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In My Culture, Reshaping Your Eyebrows Also Reshapes Your Identity

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Imagine a typical bridal shower—cute decor, excited family and friends, and Pinterest-inspired desserts. Now, imagine that instead of guests watching the bride open gifts and coyly giggling at unsolicited sex advice, they instead would arrive to watch the bride receive a ceremonial pre-wedding eyebrow threading.

Yes, the band andazi or "threading application" party is real and has been a significant rite of passage for Iranian soon-to-be-brides for centuries. In the days leading up to the wedding (with enough time for any redness or skin irritation to heal before her big day), a Persian bride invites a beautician and the closest women in her life to this ritual eyebrow shaping. Her mother, aunts, sisters, and friends celebrate and cheer along as she sits center stage to be waxed, threaded, and plucked for the very first time. There is music, dancing, traditional sweets, and sometimes the bride’s mother, mother-in-law, and others take turns plucking some of the bride’s eyebrows and each other’s hair as well.

Eyebrows hold meaning in traditional Persian culture. In some communities, unmarried women are encouraged not to remove their body hair, or pluck their eyebrows, before marriage. The process of a young bride preparing and beautifying herself and her body for her husband is associated with entering womanhood. And in this way, un-plucked brows have become the most visible sign that a young woman is unmarried. While the band andazi ceremony has become less common in recent years, accompanying attitudes about hair, beauty, modesty, and womanhood are still real, even among western Persian-immigrant communities like my own.

The thick, dark rows of hair that meet halfway down my nose create the most prominent feature of my face: a uniquely arched unibrow, a stamp of my ancestry.

I’m a first-generation Iranian-American. My parents moved from Tehran to America and raised me in white suburbia. Not only did they make sure that everyone knew I was Persian with a name like “Sharareh,” but my eyebrows made that fact undeniable. The thick, dark rows of hair that meet halfway down my nose create the most prominent feature of my face: a uniquely arched unibrow, a stamp of my ancestry.

I didn’t even have enough time to reflect on how I felt about my own eyebrows before the other kids told me how to feel about them. I was bullied and laughed at, year after year. Even the kids who I thought were my friends would, at times, mock me behind my back. Those memories and comments aren’t even the loudest experiences that I still remember— the loudest came from my own mother, who would go back in history and remind me of my Qajar dynasty roots where this feature came from to make me feel proud. Yes, she told me I was beautiful, but she would also constantly reinforce that if I were to remove the hairs between my arches too soon, I would be viewed differently by those around me.

My mother had experienced this herself. A straight-A, high-school senior, her entire existence had centered around perfection and obedience; however, one night, she removed the center hairs of her own unibrow with her mother's tweezers. This may well have been her first act that honored her own will, but the next day, her biology teacher gasped upon seeing her. “You’re an A student," she told my mother in an angry, betrayed tone. "You’re not the type of girl who tweezes her eyebrows.” My mother was mortified, humiliated, and flooded with shame as the whole class fell silent. She still remembers being asked by her teacher if she wanted her friends and classmates to think she was a "loose girl." Those words stopped her from honoring her own desires about her own appearance, and she didn’t touch her brows again until just before marriage.

 I was caught between my desire to feel beautiful in a world that celebrates smooth and hairless skin and yet couldn’t fully step into that space knowing the significance of what that meant in my culture.

As she told me this story one night when I was in middle school crying about my own brows, I couldn’t understand why she was doing to me what her biology teacher had done to her. Passing along her own shame story to cloud my free will left me feeling conflicted and alone. I was caught between my desire to feel beautiful in a world that celebrates smooth and hairless skin and yet couldn’t fully step into that space knowing the significance of what that meant in my culture. I tried to fit into both worlds but ultimately felt like I didn’t belong in either.

Eventually, smooth and hairless skin won, and after years of begging, I was finally allowed to pluck my eyebrows before entering a new school in eighth grade. Every few days, the hair grew back stubbly, and I plucked them again. And again. Like a robot on autopilot.

Years later when I became a mother, I was confronted with the same question that my own mother must have wrestled with subconsciously: How do I keep my daughters from inheriting my shame about hair? How do I protect them from feeling "less than" in a world where they may not meet standards of mainstream beauty and propriety? How do I teach them to love themselves and their bodies in a world that worships hairless and Euro-centric beauty ideals?

The difference is that today, my daughters have a front-row seat as I embrace my natural brows, embrace my body, embrace my mother’s story, embrace my ancestor’s legacy, and as I work every day to fully accept and integrate these complexities.

Sometimes I imagine my ancestor’s band andazi ceremonies and think about what it might have felt like for them to be surrounded by excitement, celebration, and support from the women in their lives. In its own way, the ceremony must’ve contained the same boundless feminine energy I try to recreate for my daughters in our own family. The difference is that today, my daughters have a front-row seat as I embrace my natural brows, embrace my body, embrace my mother’s story, embrace my ancestor’s legacy, and as I work every day to fully accept and integrate these complexities. I decided that the shame legacy ends with me.

Brows—plucked or not—can say a lot about a person. And mine are screaming: abundant, full, unruly, and full of history.

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