The Disappearance of the Unibrow

Guest editor, Zoe Carter

Try to imagine men and women who’ve made unibrows famous. For older generations Winston Churchill immediately comes to mind. For the younger set, movie great Nicolas Cage or that adorable Adrianne Grenier—star of HBO’s “Entourage” series—are more recent iconic male examples. For the women, there is only one person:  Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo.  Given her bi-sexual nature, keeping her facial hair above her eyes as well as on her upper lip suited her personae to a T.

Whereas unibrows are considered a symbol of sexuality in Arab cultures, they present a challenge in ours. In most instances, their untamed nature makes one look grumpy. Subsequently, it affects how people perceive the individual. That is, unless you’re Grenier who being so handsome can pull it off.

The importance of well-groomed brows for both sexes

Of late, considerable attention is being given to eyebrow grooming and not just for women. There appears to be a general understanding, by both sexes, that eyebrow can make you look strong or weak, approachable or off-putting depending on how they are groomed.  While most women are familiar with the methods for producing the perfect eyebrow shape to complement their face, it never occurred to me that men, too, would use the same beautification “tricks.” 

Bros’ Brows

To make my point, please allow me to recount a story. Recently, three good-looking men in their mid- 30’s confidently swaggered into the Mansion (an eastside diner) where my running pal George and I were having breakfast. At the risk of being rude staring at them, I noticed they were all professionally attired in dark business suits, starched dress shirts and tasteful ties. Before they sat down, they removed their jackets carefully wrapping them around the back of their chairs.  It was hard not to miss that all of them had police badges attached to their belts along with mean-looking guns in holsters. Given their Wall Street appearance, the guns were unexpected. However, as we were near the Mayor’s mansion, I assumed these men were part of De Blasio’s security detail. I later found out that they were just plain clothesmen who liked to dress stylishly. In other words, Metrosexuals with Glock 22s.

I was equally captivated by their meticulously groomed eyebrows, the subject of this week’s blog.  I know, I know.  Who cares?  Well, if you’re a man reading this, you should.  I will tell you here and now, that your wife or girlfriend certainly does!  That’s what the policemen emphatically proclaimed and who am I to argue with a gun-toting New York City cop?

I apprehensively approached the three men knowing there was a small window of opportunity to interview them before their breakfasts arrived.  My series of questions revealed that everyone had a different approach to grooming.  Policeman #1 said his wife maintains his look for him.  Policemen #2 and #3 admitted to going to a salon for professional care.  One of these gentlemen joked that he spent more time maintaining his personal hygiene than his wife did. The other two cops chimed in gleefully, “Yeah, he even gets a mani-pedi every week!”  I joked that he probably was a big tipper, too, and he agreed with a generous laugh while unconsciously fiddling with his gun holster as if it were a macho security blanket. They all agreed that men have a standard of hygiene to maintain, just like women do. For them this starts with having clean and tidy hair, no matter where it is located on their body. 

A eyebrow obsession

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been surreptitiously studying men’s eyebrows.  Unlike Groucho Marx’s wild, bushy eyebrows—or Canadian actor Eugene Levy’s albeit tidier, thick black brow—most young American men today have a different esthetic. Instead of an unkept look, they prefer to frame their faces with clean, sculpted brows, some more natural looking than others. 

A different perspective on male grooming

I mentioned this observation to George, an octogenarian, who proclaimed that these men must all be gay.  “No way,” I responded emphatically telling him he was both homophobic and out of touch with current trends. Today’s Millennials and Gen-Xers, I explained, spend considerable time on their appearance.  Considering they invest large sums of money belonging to gyms to get a buff body, why shouldn’t they also take care of their skin and facial hair? If women do it, why not men as well?

When I was growing up, I recall my father would have his bushy Italian brows trimmed at the barbers who used either a special scissor or straight edge razor.  Back then, tweezing, waxing and threading were not on a man’s radar.  Not so today.  Now, there is little difference in how men and women tend to their eyebrows. 

Never call it make-up

My research continued. Roaming around Bloomingdales last week I decided to ask a salesman at Clarins (a French cosmetic and skincare line based on botanicals) what was going on in the male grooming department. The perfectly turned out and affable Alexander Tarango—who was manning the counter—offered his theory.  “Men started paying attention to facial grooming back in the early 2000s, around the same time that social media was taking off.” According to him, men discovered on Instagram and Twitter hot film stars, music icons and even sports figures (thank you David Beckham) whose appearance they wanted to emulate. Their girlfriends, wives and partners were more than happy to encourage them to go after their desired “ideal look.”  Suddenly, male grooming was cool.

Alexander confirmed that a man rarely approaches his counter asking for help. Instead, it is usually a wife or girlfriend who introduces a man to maintaining his looks through skincare products. “I never use the word ‘makeup’ with a male client,” Alexander explained thoughtfully. “Instead, I position it as a sunscreen, specifically a UV Plus SPF 50 Sunscreen with a hint of color to help even out facial skin tones.”  So as not to make the men feel uncomfortable, Alexander recommends keeping a skincare routine simple.  “I tell them all they need are three things to look good:  A cleanser to use in the morning and evening before bed, a moisturizer, and then a sunscreen.” 

