how my eyebrows turned me onto social justice
The year was 2008. On one fateful day, during the summer that bridged my transition from middle school to high school, my mother hung up the phone with some worrying news for her adolescent daughter.
“We can’t go to Zarouk anymore.”
She was talking, of course, about my eyebrow lady. The moment I turned eleven my mother started scheduling weekly appointments with Zarouk, the heavily-accented, leopard print-clad neighborhood beauty guru bearing the name of some Armenian princess centuries past. Her lines were precise, and her wax near scalding. There was no apology in her wrist movements that, with years of experience, facilitated the proper angle between cloth and skin, calculated to rip every last hair out of its follicle. No mercy even when I teared up and involuntarily issued nasal fluids that would make waxing the upper lip cumbersome. Just a stern look, a firm, quick wipe with a wet towel, and an Armenian utterance along the lines of, Մի լար, էշու չափ աղջիկ ես, meaning “don’t cry, you’re a big girl,” the adage within literally meaning “you are a donkey-sized girl.” (For your information, agriculture and animal husbandry accounts for 25% of Armenia’s GDP, and our metaphors, superstitions and expletives must find inspiration somewhere.)
And so at the tender age of fourteen I learned of Zarouk’s “quitting,” which was probably code for “my illegal salon that I run in the guesthouse of my Reseda home got tipped off to the police by that bitch Hasmik who’s just jealous that I have a functional marriage and nice nails.” And thus, I was a teenager left without an esthetician spirit guide, on the brink of entering high school.
“You won’t get a date to the 5th grade dance because you’re a hairy midget with a unibrow,” read an anonymous note surreptitiously planted on my desk a week before the aforementioned dance. In the bottom right hand corner was a curly blue M printed like some cheap knockoff of the illuminated manuscripts I studied in Armenian Saturday school. A memo monogrammed “M,” for Melanie. My bully. Laughable, that she thought she could fool an honors student. I knew where the note came from.
There was something more insidious at work here. The ever so subtle suggestion that my appearance– short stature and singular hair growth, both DNA inheritances passed down from my highland-dwelling foremothers– was negatively correlated with my ability to attract a love interest and garner status, even in this precocious social circle of Encino Elementary (a veritable society in itself) would stay with me for years to come. Through the process of unlearning this internalized dysmorphia, and when the term “on fleek” was still in its nascent phase, I would think to myself, “bitch, look who’s penciling in her brows now.” A coping mechanism for tough times.
Everyone is leasing one body during their short lifetime. It’s a fact of life as we know it today. If all your belongings are taken from you, your house burned to the ground, you still have your one body. Whether it’s able or not, young or old, conforming to birth-assigned gender labels or subverting them; regardless of its color or weight or whether the anima in corpore is, in fact, sana, we are stuck with merely a single body ‘til death do us part, or until scientists develop a way to upload our consciousness into machines post mortem. This is by no means intended to sound TERFy or gender essentialist– quite the contrary, I’d like to point out how arbitrary our societal labels are, because in the end a body is a body is a body. No dysphorias would exist if differences and idiosyncrasies were celebrated and no one established standards of how certain types of bodies should carry themselves in the world. And part of any good feminist awakening is learning to disarm the voices that tell you your body is not good enough, or conversely all you’re good for, too dark, too hairy, too masculine to be female, too feminine to be male, just an object, not worthy of objectification, or that it flat out doesn’t belong to you.
We are first and foremost our bodies. And my body happens to be in excess of androgens, thick in some places, kinda short, and 100% Armenian. All of which made existence a challenge, to say the least, growing up in apple pie/baseball/Girl Scouts/lanyard-tying era America before 4th wave intersectional feminism became a buzzword.
There was this salon called Ziba Beauty that had opened up in the Topanga Mall, with a mysterious black and green interior and inviting tabla and windchime music. My mother heard good things from her friend who also took her daughter there after the Zarouk incident. This place had it all. Ziba did waxing, dermatology, henna, and, their best-selling service, threading. The procedure involved a reticent South Asian woman armed with a spool, bent over my face as she formed an isosceles triangle with the thread, and then zipped the thread across the unfortunate hairs caught in its path. It hurt a damn lot. And afterward, I’d get up from the black reclining seat, examine my esthetician’s work in the mirror, and then pay the young white receptionist lady up front. The register area was decorated with random framed stock photos of hennaed hands, the centerpiece one of Gwen Stefani sporting a bindi and eyebrow jewels in the ‘90s.
