There is something distinctly queer about shaved eyebrows: their presence, or rather absence, challenges our expectations about what a face should be. And indeed, for much of the past century, they were a signal of deviance from the norm — either because a person couldn’t fit in or because they refused to. Take the drag queen Divine, who in the filmmaker John Waters’s 1972 trash epic, “Pink Flamingos,” struts down a Baltimore sidewalk wearing a slinky wrap dress, peep-toe heels and a pair of impossibly arched brows. She is undeniably glamorous, yet her brows — painted by the makeup artist and costume designer Van Smith, who first removed Divine’s natural ones along with part of her hairline — stamp her face with a permanent glare, as if underlining her character’s self-declared status as “the filthiest person alive.”
But if shaved eyebrows once announced your belonging to a transgressive subculture (goths and punks, like drag queens, have long adopted them), today the taboo is fading. The British actress Jodie Turner-Smith said goodbye to her eyebrows in 2022, likely for a role; the model Amelia Hamlin garnered headlines last fall when she shaved hers off for a magazine shoot; and the actress Mia Goth’s barely there natural brows have inspired imitators to shave theirs. Then there’s the musician Doja Cat, who razored off hers during an Instagram livestream last year. Her red-carpet style, which previously hewed to a conventionally feminine aesthetic, has grown more outré and gender agnostic in the year since: In January, she appeared at the Schiaparelli runway show in Paris painted scarlet and bejeweled with Swarovski crystals; at the Viktor & Rolf show, she wore brows and a goatee made from cut up false eyelashes — a delightful drag king flourish. Removing your eyebrows might be a relatively small act of bodily autonomy but, the rapper’s trajectory seems to suggest, it can clear space for your most experimental impulses to surface.
And those impulses seem to be spreading. Currently, videos on TikTok relating to shaved eyebrows have nearly 100 million views in total, and their creators range from manicured beauty influencers to seemingly bored teens in hoodies. In place of their natural hair, they might sketch in vicious slants; broad, rounded ’90s-inspired arches; or even tiny floating circles, if they draw anything on at all. Notably, the trend coincides with the rise of freelance labor and remote work; traditional understandings of what is and is not office appropriate are, perhaps, going the way of the office itself. The makeup artist and performer Laila McQueen also speculates that the mainstreaming of drag culture, via popular shows such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Dragula,” has significantly shaped today’s beauty industry. “Makeup trends are just so much more ostentatious than they used to be,” they say. Many content creators will challenge themselves to recreate a specific queen’s look, such as Trixie Mattel’s signature Barbie-meets-Rorschach-test makeup, and shaving off one’s brows is a way to expand the surface area you have to play with. “When you change your brows, you change the shape of your face,” says McQueen. “And if you can do that, you can really change anything.”
This desire to heighten our facial expressions by altering our brows is not new. Ancient Egyptians of all genders would remove their natural brows and paint in more dramatic, sweeping arches, says Rachael Gibson, 39, the London-based writer behind the Instagram account @thehairhistorian. A similar practice, known as Hikimayu, was popular among men and women during Japan’s Heian period, between the eighth and 12th centuries. Practitioners would replace their eyebrows with stylized black shapes, ranging from fine arcs to cloudy smudges, positioning them higher up on the forehead, Gibson explains. And in the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I was known for plucking her eyebrows nearly out of existence, along with the front of her hairline. “The ideal beauty standard of the era was essentially a bald white egg topped with red hair,” says Gibson, “and just a very fine, barely visible eyebrow.”
In contrast, today’s most popular brow look — exemplified by that of Bella Hadid, whose brows slope inward at about 45 degrees — is angular and severe. To achieve the effect, some people turn to cosmetic or surgical intervention, such as a fox eye canthoplasty, which removes sagging skin while tilting the eye into a more almondlike shape, or a standard brow lift. But “shaving your brows is definitely a cheaper and overall safer method,” says Gary Linkov, 37, a New York-based plastic surgeon. To mimic the lift of an injection or an incision, some people — especially adherents of the clean girl aesthetic, a minimal makeup look that has gained popularity on TikTok — have begun razoring off their brows’ outer tails and then redrawing them at a higher angle, making their face appear as if it’s been pulled taut. “Don’t get Botox, just shave [your] brows,” the 27-year-old makeup and cosplay artist Eleanor Barnes (known by her handle, @snitchery), captioned a recent video.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that shaved eyebrows have proliferated on social media, where a person’s face is often their currency. Amid an endless scroll of people, many of them filtered to inhuman perfection, a subversive beauty look can court attention, subscribers, sponsors — and ironically, enough imitators that a once rebellious act soon becomes commonplace. But there can still be something radical about the look. Divine wasn’t simply trying to attract an audience in that “Pink Flamingos” scene. She was also bringing her own personal fantasy to life, disrupting the calm of a suburban thoroughfare in order to be the filthiest, freest version of herself. If eyebrows anchor your face, then removing them can set you adrift — and how liberating it is to decide exactly where you’d like to go next.