Beauty

“Unibrows aren’t a 2021 beauty trend, they’re a reality for the South Asian community”

Women of colour have been bullied for their hairy faces and bodies for decades. The new unibrow trend of 2021 is another reminder of the beauty industry’s double standards. Here, journalist Armani Syed explores why South Asian women have a complex relationship with this trend.  

It’s finally here. Instagram has forecast the first big beauty trend of 2021 and it’s every bit as chaotic as you’d expect from these strange times. The ‘unibrow trend’ encourages messy, overgrown brows that meet in the middle; long gone are the high maintenance days of plucking regrettable tadpole eyebrows.

When I first read that unibrows were being reduced to a trend, I imagined Frida Kahlo rolling her eyes from beyond the grave at the sudden glamorisation of having a hairy face. I was disappointed but I could not say I was surprised. The line between inclusive beauty standards and borrowing ethnic features for a fashionable ‘moment’ has become all too blurry.

With posts declaring that untamed brows are ‘in’ and grooming is very much ‘out’, I thought of all the BIPOC communities for whom being hairy has never been a trend-based choice. It is simply a cultural reality, and one that carries a history of bullying, ridicule, and often disgust. 

Before I was even a teenager, I had taken a razor to my arm hair. I was motivated by adverts of women shaving already hairless legs, and unsolicited remarks from boys I sat next to in school, who joked that I had more hair than they did. I watched with misguided joy as the blades glided over my arms, each stroke revealing what I deemed to be more femininity. This sensation lasted two days before regrowth brought me back to reality.

Since then, I’ve tried epilators, wax strips, hair buffers that may as well have been sheets of sandpaper – you name it. I was far too young to be growing accustomed to ripping layers of my skin off or accidentally cutting chunks out of my legs with razors. By age 18, my party trick was being able to thread my upper lip without even using a mirror. In my mind, being hairy was a mistake in my design that society does not afford Desi women on top of our other ethnic features, so I spent time and money correcting this.

woman threading eyebrows
The art of threading originated in Asia.

These lost hours are sadly a unifying experience for South Asians across the diaspora who have been repeatedly othered for their dark, coarse body hair. Rini Jones, a 26-year-old South Indian woman, first shaved at age 10 when a classmate told her she had “gorilla arms”. 

“When I look back, it was actually really heartbreaking because I was a child,” she says, after explaining that she began puberty much earlier than her white friends. “I felt a really specific shame around admitting that I shave. Even now, I still feel like there’s something really masculine associated with shaving.”

Jones was shaving her body every single day, which exacerbated her eczema and caused ingrown hairs. “It wasn’t just shaving [my] legs, but arms, fingers, toes, underarms - it takes a long, long time,” she explains. This led her to make regular waxing appointments, where she afforded more time and money into painful upkeep: “I don’t even want to add up the money because it must be a horrendous amount.”

What the #UniBrowMovement fails to acknowledge is that body hair is gendered but it is also racialised. Women of colour have been fighting the good fight long before hairiness was made palatable by women who have no other ethnic features preventing them from assimilating when the trend inevitably passes.

British-born Punjabi-Gujarati activist, Henna Amin, 24, is working to decolonise these beauty standards. She tells me that “decolonising beauty means breaking down the racism that beauty standards are built on, which tell people of colour their natural features and appearances are ugly and undesirable.”

“I used to get called Chewbacca. I look back now and I think God, that was so damaging. I internalised it straight away,” says Amin. After years hiding her body hair beneath long clothing, even in the summer, she also gave in to hair removal: “I would tell myself I’m shaving so I can feel comfortable putting my arms up but I never could anyway.

“Firstly, they were still dark because of pigmentation, and secondly, they were angry and red and itchy [from shaving] so I still didn’t even [lift my arms comfortably].”

While Amin continues to shave her face, her journey towards body positivity meant that she learned to embrace what grew on her body, too. “I’m trying to love the way my body is weight-wise and how it looks,” she says. “So, I should still be having that same energy for the other things that occur naturally”.

Amin views beauty standards as intersectional: “You need to be thin, you need to be white or light, then you need to be [mostly] hairless, you need to be able-bodied”. Only when we tick these boxes are we afforded the luxury of a ‘quirky’ feature.

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The western popularisation of the unibrow is often credited to Cypriot-Greek model Sophia Hadjipanteli, who applies a black tint to her unibrow to make it more prominent. Hadjipanteli credits herself as “founder of the #UniBrowMovement” despite many hairy people of colour who have come before her.

But the difference between self-promotion and being the face of a movement is a willingness to amplify voices of those who have been most harmed by an issue, rather than taking focus away from them.

This trend isn’t going to suddenly erase our traumatic memories. It won’t line our pockets with the money we lost through hair removal, trying to buy basic decency from men and the world around us.  It won’t allow us the space to heal.

We’ve got work to do as individuals and as a community, but that process simply does not begin on the faces of white-passing women.

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