Brow power: the politics of eyebrows

Rosie Best tweezes out the significance of women’s eyebrow styles and their impact on our ideas about femininity and feminism

The September issue is a pretty big deal at fashion powerhouse, Vogue. The first publication of the fashion year, this magazine is consistently the largest and most exhaustive of them all, setting up readers with an essential guide to the fashions, statements and styles of the upcoming Autumn/Winter season.

In this year’s September issue, however, the focus of readers, journalists and critics alike has been set firmly on one thing (well, two things) – cover star Rihanna’s pencil-thin eyebrows.

Rihanna wears super skinny brows for her cover shoot. Vogue. 

In his introduction to the issue, Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue Edward Enninful described the singer’s look as a simply experimental, spur-of-the-moment decision: “[Photographer Nick Knight] never gets fazed by anything you throw at him. I’ll say, ‘Let’s do flowers in the hair’, ‘Let’s do thin eyebrows’ – and he remains perfectly cool”. But Rihanna’s brows – and particularly their presence on the cover of the most important fashion publication of the year – say a lot more about our current conception of femininity, and feminism, than Enninful seems to acknowledge.

Eyebrow fashions, like most trends, have fluctuated greatly in the past – from the painted-on brows of the 1920s to Audrey Hepburn’s bold 50s look, the thinly plucked 70s style to the filled-in shapes of the noughties. Indeed, just two years ago a very different face had appeared on the cover of the September Vogue, that of Cara Delevigne. The model/actress came to fashion prominence in 2011 when she modelled for Burberry at the prestigious London Fashion Week and has since appeared in numerous advertising campaigns and movies, easily recognisable with her trademark dark, thick brows.

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Cara Delevigne’s thick brows were the stars of September 2016’s cover. Vogue.

While Delevigne is hardly the first woman ever to sport thick brows (think Brooke Shields and young Cindy Crawford), for the next seven years she seemed to drive the resurgence of the bushy brow, which was seen everywhere and on everyone – from Emilia Clarke and Lily Collins to our own friends and schoolmates. The more natural look perpetuated by Delevigne, however, was more than a mere recirculating trend and, as women’s body hair always is, was implicitly political.

The presence of women’s body hair has long been considered a feminist statement and, especially now during the so-called third wave of feminism, challenges the social expectations of women. In refusing to pluck or shave her thick brows down to a more ‘feminine’ shape, Delevigne has promoted this culture in a similar – if more implicit – way to the likes of Julia Roberts, Miley Cyrus and Beyonce (to name a few), who have bared their body hair on several public occasions and platforms.

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Julia Roberts bares her hair at the 1999 premiere of Notting Hill. Mark Cuthbert/Getty Images.

However, just as the visibility of women’s hair is widely considered progressive, its removal can also be cast be as the very opposite – an adherence to patriarchal standards of feminine beauty. It is under this umbrella (ella ella) that Rihanna’s style seems, initially, to sit.

The thin eyebrows worn by the singer on her September cover are the absolute antithesis of the thick-brow look sported by Delevigne and are undeniably at odds with this ongoing trend for natural, visible women’s body hair, especially amongst feminists. However, if 2018 fashion has been about anything, it has been about reclamation. Indeed, I touched upon this in an article earlier in the year, where I considered the trend for ‘millennial pink’ in current clothing lines.

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Chanel’s haute collection made extensive use of ‘millennial pink’ this year. Chanel.

For a long time, the light, delicate shade of what now called ‘millennial pink’ – with its softness and inoffensiveness – was the absolute epitome of conventional femininity. Now, Rihanna’s brows – with their hairlessness, their neatness – appear, at first, as a similar manifestation of this.

But, today, the implications of wearing this colour, these textures and, of course, these eyebrows, are much more complex than they may once have been. By wearing these things now we force ourselves and others to confront and evaluate their connotations and, in doing so, reclaim them. In the last couple of years we have effectively done this with ‘millennial pink’, and now Rihanna is participating in this same trend with her skinny brows.

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“Her look is liberating – by readopting this style in our current political climate, she reminds women that we can do whatever we like with our brows, our hair, and, by extension, our bodies…” Vogue. 

The singer reclaims her hairless look from the patriarchal forces that advocated it in the first place. So, although Cara Delevigne’s thick brows seem more obviously progressive and much less conventional, the act of reclaiming enacted by Rihanna is just as important and, arguably, just as feminist. Her look is liberating – by readopting this style in our current political climate, she reminds women that we can do whatever we like with our brows, our hair, and, by extension, our bodies and reinforces the flexibility of the terms ‘feminine’ and ‘feminist’.

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