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My grandmother Lahoma didn’t have eyebrows. She just wasn’t born with them, and so part of her beauty routine included drawing them on every single morning. When I was a child, she let me watch as she “put on her face,” and I was fascinated by this particular part of the process.
I was born with plenty of eyebrows: a thick, overwhelming thatch that in no way complemented my face. From age 14 until a few months ago, I submitted to a brutal regimen of weekly waxing. For a time, I even did it myself using a professional wax heater, orange stick applicators bought in bulk, and strips of muslin I cut myself.
Grandma drew her brows in a high arch reminiscent of 1930s actress Merle Oberon. My mother recalls Grandma originally using a pre-pencil Maybelline product that came in a red box, and research tells me that this was probably a 1950s or ’60s version of Maybelline Ultra Brow, a cake product — color-intense makeup in the form of a compact powder that’s applied using water. As this 1958 advertisement boasted, it was a “brush-on way to lovelier brows!” It resembled today’s popular DipBrow pomade by Anastasia Beverly Hills.
Eventually, she had her brows tattooed on, and that was the end of that.
My “just tattoo them on” moment came about six months ago, except with the opposite intent: What if I just erased my eyebrows?
Walking by a waxing salon one day, I was reminded it was time for maintenance. But I was beyond sick of maintenance, of waxing, plucking, and continuously “dealing” with my eyebrows.
Standing in front of the salon, I thought: No, sorry. Not again, not ever.
I found myself in the drugstore across the street buying a $5.99 box of Jolen Crème Bleach. Suddenly, I was fascinated by the idea of big-time tampering with a physical feature I’d fought with for so long.
We play with diminishing and exaggerating our features every day — no eyeshadow versus a smoky eye with two coats of mascara; a matte nude lip that nearly blends into the face versus a glossy vermillion lipstick. But it’s eyebrows, which frame the face, that have the most profound effect when they’re either erased or exaggerated.
In the book Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History, brow stylist Victoria Gheorghias says, “If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the eyebrows are the window dressing. They can be gorgeous or they can ruin everything.”
Throughout history, varying eyebrow shapes have always been a major element of femininity and trends in female beauty. In 2017, it’s both a statement and an oddity to do away with them entirely.
The brow-less look has meant different things during past time periods and cultures. According to Herodotus in 440 BC, Egyptians were required to shave theirs if a cat had died in their house. In the 15th century, upper-class women plucked out their brows, hairlines, and sometimes their eyelashes to make the forehead look bigger. This trend continued during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who kept her visage brow-free, and even through Charles I. At the time, some parents massaged walnut oil, thought to inhibit hair growth, into their children’s brows. Of course, the look eventually changed, and women began affixing false eyebrows to their foreheads.
The most recent bleached-brows moments appeared on the runway, their natural habitat.
In the spring 2017 season, Hailey Baldwin Snapchatted her brow-bleaching journey for London designer Matty Bovan’s show. Some of the models at Marc Jacobs wore whitened brows, perhaps to draw even more attention to the rainbow Rasta dreads piled atop their heads. Gucci’s runway featured pale brows, as did Alexander Wang’s. (Wang consistently plays with bleaching his models’ brows, especially in the last three seasons.)
The season before, Givenchy’s and Marc Jacobs’s fall 2016 shows featured a cast of models with bleached brows and dramatic eye makeup. (Kendall Jenner walked both shows, proving that you can’t throw a rock in a beauty trend piece without hitting a Kardashian.)
And at this year’s Met Ball —– where the editorial pages meet celebrities meet the red carpet —– the “fashion meets technology” theme inspired Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, and Lily Aldridge to lighten or disappear their brows.
While this looks like the making of a trend, extreme runway beauty rarely translates into real-life beauty. In fact, the NPD Group reported that third-quarter sales of eyebrow products increased by 37 percent. So while there’s a quantifiable run on brow products, it doesn’t look like there’s a run on bleach.
Still, bleached brows are cool: They’re editorial, they show up perennially on the runways, they’re alien chic.
After some trial and error, my bleached brows were a hit… to me. A male friend I hadn't seen in years could only talk to me for so long before saying in exasperation, "If you're going to do that with your eyebrows, you should probably at least wear mascara." I sort of understood what he meant: Because of the role eyebrows play in communicating facial expression, he needed something to focus on. It felt off-putting that they were gone.
However, I’ve never been particularly interested in catering to the comfort of the public at large when it comes to my face. I will never be what's considered a great beauty, so rearranging my features to make my face easier for others to comprehend is not a priority. It is a fool’s errand at best.
There is a great freedom in this. There are plenty of ways to modify physical traits, and the intended effect doesn't always have to aim toward the most symmetrical cultural norm.
Stripping the color from my brows opened up the rest of my face. There is a certain lack of balance in this look, I’ll admit, but I like it. Seeing the results for the first time, I felt that I finally looked exactly how I was supposed to look.