There was something disconcerting and uncanny about Ziba, and it wasn’t just the racially exploitative operating scheme. Over time, I realized I wasn’t comfortable letting someone else decide the shape of my eyebrows. My threader would try to give my moody riot-grrrl Billy and Mandy brows a sultry Jessica Rabbit arch. It just wasn’t compatible. So I learned how to tweeze them myself. It became a sort of ritual– after I finished my Princeton Review practice tests for the night, and everyone had gone to bed, I would seat myself in front of a magnified mirror under the harshest lighting in the house (the bathroom) and proceed to remove every last stray hair, maintaining angle, arch and thickness. I was a real self-taught pro.
Something was brewing within beauty circles at large as I was undergoing my own personal Eyebrow Renaissance. At the tail end of my expensive fling with Ziba, brows were finally starting to come into fashion. People were buying brow pencils. Models in the massive Abercrombie adverts, while still white and skinny as ever, were embracing what the industry called “natural beauty.” Bloggers were poking fun at their tadpole-thin, anemic brow phase in middle school. I remembered the TLC makeover show What Not to Wear and how the makeup artist Carmindy used to tell bushy-browed women how badly they let themselves go, and then joke that there was “smoke coming off [her] tweezers” upon finishing. That show was no longer airing regular episodes. Girls stopped laughing about me behind my back and started asking me for my brow lady’s number. Was I dreaming? Was I “fleeky?” Could I finally think of myself as beautiful?
I lied when I said that my brows made me an SJW. It was my body hair. And maybe just a little bit of the brows. There are, after all, hundreds of “unwanted” hairs for every single precious brow hair that vows to cooperate and bend to the will of my arsenal of tweezer, brush and cuticle scissor with which I service them every two or three nights.
In her book Full Frontal Feminism, Jessica Valenti writes, “The easiest way to keep women — especially young women — away from feminism is to threaten them with the ugly stick. It’s also the easiest way to dismiss someone and her opinions.” For me, the opposite was true. The very stereotype of ugliness that feminism was known for (this was pre-Emma Watson times) drew me to it. I had grown up seeing girls classify themselves, and others, into the two polarized camps of “brains” or “beauty,” and was ready to eschew it altogether. Tired of being called ugly, of knowing I’d never look like the girls on the cover of the Limited Too catalog (then Seventeen, then Cosmo), and of relentlessly hacking away at my own body to fit into the outline of acceptable femininity, I finally found my freedom.
Yet, my experience differs from the “white girl becomes feminist and burns her bras and grows out her body hair in the process” trope that people love to bash. My story went more like this– my first vivid kindergarten-age memory was being seated on the kitchen counter getting my legs waxed by my mom who tried to keep my crying as silent as possible lest the neighbors think some kind of child abuse was going on. (The mandatory school uniform dictated skirts for girls.) My first video game was Animal Crossing and my mom used to joke that I looked like KK Slider, so I stopped playing it around her. Over the years I tried everything: bleaches, caustic creams, epilation, depilation, shaving, laser. Nothing could halt the growth; they always did say I was a stubborn girl. I learned medical lingo like anagen phase, hirsutism, and polycystic ovarian syndrome when my peers were still studying chlorophyll in science class. I spent worried, sleepless nights reading Wikipedia articles on carnival sideshow bearded ladies and comments from trolls poking fun at Mo’Nique’s hairy legs on the red carpet.
I was stressed, sick and tired. So when a movement came along offering women the chance to divorce the mainstream performance of femininity from their actual perceived, unique brands of femininity, namely by learning to not give a fuck what men think of you (which paved the way for gender nonconforming folks and breaking the binary into a spectrum), you best believe I’d grab it by the horns.
I remember one of those sleepless nights conducting mobile Wikipedia research under the covers. That night, it was various female saints and the stories of their suffering. I read in horror the trials of Saint Agatha of Sicily, who had her breasts torn off with hot pincers and in subsequent religious iconography was depicted holding her severed breasts on a tray, a look of disgust and unmistakeable misandry on her face. And then there was Saint Agnes of Rome, who was constantly the target of lecherous advances by older men. So by the hand of God, whenever she found herself in danger, her hair would grow long enough to shield her body like some kind of ancient Roman RapeX cocoon. It was unspecified whether said cocoon consisted of head hair or not. Feeling conflicted, I closed the tab and opened the one about the Hindu goddess Kali, finding comfort in the curve of her demonically outstretched tongue and the ferocity with which she smothered the man under her blue feet as I drifted off to sleep.
I don’t have thick eyebrows like Cara Delevingne has thick eyebrows. I have eyebrows like someone who has to plan shaving, waxing, or tweezing sessions at the very last moment before leaving the house out of fear of getting a five o’clock shadow.
