Either we are over the crest of the eyebrow wave now or I’ve got used to them and don’t notice them quite so much as I did a couple of years ago. The most recent eyebrow “thing”, the big heavy dark brows, came into fashion two or three years ago. It bothered me that the first thing to see in a girl’s face was not whether her eyes twinkled humour or her smile generated warmth, but that her prominent and totally artificial eyebrow geometry indicated…..what?…..that she was young and stupid?……a member of a cult ……an alien? or maybe just that she had some dexterity with a pen and was following a trend. But it was never that, I discovered. It was just that she wanted to look like the model Cara Delevingne, who today “touchingly paid tribute to her grandmother who had the best eyebrows ever” . Cara is stunning and her dramatic and striking eyebrows are her own and they suit her. But they don’t suit all the Surrey schoolgirls.
Eyebrow fashions have come and gone for generations; for example Marlene Dietrich’s lovely face was often spoilt by lines which were nowhere near her brow bone. I mean, give nature some credit. It knows the right place for your eyebrows, and it’s on that brow bone.
A mildly scary eyebrow experience yesterday threw up some thoughts and memories and prompted this blog-post.
The main reason we have eyebrows is to stop the sweat and dirt and twigs from the trees we were hanging around in from pouring and dropping into our eyes. They are also a means of expression, communication. The eyebrows we were born with, and which grew up with us whether fine, or bushy are more or less effective at both these functions.
But are we women satisfied with these excellent bits of kit?
Are we heck as like. We pluck them off and then draw different ones in.
Children are just fine looking, beautiful. You’d be mad to look round a primary school playground at the rising 11s thinking, “Those girls would be inoffensive if only they’d take a felt tip pen and draw over their eyebrows.” You think, if anything, “Your eyebrows are just fine. Your face suits your eyebrows. Please kids, don’t do anything to your eyebrows.”
There’s no need to say that to the boys of course. To quote Zadie Smith in her recent advice to her daughter to minimise her mirror time: “Every day of his life (your brother) will put a shirt on, he’s out the door and he doesn’t give a shit if you waste an hour and a half doing your make-up.”.
But the girls, the girls………in the next few years after the go up to secondary school many of them will spend the time they could have spent out – exercising, talking, thinking, or reading – in front of a mirror painting health and personality on their faces because Maybelline or Mac or Benefit or whatever other make up company equivalent to L’Oreal is telling them they’re only worth it if they do. Their mothers and big sisters and friends are all complicit in this corporate plot to part them from their pocket money and time. There must be some element of the gender pay gap that can be correlated to eyebrows and make up. And who benefits? Well, the shareholders of Benefit benefit. Profit after tax last year some £9M.
I know we evolved with aesthetic sense, and we’ve decorated, tattood, pierced ourselves throughout our history, but that was both sexes. It’s only modern Western society where the women have become not just the make up artists, but made themselves into the only painted objects. Men just get on with their lives. Very few use make up. Very few men dye their hair blue. I’m mentioning this because mine is blue at the moment.
It’s blue for two reasons. 1) it flatters my blue eyes. 2) for years I’ve been dying my hair brown, to disguise the fact that it’s been growing grey. I’m 57 and I’ve had enough of the faff involved. I’ve removed a lot of the colour with chemical products, but I am left with some stubborn yucky colour as it grows out. I thought I might as well have blue/brown hair as grey/brown hair for six months or so. If I had been born male I think it very unlikely that I would have dyed my hair at all. And more likely that I would have had a decent career. Anyway, as they wisely say, IF my auntie had balls she’d be my uncle.
But back to eyebrows. At my Dental appointment, this happened.
I’m at the dentist, five minutes early. They’ve had a power cut. I’m told to sit down until they’ve got the records up on the computer. I sit down. I look at Facebook on my phone. There are three receptionists. The head one is the bossy one. There’s a flitty one, and a big heavy young one who just sits, with her big block-boned henchwoman face fixed on her blank screen. She has done something to her eyebrows, plucked them to buggery, and over the remaining thin and even line she has sharpied them with thick felt tip arched brown stripes which almost meet near the middle, low to her deep set concentrated eyes. She is staring at a dental computer void.
