For those who live in blissful ignorance of the fashion world, the Cara I refer to in the headline of this article is the British supermodel Cara Delevingne, she of the bountiful brow. Actually, there may be people who are not familiar with her name but who know her by those brows. Because they, the eyebrows and their owner, are everywhere: in print, on telly, on Facebook, on Instagram and of course on Twitter, where she has 4.5 million followers.
Over the years, there has been the rare sighting of a model with thick but well-shaped eyebrows, standing out among the sparsely pencilled-in arches to be found on the ramp, both in India and abroad. But Cara, she is something else. The fuzz on her forehead resembles a sleepy pair of caterpillars, giving her elfin face an edge — and elegance — that sets her apart from her fellow models. The closest we have on home shores is Kajol, of course, with her unibrow.
Women have been grooming their eyebrows for centuries now, ever since Queen Nefertiti smartly darkened her pair with mineral powders. They have been encouraging the hair to grow with nightly applications of castor oil. Once the hairs, thus duly encouraged, grow, these every women then mercilessly set to taming those arches, using gel to stupefy them into obedience, tweezing them, threading them, waxing them, combing them, trimming the errant patch at the start of the brows, drawing them in, attaching eyebrow extensions (I kid you not) and in the late Protima Gauri Bedi’s case, tattooing them on, too!
Now that I have told you a bit about Cara Delevingne, or at least about her distinctive eyebrows, let me tell you about well, myself. About my eyebrows, to be precise. I was one of those unibrow people, totally unconscious of the thick dark slashes above my eyes. Before the age of the tweezer, unibrows or bushy brows were common enough in my part of the country, which for some mystifying reason is known as God’s Own Country, like the Heavenly Being up above has renounced pretty much all the other places in the world she has supposedly created.
But back to my brows. It was bad enough trying to get the wild frizzy curls atop my head to know their place: a conditioned glossy mess on good days, an opinionated, wiry halo on bad days. Whoever had the time to tackle brows? In fact, back then, the very notion of grooming your eyebrows meant being a slave to er, beautification. Also, it was the age of Brooke Shields, with her lovely thick brows.
Then I grew up. And noticed everyone around me was sporting severely tweezed, finely arched, extremely thin eyebrows, which of course gave them the expression of permanent surprise. I held out for a year or two max, then I gave in and got a cousin who had just done a course in beauty aesthetics to ‘do’ my brows. She went at it with more enthusiasm than finesse and soon, I too was part of the permanently surprised brigade. My parents averted their eyes from my face during this period, and my sisters, who were justifiably proud of their natural arches, did not trouble to conceal their amusement.
But you know what? The eyebrows grew back to their lush, thick, unruly, no-arch selves. Secretly I was happy, and apart from regularly cleaning up the space betwixt my eyes that is crucial to a unibrow, I left them well alone.
The years passed and as in all steady relationships, I began to take my eyebrows for granted. I got married and joined my army man husband at his post, a border outpost some 4,862 metres above sea level, in Ladakh. Everyone warned me about the intense cold, the fact that one used up more energy drawing breath than one did in the plains, about high altitude sickness. Let’s see, I told them carelessly, and my confidence was proved right. I adapted to the cold, thin air quite well, even playing croquet and a sort of slow badminton in what was probably the highest badminton court in the country.
Except, the high altitude effect did hit me, and in the most unexpected manner. It began with the swelling of my digits, only my digits. I’d go in for dinner,a multitude of rings flashing merrily on my fingers. By the time dessert was served, sans warning, sans any kind of tingling, the fingers would be double their size and the rings would start to painfully cut into the skin. The moment this was put down to high altitude effect, off went my rings. All would be well again, or so I hoped.
But the high altitude effect was a treacherous one and it lurked in wait. The next time it hit, it took away my eyebrows. No, don’t raise yours; I mean it. One fine day, I woke up and found my eyebrows were almost all gone. There was no gradual thinning; one day they were there, the next day they were gone. There remained just two small stubs above both my eyes.
I will draw a gentle veil over the trauma that comes attached to such an awful thing happening. I will not make more than a passing reference to the startled concern I received from family, friends, strangers. I will not go into details about how small children would take one look at my eyebrow-less face and burst into tears. And before you ask, no, I have not met anyone else who lost facial hair in the mountains.
Well anyway, that is when my lifelong affair with the eyebrow pencil started. The initial years were tentative, awkward, marked, if you will excuse the pun, by prominently fake dark lines. As the eyebrow pencil and I settled into what we now knew to be a bond for life, my pencil-work began to acquire a distinct artistry. This coincided with the advent of the Internet and soon I was keenly studying videos on how to draw the perfect brow. I experimented with coloured brow pencils and discovered the ebony was too black, chocolate brown was too light and eyebrow powder was downright useless. I read somewhere that Sophia Loren actually shaved off her brows, then painstakingly drew them, precisely and expertly. Brave woman, indeed.
I once went to interview Protima Bedi and the talk got round to eyebrows…no, don`t ask. She suggested I tattoo my eyebrows in, the way she had done, which would save me the daily effort and pain. I will admit I was sorely tempted, till on another visit to Nrityagram, I chanced upon the lissome dancer in an in-between-tat period (yes, the tats needed occasional renewal) and the space where her eyebrows should be was a distinct green. That frightened me off the tattoo idea.
Now I carry an eyebrow pencil in all my handbags. There’s one in my mother’s house, quite a few in a wooden penholder on my own dresser, even a stray one at my sisters’ and BFF’s place. Most of you blessed with normal eyebrows won’t know this but eyebrow pencils don’t really come cheap, not the good quality ones, and of course, one cannot compromise when it comes to one’s eyebrows, right? So, on a recent visit to China, when I chanced upon respectable-looking brow pencils with a brow comb at the other end, costing one-third of what they cost back in India, boy did I make out like a bandit!
And so we go on, me and my pencilled-in brows. The stray incidents of people catching me unawares, with au naturel brows, has become rarer by the year, a matter of much relief to both parties involved.
And then Cara Delevingne comes on the scene, and her eyebrows garner as much publicity as J Lo’s derriere and Gisele Bundchen’s legs. I don’t have J Lo’s lush rear but I can live with that. I don’t have Gisele’s gorgeous pins but I can live with that, too.
But I used to have eyebrows just like Cara Delevingne’s. All I can say is, life just isn’t fair.
Sheila Kumar is an independent writer and manuscript editor, as well as author of the collection of short stories titled Kith and Kin.