In comparison to other mammals, the human is a largely hairless being, so why do people—especially women—feel the need to remove the few hairs they have left?
The beauty industry has long been a proponent of minimizing female facial hair. A 1901 anonymous writer for a Beauty’s Aids column posited that“an exaggerated crop of hair all over the cheeks and chin and nose gives to the face a villainously masculine appearance, and is a serious drawback to feminine beauty.”
Luckily, the columnist provided a solution: “annihilation of hair by means of electricity,” using a charged needle to destroy the hair forever. “This operation, in no way painful to the face, is hardly painful to the chest either, and, if necessary, one can escape all pain by using cocaine.” Perhaps an extreme remedy for a process that she claims is “hardly painful,” but alas, anything for beauty.
Hair removal products have been on the scene for over 100 years—in 1907 a product called X-Bazin Depilatory Powder promised to remove any "humiliating growth of hair on the face, neck, and arms.” By the 1950s, shaving became a widespread norm in the west.
Today, an entire industry exists to sell and facilitate a variety of grooming acts—ones that range from waxing, shaving, plucking, bleaching, and tweezing, to the more permanent laser hair removal. One particular target is the dreaded unibrow.
Concern about eyebrow aesthetic, however, is not new—it exists as far back as the 14th century. “The Miller’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales features the beautiful and sweet Alisoun, whose eyebrows are described thus: “Ful smale ypulled were hire browes two,” or, in modern English, two eyebrows plucked very thin. Contrastedly, Criseyde in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde who, “save hir browes joyneden yfeere,/There nas no lak, in aught I kan espien,” had no observable defect except for her unibrow.
Public figures who have refused to conform to the categorical norms against “unnecessary” body hair have historically made quite the statement. For instance, Frida Kahlo is known for boldly portraying her unibrow and subtle moustache in her painted self-portraits. Other famous unibrows include those belonging to NBA player Anthony Davis, George Harrison, Leonid Brezhnev, and Ernie’s best friend Bert.
Those who follow Sikhism also refrain from cutting their hair—eyebrows or otherwise—out of respect for the bodies they believe God has given them. Maintaining this belief can cause quite the stir as well.
Last year, a photo of Balpreet Kaur, a student and practicing Sikh, went viral online because of her prominent facial hair; it encouraged many web-goers to make fun of what they saw as a lack of femininity. In response, Kaur cleverly subverted the criticism and used it as a platform to make a statement about body image and her faith.
“My attitude, thoughts, and actions have more value in them than my body,” she said. “My impact and legacy will remain, and by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and, hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world.”
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Ultimately, eyebrows are intended to keep rain, sweat, and debris from falling into the eyes, making any hair above the nose superfluous. For the chance to leave a legacy like Frida Kahlo or the aspiring Balpreet Kaur, however, it might be worth it to put those tweezers down.