My brows do not come off in the shower. I say this with no inkling of disrespect for those who opt for cosmetically enhanced brows– I can only inspire to be as nimble with an angled horsehair brush, and am unfortunately unable to emulate the “feathering” effect on the inner corners without risking bald spots. I say my brows do not come off in the shower because the personal (body) is political (identity). They loudly proclaim, at a glance, my utter lack of white Anglo heritage. In a similar vein to the “my culture is not a costume” campaign, or how Muslim women use the hijab as a marker of religious, ethnic and aesthetic significance all at once, I can’t just play dress up and wipe off my brows after a long day. My great-grandparents fled across borders, barefoot and orphaned, so that I can exist here today with these very brows. I am stuck with them whether I like it or not.
And so I start on the path of making things right, because there is so much wrong around me. Because identification with my looks means identification with my people. Because the dialect of Armenian I speak is a diasporan language and a few generations away from extinction. Because every year on April 24th Turkish lobbies succeed in keeping the Armenian Genocide out of global history books, and use their geopolitical leverage to fuck over time and time again a splintered group of people whom their country’s forefathers had fucked over a century ago. Because ancestry.com’s family lineage search won’t work for me, since all my relatives’ documents were burned or lost to Turkish neighbors encouraged to loot and destroy the houses of ousted Armenians. Because ethnic cleansing is still happening today in every corner of the globe, be it carried out through the shooting of guns by fringe groups or the signing of legislation by the wrinkled old hands of white men. Because so many countries in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East have dismal records of domestic abuse and still let marital rape slide under the radar. Because the Syrian girl trying to get an education in her new adoptive home looks like me. We were neighbors way back in the day, you know.
I’ve been living in Japan for nine months now. I still field questions from friends like “isn’t it amazing?” or “how’s the food?” And while I do have moments of awe and admiration for my surroundings, be it a ceremony at a shrine or a hanami picnic under a cherry blossom tree shedding its petals in the breeze, there is a certain dread that comes part and parcel with being a foreigner here. It’s all visual, all tied to the bodies we possess as outsiders. The constant stares from toddlers and grandmas alike, the heightened vigilance of shop staff whenever we’re around, and the burning desire for Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak so we can just move about the world unremarked. Blending in.
Interestingly enough, the most vocal group regarding these complaints have been, in my experience, white men. Perhaps they’re finally getting a taste of how the rest of us have been treated in America as homegrown outsiders, those of us with thick brows, kinky hair, dark skin, or who are female-presenting, or who have ever been asked, “where are you from?” Albeit with less catcalling and more, “you’re so tall! Teach me English!” Pretty sweet deal for them, if you ask me.
But it hasn’t been all angst-inducing cultural clashes here. I’ve developed many mutually beneficial relationships , whether they deal with language or philosophical exchange. At the Japanese middle school where I work, there is a clique of girls who have elected themselves my unofficial cheerleaders. The Little Gang. The sight of me nearly possessing them, they let out a loud katakana-inflected “Sariiiiiin” while running towards me in a blur of limbs, omitting my hard-earned suffix of sensei (but with the consolation prize of getting to feel like an elder sister figure- an oneechan). We high five in the hallways and they rotely but eagerly recite to me, “I’m fine” after my equally rote “How are you?”
One notable interaction with the Little Gang concerned my beauty routine. “Eyebrow good. Chigau chigau,” one of them whispered, correcting herself. “Good eyebrow.” She pantomimed an eye pencil, asking, “do you make?” “No, it’s not makeup,” I explained while rubbing my intact brows in demonstration. Her eyes widened in disbelief. Majide, no way. I decided to entertain her curiosity a bit. This could be a good English learning experience. “You want to touch?” She obliged, and even invited her friends over for some equal opportunity brow petting. I stopped them before the homeroom teacher could see. We all fled the scene, concealing our idiotic smiles with our hands.
While there are flaws to it, there is something I admire about the Japanese middle school system. Makeup is banned. So is shaving, tweezing or noticeably altering female body hair. It’s restrictive, but I’ve seen it work wonders for the normalization of bushy brows and hairy legs amongst girls in the classroom. The attitude is one of come-as-you-are teamwork. I would have thrived in an environment like that.
My brows have served me through (quite literal) thick and thin in various stages of my life. Today, they help me be a good cultural ambassador to Japanese students. They look up from the pictures of smiling blonde, blue-eyed “American” families in the textbook and see me, standing in the front of the class, reminding them that yes, I am indeed from L.A. They listen to me talk about colonialism and warfare instead of pumpkin pies and communal dinners during Thanksgiving. They need me here. Tomorrow, it’ll be joining fellow women, POC, and students in rallies for resistance and handing the mic to whoever has a message and needs a voice. They’ll need me there. And after that, it’ll be combing through archives, publishing research, recommending policy… who knows what the future holds.
All I know for sure is that I’m taking these eyebrows with me.