Eyebrows Symbolism: Plucking Out the Truth


Eyebrow close-up main

Eyebrows protect our eyes and are used for communication. Eyebrows express emotion and send various messages. Over the years, we have styled and adorned in various ways according to the dictates of fashion. From bushy to plucked to unibrow, each form sends its own message.

What Are Eyebrows For?

Eyebrows have two basic functions.  Hair, in general, protects animals in a variety of ways, including keeping them warm.  Eyebrows protect our eyes from moisture, dirt, and other things that can irritate them.  Consider when it is a hot day and your forehead is very sweaty.  

Eyebrows also are used in various ways to communicate.  As one article notes, “modern humans have evolved a smooth forehead with more visible, hairy, eyebrows capable of a large range of movement.” 

Eyebrows are at eye level, they are directly in our line of sight, which makes them particularly stand out.  This makes them an ideal tool for communication.  

Eyebrows evolved in part to add one more subtle way for humans to communicate. Communication is at the very core of humanity and clearly understanding each other is crucial.  [Spock’s “fascinating” eyebrow raise.]  

Eyebrows in Ancient Times  

What is accepted as normal and ideal changes over the years. This includes personal appearance, be it clothing, makeup, or body types.  In each case, what each thing means, what it symbolized, was an important factor.  Eyebrows followed this general theme.

In the Ancient Middle East, a common practice (for both sexes) was the use of kohl, a type of eyeliner.  Kohl had a practical value, including protecting eyes from dust, insects, and even bacteria.  Kohl also was a form of adornment, a beauty product, including lengthening eyebrows.  

A kohl-lined eyebrow is a common way to portray an Ancient Egyptian.  

Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra

In Ancient Japan, one sign of a different dynasty being in power was the type of eyebrows deemed fashionable, from long, narrow eyebrows to short, thick ones.  And, eye makeup also added special meaning, including qingdai, or a shiny shade of blue-green, which was very expensive.  It was something only the rich and powerful would use.   

This was an early way eyebrows showed a person’s status.  Today, in the United States, for instance, plucking eyebrows to form a carefully maintained, narrow set of eyebrows is often a sign a woman is classy.  Teenage girls learning how to properly care for their eyebrows is a rite of passage.  These girls follow in the footsteps of their ancestors.  

Today, many find “unibrows” (one long eyebrow, not separated by plucking hairs) unattractive.  But, it was often quite fashionable in Ancient Greece.  Natural eyebrows could be a sign of purity, plucking and makeup frowned upon.  If a woman did not have a unibrow, some in fact artificially drew one in.  They did not want to be seen as some harlot who was on display! 

A person’s eyebrows is one way to see the time and place when and where they lived as well as various things about them.  There is a lot of symbolism there.  

Our Talkative Eyebrows 

The actor and game show host Grucho Marx was famous for his bushy eyebrows, helped along with some movie magic.  They were very expressive, often to portray somewhat off color reactions to naughty double entendres (or what was allowed to get through during the 1930s).   

(Grucho Marx is but one celebrity who is particularly known because of their distinctive eyebrows.  A judge who lived about the same time, Judge Learned Hand, also had familiar large eyebrows.  The actor Eugene Levy also has those familiar large eyebrows.  Eyebrows are one thing that can stand out.  In some cases, eyebrows can be an important symbol of a person.)  

When we talked about eyes, we referenced how “eyes are the windows to the soul.”  Eyebrows have their own truth telling function.  Scientists have found that facial expressions as a whole (including eyebrows) communicate at times without our control.  

Raised eyebrows symbolize many things, including flirting, agreement, surprise, fear, disbelief or disapproval, and to send a silent greeting.  Eyebrows can be more “honest” than the mouth, which we can control more easily.  The polite smile is easier than the “poker eyebrow,” I guess.

Makeup Use to Help Send Signals 

No wonder makeup is used to emphasize eyebrows, to call attention to them, especially in women, who as a whole are more communicative and beautify as a means of attraction.  Eyebrows in this fashion are a gender symbol, a cultural choice to signify male or female.  

As seen above, other things are also done to highlight what is deemed stylish. Sometimes, plucking eyebrows is important, other times it might be deemed inappropriate.  A clean pair of eyebrows also might warrant bleaching hairs too dark.  Not doing so can send a signal you are not accepting the fashions of the day.  We send many symbolic messages by our appearance. 

In some cultures, men also wear eye makeup, including when aiming to find a mate.  

Of course, there is no one way to go here.  Many men in the U.S., for instance, will use makeup and/or pluck eyebrows to be pretty (or handsome) as they deem appropriate. Asian men today, including in China, Japan, and South Korea, also often believe it totally proper and “masculine” to use various products to groom their eyebrows.  

Eye makeup also was used in silent films, for both men and women, to emphasize bodily communication since sound was not available.   

What Does Bushy Eyebrows Symbolize?

Groucho Marx’s background was a mixture of French and German, but overall, his eyebrows also suggested a stereotypical ethnic character.  Certain types of eyebrows, especially bushy ones, are often present in people from Central or Southern Europe, including Italians. 

Bushy eyebrows therefore could symbolize immigrants, especially ones fully integrated into American life.  Bushy eyebrows on women especially might suggest they are from certain places.  Such eyebrows also symbolize a more masculine look.  In the United States, women who have bushy eyebrows today might symbolize a rebellion against accepted gender norms of beauty.  

Gender Fluidity 

Thin, plucked eyebrows, can symbolize a more feminine look.  On men, thin eyebrows might be labeled stereotypically feminine or “gay.”  Eyebrows are a symbol of gender.  

Eyebrows are one means of individual gender expression. Eyebrows can be one gender marker for those who are trans, questioning, non-binary, and so on.  Individual expression here would have important symbolic meaning.  There is no one “appropriate” eyebrow look here.  

Conclusion 

I do not pay much attention to my eyebrows.  At the barber, perhaps, I will be asked if I would like them trimmed.  All the same, they are useful, and are part of my overall appearance.  They are part of what people see and think about when they visualize me.  And, when I interact with others, my eyebrows help communicate what I am thinking.   

Symbolically and practically speaking, I think I’ll keep them.

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