You'd think I'd gotten a tattoo of Justin Bieber or the smiling poop emoji across my forehead. It was one of those cartoonish scenarios where they shrieked in fear, and that scared a panicked yelp out of me because I didn't know what was wrong, and we just stood there looking at each other, wide-eyed and gibbering. All I'd done was dye my eyebrows, and people were freaking the hell out.
Is that too strong a description of the situation? I don't think so. At my roommate's birthday party a few months back, some college friends who don't work in fashion — they work in finance, in fact, which I hear is the polar opposite of a culture in which people roll into the office adorned in various paints and pigments — spent about five minutes examining my new eyebrows with a mix of fascination and unease. That's a long time for most 25-year-old guys, I think.
Here's the story: I'm a pale blonde with pale brows. On a good day, it's sort of an alien, Tilda Swinton vibe. (I take "alien" as a compliment; if you disagree, now would be the time to Google David Bowie circa "Ziggy Stardust.") On a very bad day, I look like a potato. The most accurate description I can give is that I look like one of those girls patiently standing at the window in a Vermeer painting, which isn't a terrible thing, but it's not the sexiest reference point either. I recognize that this owes mostly to the milkmaid outfits.
So, to mix things up and because applying brow pencil in the morning cuts into my sleep, I'd taken up tinting my brows a few shades darker than their natural hue every few weeks, using men's beard dye. (It's formulated for the face, friends.) As you may have heard from the Internet or any magazine published since 2012, a well-defined brow reshapes your face entirely. Sort of refocuses your features, as though they might drift apart in a haze otherwise.
When I called up Victoria Gheorghias, the senior eyebrow and waxing specialist at Fekkai's 5th Avenue salon, she explained that a person's hair color, brow color and skin tone all need to vibe against each other correctly — an intimidatingly unscientific-sounding process that may require a trip to the professionals if you're up for it. For blondes and those with graying brows, dyeing makes you look younger (win) and reduces the amount of makeup that you'll wind up using (double win). Blondes, Gheorghias went on, "basically need darker eyebrows than their hair color." So, basically, this blonde was doing everything right.
Some people, like Cheryl, voiced immediate approval after getting a look at my face. For that, I love her. Others met the change with a flinty shock that didn't explicitly telegraph dislike but took far too long to warm into a compliment to convincingly read as a positive reaction. Former coworkers, friends and my sister all seemed deeply rattled by the sight of me with visible arches. When you dye your hair a wacky color, people dish out the praise immediately — it's such a lighthearted, unserious thing to do, and therefore unthreatening. When you experiment with a new makeup style, nobody gets weird about it — that's an expected, temporary form of self-styling. Even brow pencil isn't that odd, since it fits into the broader cosmetics category. But when you dye your brows, people react as though you've changed something fundamental about yourself. (Is it the fact that they're so close to the eyes? Which are the window to the soul and blah blah blah?) My friends kept saying: "You look like a totally different person!" I took that to mean: "I fear you are."
My sister, three years younger than I am, took the change especially personally. "The reason I found your eyebrows so horrifying initially was because our faces normally look so similar, so whenever I looked at you it was sort of like looking in the mirror and being shocked to find I had something smudged on my face. It took me by surprise every time," she texted me, when I asked for an explanation. "But I grew to like it."
The feelings my friends threw at me were one thing. The confusion that curdled in my own brain — about how I think of myself, about how I think of my personal relationships — was much harder to detangle. There was defensiveness, first of all, born of embarrassment ("I don't care! I like how I look!"). Then anger: "How dare you put me in a box and attempt to limit the dazzling spirit of my many future selves based on some suffocating nostalgia for how I used to look? Do you not care about my personal growth?" Self-righteousness, too, followed by selfies. And then, as happens when I have strong feelings, I exhausted myself like a child after a temper tantrum and arrived to a more detached, tickled mental landscape. Insane, that something so seemingly inoffensive could haul up that much discomfort for everyone — insane, and beyond interesting if you do it with intention. Proof again that David Bowie, master of the eyebrow game, was a true genius. He knew better than anyone how to stir up a reaction through styling. Unintended or not, I can't recommend it enough.
Where are we now? Well, I'm thinking about bleaching my brows out for summer.