Eyebrows, Why

Those two little lines aren't just aesthetic. They are instrumental in helping us communicate, mourn, and even stay alive.
Tami Chappell/Reuters

Manali MacRae’s expression is like a child’s retelling of a nightmare.  “When I was younger, I tried to trim my eyebrows with a pair of scissors on Christmas Eve, but ended up cutting one off entirely,” says the 21-year-old Furman University student. “All that was left were tiny patches here and there. It was the worst decision of my life, hands down."

The truth of her statement shouldn't be underestimated: The brow has long been cherished in its countless forms, whether natural or aesthetically enhanced. Ancient Egyptian women viewed their arches as a matter of life or death. Owners shaved their eyebrows when mourning their deceased cats, one of the most cherished animals in Egypt. When not commemorating their pets, they used kohl and mesdemet, substances derived from lead, to darken their arches (mesdemet served a dual purpose—it also worked to disinfect and keep insects away). The 69 BC aesthetic is still seen in modern times: Elizabeth Taylor showcased bold, black eyebrows in the 1963 film Cleopatra, and Kim Kardashian replicated the look on a 2011 Harper’s Bazaar cover.

The Egyptians weren't alone. Women in ancient Greece used powdered antimony to enhance their brows, while others wore false eyebrows made of dyed goat hair and attached them to their forehead with natural tree gum, according to Victoria Sherrow's Encyclopedia of Hair. Later, in Elizabethan England, many women removed or lost their eyebrows completely after repeated use of a harsh facial product called ceruse, which contained white lead. The powder lightened skin, à la Queen Elizabeth I, but caused skin irritation and hair loss through lead poisoning.

Today, American women rely on cosmetic products to achieve the same brow effects as the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. In 1919, American chemist T.L. Williams developed a product inspired by his sister’s habit of mixing Vaseline with coal to darken her arches and lashes. Years later, the invention went on to become the first product released by the cosmetics brand Maybelline.

The concept of the ideal brow has since fluctuated widely. Hollywood film siren Greta Garbo popularized pencil-thin brows in the 1920s, while Madonna preferred them lushly overgrown in the 80s. Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, who died in 1954, used her eyebrows to poke fun at conventional beauty norms. The artist, who was famous for her unibrow, once wrote, “Of my face, I like my eyebrows and eyes.” Dot Tuer, the curator of the 2013 art exhibition “Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics, and Painting,” said in an interview with the Toronto Sun, “Kahlo had a great sense of humor, a great love of life, so the unibrow is supposed to be funny.”

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Zoologist Desmond Morris has proposed that eyebrows primarily exist not for their aesthetic value, but to nonverbally communicate emotion—a raised brow may indicate skepticism while a furrowed brow can show displeasure. Morris never listened to his patients but rather watched, only observing and recording their facial expressions. In his 2007 book, Watching: Encounters with Humans and Other Animals, Morris reveals that humans only move their eyebrows in five distinct ways: We raise, lower, knit, flash, or cock them.

A 2011 study at MIT asked participants to identify 50 famous faces, including Richard Nixon and actress Winona Ryder. A series of photographs showed the faces with both eyes and eyebrows, without eyes, or without eyebrows. According to the results, participants were able to identify the popular figure without eyes 60 percent of the time. However, when the celebrity lacked eyebrows, viewers recognized them only 46 percent of the time—suggesting brows are critical to facial recognition, even more so than eyes.

Sheila Curtis, a cosmetologist whose professional title is “eyebrow artist,” backs these results up. “We talk with our brows, not our eyes. When making eye contact, people look at brows more than eyes,” she says. “It’s how people read us.” Curtis has been responsible for grooming some of Nashville, Tennessee’s most famous brows for nearly 20 years. Amy Grant, dubbed “The Queen of Christian Rock,” and Karen Fairchild, part of the country quartet Little Big Town, are two of her clients.

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English Taylor is a writer based in Nashville.

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