ago, the dictator debuted a new haircut featuring a bizarre, trapezoidal flattop and half-shaved brows like two Charlie Chaplin moustache stubs. It’s not often that most of us think too deeply about our eyebrows. Sure, we might groom them, but for many of us what we do with them (for myself, unibrow elimination) is fairly routine. Looking at Kim’s curious take on furry little face frames may tune us in to the fact that the world of eyebrow fashion is going through some crazy shifts these days—some for the better, some for the worse, and some more drastic than what we can only hope won’t be the next primping craze in Pyongyang this year.

The ubiquity of eyebrows, which we often only really notice when they’re gone, has led to their neglect in both the popular and the scientific world. We actually don’t really even know what function eyebrows serve, although folks suspect that they serve some kind of eye-protection and/or social-communication role. But even if we’re confused as to their biological purpose, fashion has always viewed them as a vital, if subtle, component to how we frame other aspects of beauty on our face. Accordingly, there have been fashion cycles for eyebrows, from the au natural look of ancient Greece and Rome to the tweezed-to-nothing Medieval look.

For some time in the mid-20th century brows grew thicker and heavier, morphing from the fullness of Elizabeth Taylor in the ‘60s to the full-on, bushy look Brooke Shields pulled off in the ‘80s. Yet for much of the past two decades, we slipped slowly back towards the thin and narrow look (although never all the way back to the penciled line of the ‘20s and ‘30s), with stars from Jennifer Aniston to Drew Barrymore popularizing an effervescent arch.

Multi-talented British multi-hyphenate Cara Delevingne and her power brows with Chanel overlord Karl Lagerfeld. Image via @caradelevingne Instagram.

Over the past few years, people have been trying all kinds of new eyebrow styles (see: Kim Jong-un). In 2009 and again in 2014, first models and then pop stars experimented with bleached or removed eyebrows. The intention, it seems, was to provoke intrigue by removing a vital component of human emotion from immediate view, creating an otherworldly, robotic look. But that techno-futurist chic has, in the end, lost out to the emerging trend—pioneered in from British fashion and pop culture—of cultivating thick, dark eyebrows. Perhaps no one has done more for this than the British model/actress/powerhouse Cara Delevingne, who rose to fame on television and the catwalk in 2012 thanks to the captivating look of her signature, super-thick, dark brows, contrasted against her fair skin and hair.

The ascendancy of thick, dark eyebrows in 2015 (especially in women’s fashion, to be clear, where they’re billed as an expression of youth) isn’t just a haute couture thing. We’ve seen a massive surge over the past year in the sales of eyebrow-thickening pencils and extensions, thanks in large part, says the media, to Miss Delevingne.

Thick eyebrow obsessions come with their own risks. Many women (especially in Iraq, it seems), worried about their inability to grow a thick brow, have turned to tattoos, a form of permanent makeup. (Eyebrow tattoos actually existed before this trend, and do have a universally valid function in helping those with alopecia or thyroid disorders or undergoing chemotherapy to feel more comfortable despite their hair loss.) Some are fairly basic blobs of color while others are much more photorealistic recreations of eyebrows, but all are marketed as an efficient way to avoid mounting makeup costs and application time to achieve the perfectly dense and dark brow. This trend has led to some tragedy, as over the past few months there have been a few cases of botched eyebrow tattoos in the UK, which promise to be both expensive and painful to fix.

Yet any fashion statement will have its crazy extremes. More moderate versions of eyebrow tattoos exist for those who wish to get in on the trend but don’t want to commit for the long haul, like vegetable-based dyes that last for months or years before fading naturally and require only a few hours and a few hundred dollars to apply. And for those who are fortunate enough to be able to grow a thick brow, the trend encourages less aggressive tweezing, which can actually damage our eyebrows (which, again, do have a function and should be pampered, even if we’re not entirely certain why).

NBA player Anthony Davis, who is known for his united brows, trademarked the two phrases “Fear the Brow” and “Raise the Brow” in 2012. Image via Flickr user Keith Allison.

There’s also a chance that the embrace of naturally thick eyebrows will lead people to embrace quirks like unibrows. It sounds absurd in our bi-brow culture, but it has happened in other parts of the world, like Tajikistan where the unibrow is beloved. This Tajik trend has made a few forays into the Western mainstream with Decembrow, a Movember for women, in 2010 and with the use of unibrows on the Paris catwalks in 2013. But as thick and full becomes synonymous with beauty there’s a chance that the unibrow and other little oddities of the natural human face will manage to gain traction. If they do, it will lessen the pressure on those of us who feel compelled to wax, tweeze, or shave our rebellious brows into shape. And that greater sense of comfort and acceptance of our loyal (if mysterious) eyebrows can only be a good thing.

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