I think of my dentist. She looks like a small twelve year old boy, unplucked, unadorned, and is practical, friendly and very efficient. She’s an excellent dentist. Her surgery is 30 seconds away, just up the stairs.
This lack of computer seems irrelevant to me. The dentist is upstairs. I am downstairs. I’m loathe to do what I’m told. I get up. “Errrr….it’s my appointment time now.”
“It doesn’t matter.”, said the head receptionist. “I haven’t got the records up yet. I don’t know who you are or even if the dentist is in. Sit down until I’m ready for you.”
“Well I can tell you who I am. I’ll just go up and see if the dentist is in, shall I?”
“Just sit down until we are ready for you!”.
Then the girl with the eyebrows turns my way. She doesn’t say anything. Her features don’t change. Her eyebrows are inexpressive. They just are what they are. But the effect is terrifying. I sit down, and until I am at last allowed to go upstairs, with additional forms to fill in as punishment, I sit and have eyebrows memories.
Here’s a sample.
1985 I have a part-time job in a swimming pool ticket office
Me:”Can I help you Madam?”.
Madam is about 45 years of age and is in her swimsuit, dripping wet, covering her eyebrows with one hand.
“Have you got an eyebrow pencil?”she enquires.
“No. I’m sorry.”
“You must have.”, she says.
Using my eyebrows, I make an apologetic face. “I’m really sorry, I never use one.”
“I don’t know how people do it. How do people get out of the swimming pool and go to their locker without putting their eyebrows on?”
“It doesn’t seem to be a common problem, Madam. What happened to yours?”
“They washed off. I can’t see them but I know they’ve washed off in your swimming pool.”
She’s very agitated and accusatory about our swimming pool.
I raise my eyebrow. I had two of course, but with great economy of effort I use just the left.
“I need an eyebrow pencil!”.
I look over at Dave, the Duty Officer, who stands propped, leaning at the high counter at the back of reception. Dave has perfect eyebrows and he could have been a male model.
She’s now storming. “You must have an eyebrow pencil! I ONLY WANT TO BORROW IT!!!!!”
For someone who couldn’t face the distance between the pool, the lockers, and the mirror by the hairdryers without drawing her eyebrows on, she has no hesitation in drawing attention to herself.
I have no eyebrow pencil. I look through Lost Property. There are no eyebrow pencils. She storms off.
I’d never seen her before but I frequently noticed her afterwards in the charity shops, bargaining for knick-knacks, with two straight brown lines above her eyes. She was an “antiques dealer”. She came to my house once when we had a garage sale, about four hours before we were advertised as open, wanting to look through my clutter. I refused her entry. I didn’t like her attitude. And I didn’t like her ……well, I didn’t like her eyebrows.
It’s the start of the third year of secondary school. We are rising fourteen. My friend Gillian is into David Bowie and Monty Python. She’s funny and cool. She has come back to school looking different.
“Where are your eyebrows?”
Over the six weeks summer break she had plucked her previously unremarkable eyebrows to a trail of tiny trimmed and spaced hairs one line thick.
Our form teacher gave us a lecture on eyebrow plucking. Be careful, she said. if you over pluck them they won’t grow back. We looked at Gillian. She shook her head. They were already not growing back. She never got her eyebrows back from the summer of ’73.
I am picking up my beautiful eleven year old grand-daughter from school. It’s her first week at secondary.
“So what do you think?”, I ask. “New friends? What are the girls like?”
“Well, they’re ok……..”, she draws her reply out. “I mean some of them are nice……but most of them……well….they are all hair and eyebrows. They look really stupid. Some of them in my year are like that already.”
“Oh you’ll probably get like that!”. I’m teasing, She takes the bait.
“No! I won’t!”
“Oh, one day, one day you’ll look at yourself in the mirror and you’ll think….”hmmmm……something wrong here. My face isn’t right. I don’t look like the other girls. What is it? I know! My eyebrows!”. And you’ll get a big thick crayon, and you’ll draw yourself some mad new ones.”