And so when people ask me why I did that to my eyebrows, I simply say, "Because I think it's pretty."
If your interest is piqued, here’s how to do it.
2. If you’re going from brunette to platinum or lighter, here’s the hard news: You’re not looking at just one round of bleaching, but several. For me, going from brown to near-white means two days of double-processing — two bleaching sessions a night for two nights. Luckily, it doesn’t take more than 30 minutes a night.
3. Spread the cream on thick — really thick. Brush it on in the direction of your hair growth. Halfway through the time, use the spatula or whatever tool you’re using to brush the cream in the opposite direction, so it will lighten the underside of the hairs, as well as the other secret brow hairs that are hiding.
A word of caution: Some people complain of burning, stinging, and redness around the skin when using bleach, so don’t go into this full force. (I’ve only experienced a tiny bit of tingling.)
4. When it’s time to remove the cream, scrape it off with the spatula — don’t rub. Rinse the area with a little soap and water to make sure all the residue is gone.
Then it’s time to do it again! When lifting hair color several shades, keep in mind that Bob Dylan lyric: “They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn.” When bleaching from dark to light, orange is that darkest hour. It’s the mid-point between brown and blonde. Stay strong. Keep going.
5. Post-bleach, there might be some yellow tones or brassiness, depending on how much color you’ve lifted. If you don’t want to do another round of lightening, toner is an option. I’ve experimented with Manic Panic’s Virgin Snow, but I’m not sure if it actually worked. You can also try using a purple/silver shampoo — use a Q-tip and water to apply.
Maintenance: The much-feared root situation isn’t as bad as one might think. Eyebrows don’t all grow in at the same rate, so your brows will evolve gently, taking on more of a salt-and-pepper look than a two-toned one.
That said, there are plenty of ways to cover roots between bleaching sessions.
- The DIY way involves using a spoolie to brush on creamy concealer — something like Make Up For Ever’s Full Cover. Feel free to add another layer — try using a slightly different color or maybe a light foundation. Set with a dash of powder.
- There are plenty of products out there that you can use to cover roots if you use the lightest shade. Shu Uemura’s Eyebrow Manicure is an ingenious cream that uses a short, round brush. Another option is Glossier’s Boy Brow in Blonde.
5 LOOKS TO TRY:
On the runways, invisible eyebrows often leave more room for dramatic eye looks. However, there are plenty of ways to play with the actual brows now that they’re a blank slate. Have fun; get weird!
Get (slightly) wet: A slick of clear gloss, like Milk Makeup’s Face Gloss, is sophisticated and sexy. A non-glossy option is Milk Makeup’s Hydrating Oil Stick — basically a face oil in stick form that will create a clear shine on the brows. Add Sephora Pro Dimensional Highlighting Palette above and below brows and as a highlighter.
How about silver brows for that fancy party — or that Tuesday? What about gold or copper? After all, what else was the new Pat McGrath Metalmorphosis 005 pigment kit invented for if not metallicizing every part of your body? Add a thin line of Stila Magnificent Metals Glitter & Glow in Kitten Karma directly on brows for highlight and definition.
Traditionally, you highlight under or just above your brows. With lightened brows, you can also work highlights right into them for an ethereal wood-nymph look.
Anastasia Beverly Hills’ Moonchild Glow Kit has highlight shades from traditional frost to Blue Ice. Wet an angled brush and build it up to the effect that you want. For a soft shimmer and just the slightest hint of pink, MAC’s Soft Serve Shadows in Girls, Girls! provides a subtle, glistening glow.
There’s also an alien-girl option: Milk Makeup’s Holographic Stick has a purple-pink sheen. Just swipe on after using it to highlight your cheekbones. Add Urban Decay 24/7 Glide-On Eye Pencil in Cuff(silver) directly on brows to create definition.
COLOR INSIDE THE LINES
Brow pencils are a bore. Luckily, with bleached brows, you only have to use pencils if you’re going to have fun with them. Pick up a highly pigmented eyeliner pencil like Make Up For Ever Aqua XL Liner and try out Easter egg colors like violet, aqua, or mint. Or go for a fall-winter look with burgundy or navy. (Pick your shape — don’t color in the entire brow; it’ll look weird). Finish with a light coat of powder for hold. Product tip: Although MAC came out with a handful of pastel brow pencils called Dare Hue! last summer, they lack pigment and don’t work particularly well — go for eyeliners when using colored pencils.
For this look, apply MAC Chromaline eyeliner pencil in Hi-Def Cyan directly to brows, then gently brush out with a small brush so it doesn't look too severe.
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY: BE BASIC
Oh no! A wedding, job interview, or conservative affair has come up, and you’re pretty sure no one will “get” your directional look. Whatever: Just grab a brow pencil — they’re all the same, so just use whichever one that came in your Ipsy or Birchbox this month. Take your brows back to brown with light, short, feathery strokes of the pencil, following your natural bone structure.
That’s the thing about this look: You can always go back to being normal.