Schlosser sold some of them a stay-at-home brow kit: clear gel, a brow pencil and some highlighter. Mostly, though, she talked her customers back from the ledge — the ledge of the bathroom sink. Lest the clients ruin their brows in ways that would take months of regrowth to undo. She recalled, “We were telling people, ‘Put your tweezers down. Don’t touch.’”
The Brow Studio reopened in June, and “all summer long, it was just brows, brows, brows,” Schlosser said. She and her staff had to work six days a week to keep up with demand.
That avalanche of business came after just 10 weeks of closure. But across the country, many who depend on brow-care services have now stayed away for more than 10 months. Ever since “aerosolized droplets” became a household phrase, the idea of going for brow-maintenance appointments has become unnerving to some: The technician’s and the client’s faces tend to be close enough to smell lunch on each other’s breath, sometimes for upward of 15 minutes at a time. Given that brows have become a higher-profile beauty priority (and a bigger business) in recent years, it’s been a painfully long separation for clients and providers alike.
For many, the Year of Pandemic Brows will have short-term effects: a brief, frenzied bout of brow-dysmorphic self-disgust. It may also, however, have consequences for how our brows look for years to come.
Raquel Lopez, 25, used to get her eyebrows threaded every two weeks at a salon near her home in Porterville, Calif. — three weeks on the rare occasion that she or her preferred brow stylist was traveling. “Rita was the best,” Lopez lamented with a laugh. By May of last year, Lopez’s unkempt brows were driving her crazy. “It was bad. Like, it was just terrible.”
Serene Qandil, a 24-year-old law student, used to trek from her home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to the Financial District to see her brow threader once a month. Ten months after her last appointment, though, Qandil’s brows are “a mess.” Her assessment of what it feels like to look in the mirror these days: “Not great.”
Tristan Mark, a 23-year-old college student in Greeley, Colo., has also gone nearly a year without access to their usual brow maintenance — and in the meantime has grown thankful for social distancing. “You can’t really tell they’re bushy unless you’re up close,” they said, “plus my glasses kind of hide them.”
“Now, do I notice it? Absolutely,” Mark added with a laugh. “Every day I look in the mirror and see all those thousands of hairs.”
Mark, for one, is doing their best to leave their brows alone, partly as an exercise in self-control. Qandil has learned to make do with makeup. Lopez, however, decided to take matters into her own hands after her girlfriend showed her a TikTok that recommended the Tinkle brow razor. At first, the razor was a lifesaver. Then, she slipped while shaving one of her brows and took out a chunk.
“I was so upset,” she remembers, laughing. “I didn’t go out, not even hiking. I was like, ‘I can’t go out looking like this!’”
Reader, I can relate: After watching my brows fan out wide and wispy after weeks without waxing, I caved and bought some German wax strips at the drugstore. I was delighted with the results initially, but seconds later I was horrified. For a month I lived under a Good Brow/Bad Brow diarchy of terror. Although I eventually regained enough courage and hair to try it again, with slightly better results, the process still sparked a few nightmarish flashbacks.
This may seem like a case of vanity run amok. But the effects when a person loses control of their appearance can be profound. As Vivian Diller, a New York-based psychologist and the co-author of the book “Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change and What to Do About It,” explained in an email, “When our hair, nails and skin look good, it makes us feel good. It’s similar to when our doctor reports that our heart and lungs are in good shape, we tend to breathe more easily. When we appear healthier, we feel more relaxed, stronger and more confident.”
Diller also pointed out that humans crave routine — especially after plans get wiped out unceremoniously and we suddenly have to learn how to hide from a deadly virus. “Routines, for most people, provide a source of comfort and a sense of control. Women use self-care rituals (mani-pedis, facials, haircuts) as a way to take time out from their otherwise busy lives,” Diller wrote. “The process itself can be soothing.”
When self-care routines can’t take place as usual, people often replace them with makeshift versions. Natalia Lehotska, owner of Brow Rehab in Miami Beach, said she’s seen this phenomenon firsthand. When the world is scary and people are stuck at home, bored, getting on each other’s nerves and craving normalcy, “they start plucking.”
Not everyone is upset, though, about America’s brows getting more voluptuous. Brow stylists across the country are delighted.
Schlosser was pleasantly surprised to see some clients return over the summer with brows that looked a little less unnaturally thin than usual. Lehotska, too, was elated. “By the time we reopened and some of the customers came back, I had these gorgeous, phenomenal, bushy eyebrows to work with,” she said. “I was, like, popping champagne.”
For women, who make up the vast majority of professional eyebrow-service clients, societal messaging indicates that there are two categories of body hair: “control and minimize” (legs, armpits, upper lip, bikini line, etc.), and “groom, style and emphasize” (head, and … historically, that’s been about it). It’s only in the last half-decade or so that eyebrows moved from the former category to the latter. Many people began to seek out professionals who only do brows, rather than the more common go-to: nail or hair technicians who also offer threading or waxing.
“You couldn’t just be a brow specialist, like, 10 years ago,” said one of them, Jimena Garcia, who’s based in New York and Los Angeles. In 2019, Garcia was named Chanel’s first official brow expert.
In that time, women have begun to wear their brows thicker and darker than in generations past, in part thanks to bold-browed celebrities like Cara Delevingne and Lily Collins. Still, some of the obsessive elimination tendencies that characterized the old philosophy (e.g., threading or waxing multiple times per month, or tweezing every stray the moment it appears) have hung on.
To Garcia, then, the present predicament seems like a great opportunity for people to reset their relationships with their brows — to let them grow free and unruly now, and develop new, lower-maintenance routines in the long-term.
Certainly, Garcia recognizes that it’s a particularly irritating time to be stuck with bad brows. With masks on, “the [facial] expression can’t come from the lips. So the eyes are really important at this moment.” Plus, brow care “is the one quick fix that creates a clean look.” At a time when many women feel disinclined to put on a full face of makeup but want to look presentable for a FaceTime call with friends or a Zoom meeting at work, it’s frustrating to find the once-simple errand of a monthly brow wax out of reach.
But after a few months of getting distressed calls from clients last year (“I was like, how did you get my phone number?!"), Garcia noticed that often, the agony subsided with time. “Where before they were like, ‘Please, please take it off, I feel ugly,’ now they’re like, ‘You know, I kind of like it,’” Garcia said. She wondered aloud if perhaps in a post-pandemic world, the on-trend brow would be “an organized mess”: allowed to grow out into a more natural shape but still trimmed, brushed and styled with gel.
To live through a pandemic, after all, is to surrender control before regaining it, she pointed out. Over the next few years, then, our brows could end up looking the way we’ll likely feel as we reenter the world: polished at surface level, but transformed underneath.
After talking to Lehotska, Schlosser, and Garcia, I knew what I had to do with my little box of sticky green brow-wax strips. They now live way up high on a bathroom shelf, hidden away from my tortured glances, and slowly, my eyebrows’ natural shape — the likes of which I haven’t seen in about 20 years — is returning. Admittedly, a month in, I’m miserable. Being greeted in the bathroom mirror each morning by the two sparse 10th-grade mustaches loafing atop my face feels the way you think it does.
It helps to remember, though, that there’s a stylist waiting for me — and for all my fellow erstwhile brow-care clients — just on the other side of the pandemic. They can’t wait to see and style our bigger, fluffier, healthier brows when it’s safe, and not a moment sooner.