It’s two years later and fair play to her so far, she’s contained herself to a little mild plucking and colouring in.
But this is her baby sister. Mad, altogether!And now Mum is at it too. 1974
I’m now fourteen and all the other girls in my class, except the clearly eccentric ones, have taken to the tweezers. Mindful of our teachers warning, and the slightly weird appearance of some of the early pluckers in our class, who’ve gone to nearly Gillian extremes and have got lines of just one or two hairs thickness, I’ve taken expert advice from my faithful teenage manual of how to attract David Cassidy, Jackie, and just trimmed mine.
Jackie says to pluck between the eyebrows just to the line above the inside of the eye, and pluck out any untidy hairs below the brow-bone. Get a good magnifying mirror, it says. The article doesn’t mention an eyebrow pencil. It does say don’t remove hairs from above the brow. It seems quite a simple process but it hurts a bit, and they grow back really quickly. But that’s it. That’s what I do to my eyebrows until the present day, when their growth has slowed. I have not dyed them blue to match my hair.
The week after I first pluck my eyebrows we visit some family friends. “Hmm”, says Uncle Frank, who I don’t think has ever singled me out for conversation before, or looked at me like he is looking at me now, “You look very nice. You are growing up!”. I don’t like this. It feels, although I wouldn’t hear this useful phrase for decades, inappropriate behaviour. Whoever I’d plucked my eyebrows for, it wasn’t for the likes of Uncle Frank.
Dad is recently dead. The dog is still alive. I’m with Mum in the kitchen at her house.
I am trimming Kerry’s eyebrows to stop them re-infecting his eyes. This morning I have had to wash his arse with a hose in the garden after another bout of diarrhoea because Mum had given in and given him some of her dinner after he had been shouting out her for five minutes.
“DINNER DINNER DINNER DINNER DINNER.”, he would bark.
“No Kerry,”, she would occasionally mumble, and show both sides of her hands, which she had been trained to to do, and which meant to her, “Nothing for you here. Go away and lie down quietly.”. This never had any effect on the dog. He was beyond Mum and Dad’s training attempts. They had two specialist dog trainers round in succession, both of whom were somewhat effective at training Mum and Dad, but failed with them as a collective with the dog. Eventually Mum would give him some of her dinner. It was just a matter of time. To Kerry the hand signal meant, “If I bark “DINNER” long and loud enough, I will get some.”
Kerry was a fool to himself. If he ate anything other than dry biscuit, he got the runs. I knew that, Mum knew that, and I think deep down Kerry knew that. But neither Mum nor Kerry had to clean up. That was my job, like everything else.
Now I had to attend to the top end, bathing his eyes, and applying a topical cream to stop him going blind. You can buy it in Lloyds Pharmacy for £7 rather than at the vets for £35. Kerry Blues are bred partly for their eyebrows. They don’t do them any favours. The poor bloody things can barely see if they are not kept trimmed, and all that hair round their eyes seems to make them prone to infection.
“What ever happened to your friend Kathleen?”, I asked, as I removed pus from the dog’s right eye with cotton wool soaked in saline.
“Oh she stopped coming. She stopped driving. I stopped driving.” Social isolation is one of the problems Mum has.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”, I say, as I draw a line of antibiotic cream on the dog’s lower lid. He’s very good, very still and patient.
It had always been a bit of a struggle for me to keep a straight face in Kathleen’s company. Her eyebrows, which looked like they’d been drawn on with black mascara, never matched. Most women’s drawn on eyebrows, even if they are strange, at least nearly match. Kathleen’s were not even close. It was as though they were symbols of different languages, the left one Korean, the right one Arabic. I never really knew her because her eyebrows defined her, and made me laugh. That was superficial of me, but that was how it was.
Whatever women say with their eyebrows, you would need a Rosetta Stone to make any sense of Kathleen’s.
Looking at that picture, I can still smell the dog.