Going brow-less

Why are naked eyes all the rage on this season's high-fashion runways?

By Judy Berman

Published July 20, 2009 12:21PM (EDT)

We've all known someone who once accidentally singed off her eyebrows. Maybe it was a college chemistry experiment, maybe it was cigarettes and drunkenness, but it always involved weeks of mortification as said brows grow in again.

But, if this season's high-fashion runways are any indication (and the stories that ran in both Thursday's New York Times and Sunday's Guardian), the accidentally brow-free have nothing to be embarrassed about. Hell, models and stylists are now bleaching or shaving eyebrows on purpose. Everyone from Agyness Deyn to Linda Evangelista is doing it, and the New York Times quotes a downtown Manhattan fashionista "who painstakingly plucks her eyebrows each day" and "thinks of her look as 'a very optimistic and idealistic statement.'" Huh. Well, I don't speak Fashionese, so perhaps someone can translate for me: What, exactly, is "optimistic and idealistic" about saying "sayonara" to a small line of hair above your eyes?

Well, according to makeup artist Pat McGrath -- who gives eerily similar quotes to both the Times and the Guardian -- it's all about the recession: "The current economic troubles open people up to be more daring and willing to don cutting-edge looks." The Guardian follows up on McGrath's comment with a reachy-feeling question: "At a time when advertising is suffering, is eyebrowlessness just a more extreme way for a brand to sell its products?" asks the article's author, Emma Sibbles. Interestingly, in its own attempt to pin the trend on the recession, the Times floats precisely the opposite query: "Could no eyebrows be a reflection of economic downturn? Can one be too poor to have them? Having no eyebrows is certainly a way to express oneself without buying a product." And here I thought the conventional wisdom was that, during periods of recession, people cling to more traditional fashion statements! Remember the "hemline index"?

The articles also have a lot to say about the look's androgyny (a few men are picking up the trend, too) and alien-like qualities (of course, David Bowie's name comes up). The woman who plucks her eyebrows daily seems to see Obama-era political implications in the act: "It’s unifying," she told the Times. "There is an asexual element to no eyebrows. We are much more accepting of the 'other' nowadays. Removing eyebrows removes a degree of expression, which makes one look less human and more cerebral, maybe even mechanical. It’s an exercise in modernity." As the Times notes, some folks even attribute spiritual meaning to the craze. "I was reading a lot about Buddhism," said the artist Terence Koh, who recently jumped on the bandwagon. "Thai monks shave off their eyebrows. Maybe the monks are affecting everyone subconsciously?"

But it's hard for me to see this as anything more than fashion-industry mumbo-jumbo. And the one (admittedly pedestrian) explanation that actually makes sense to me appears in neither piece: I have to assume the trend has something to do with the current mania for all things vampire. The women pictured in both articles tend to be fair-skinned and dark-haired, with wide eyes and wine-colored lips. In the photo that accompanies the Times article, Adriana Lima (in a new Givenchy ad) could be Marilyn Manson's long-lost twin sister.

Despite my love for "True Blood," this is one trend I'll skip. Besides, as Lisa Oxenham of Marie Claire tells the Guardian, brow bleaching or shaving "is not advised if your face is round, long or if you're hungover." (I'm no expert, but aren't most faces round or long? Just sayin'.) And then there's the following FDA warning: "Never dye your eyebrows or eyelashes. This can hurt your eyes. You might even go blind." So perhaps -- like corsets and sky-high stilettos -- bleaching is nothing more than the new way to suffer for fashion. I wonder if the monks, well-known for their own adventures in self-flagellation, would approve.

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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