 “But what about your eyebrows?” I asked bringing him back to the real topic.  Alexander explained that “I like to keep my eyebrows looking natural and not too sculpted, so all I use is a dark brown eye pencil to fill in the uneven parts.”

Latinos’ attention to personal grooming

Jason, who runs the front desk at my Equinox, confirmed that eyebrows for men was a big deal. He told me that grooming your eyebrows has been popular in the Latin community for years now.  “If you go to a barber, it is automatic that they will take a straight edge razor to either shape or just clean up your brows if you don’t tell them to leave them alone.”

Looking at Jason’s beautifully maintained eyebrows, I asked him if his barber takes care of them.  He vehemently shook his head and proclaimed proudly, “I don’t do anything.  My girlfriend handles it for me."  

A short history lesson on facial hair

Turns out people have been groping with the issue of keeping or getting rid of unwanted hair for a long time. The history of hair removal dates to 30,000 BC when humans first used seashells for the task. Around 3,000 BC Egyptians changed the rules of the game by removing any and all body hair using a mixture of sugar and beeswax. In fact, a shaved head was a sign of nobility.  Later, the Greeks introduced the notion of gender grooming whereby women removed body hair to appear more feminine while men enjoyed being bearded and hairy.  Victoria England gave us the invention of a straight razor which made daily shaving for men a cinch.  Next came the safety razor which shaved off even more time in men’s morning hair removal ritual.

Around 1915 American women took to shaving their underarm hair. Fast forward to the hippie subculture of the 1960s and ‘70s when body hair for men made a big comeback.  Who could ever forget—that is, if you were born back then!—Burt Reynolds posing naked on a bearskin rug for Cosmopolitan Magazine? By the 1990s there was yet another quick reversal.  The Brazilian (for girls) and the male equivalent, Boyzilian, promoted the perfectly clean body as the ideal.  Ouch.

Manscaping is de rigueur today

The latest term now for the new norm in male grooming is “manscaping.”  Eschewing the painful wax for a casual buzz (preferably done by a professional groomer) manscaping is de rigueur for the younger set.  This refers to eyebrows as well as other more private parts of the body.

But, back to the topic of eyebrows. According to an on-line article several years ago in the Huffington Post “Manscaping eyebrows is tricky, because the goal is to make them look natural and even. Eyebrow accidents look awkward and are painfully slow to regrow.” They claimed the easiest way to avoid mistakes is to have your eyebrows professionally plucked or trimmed. Eyebrow waxing is not recommended for guys because it tends to look unnatural.  The article goes on to suggest several male products such as brow gel, tinted moisturizer or even face powder to help calm the skin and reduce redness after eyebrow grooming. Sound familiar ladies?

Vanity has no sexual preference

Which brings me back to my Bloomingdale’s experience and men spending money at Clarins.  We are living in the age of Metrosexuals, a term used for heterosexuals as well as gay or bisexual men.  Today, no one raises an eyebrow when men talk about spending time, effort and money on their personal grooming. In fact, it is encouraged by their partners. “It shows that they care about their hygiene which I really appreciate,” Chelsea, a young woman at Equinox explained to me.

From thin to thick and back again

But what about eyebrow trends for women?  Just as with fashion, the ideal brow for women evolves continuously.  So do the various methods for maintaining them.  Over the past 100 years, the evolution has been aligned with the advent of film, advertising campaigns, and now social media. In the 1920s the success of silent movies gave rise to the pencil thin eyebrows of the Greta Garbos of the time. Supposedly, thinly arched eyebrows gave the face more room to show emotion, a necessity for a film without words.  When Audrey Hepburn hit the screen in the ‘50s, she launched brow power with thick, luscious, low-arched eyebrows. Then, or so it seemed, every ten years the shape would see-saw back and forth between thick and thin. In the ‘90s Drew Barrymore brought back the minimalist look of thin, plucked eyebrows. Today, bold eyebrows for women are trending thanks in part to Kim Kardashian, Instagram, and selfies.

Thick or thin, male or female, brows require regular grooming.  This need has spawned an industry of brow make-over artists who offer tinting, waxing, threading and contouring. And this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to total body grooming.

The price of staying beautiful

According to Askmen’s site, men are responsible for purchasing 47% of all grooming products sold. That is a remarkable statistic, one which completely took me by surprise.  By 2024 the global male grooming market alone is projected to be worth over 29 billion U.S. dollars. But what about women? Allure ran an article about a survey e-tailer SkinStore conducted estimating that American women will spend about $300,000 on their face alone during their lifetime. Yes, these random statistics are not exactly apple to apple. But they do indicate that grooming for men and women shows no signs of slowing down as part of both sexes’ day-to-day routine.

What will the future bring us? According to Cosmopolitan dramatic, edgy eyebrows—introduced by fashion designers—are on the rise: bleached, feathered, wavy, bejeweled and even resembling barbed wire. Whether or not we will ever return to the era of natural looking eyebrows, including unibrows, no one knows. However, it’s a pretty good guess that we’ve seen the last of seashells.