Remember when we felt a collective jonesing for our hairstylists a few months into quarantine, when the greys started sprouting and the tips of our hair fractured into a forest of split ends? Now, imagine having a compounded case of that freakout. That’s how my Brown sisters and I spent most of this year, because in our hierarchy of beauty needs, the eyebrow groomer is as essential — if not more — than the hairstylist. For women (and men) of South Asian and Middle Eastern origin, grooming eyebrows in quarantine has been a journey.
Thick, elegantly arched brows are one of our most striking features. But, it’s also the one we go through the most effort and pain for. As early as our teens, we are locked into a lifelong relationship with our threading, waxing, or plucking professionals. “We get Caucasian clients who say, ‘I’ve never done my brows before’, but you don’t hear that from an Indian girl. It’s more like ‘I’ve done my brows every week for my entire life’,” says Manhattan-based brow guru Joey Healy.
Saira Khan is one of those women. The New York-based lawyer grew up in Pakistan and later, in several Middle Eastern countries, where threading is the preferred method of facial hair removal. She started when she was 15, and since she liked her brows to look natural, she was super picky about who threaded them. “It was only when I got to Austin, Texas for college, that I realized not everybody was that obsessed with eyebrows.”
“Eyebrows have always been important to women in the Middle East and [South] Asia, simply because they have a lot of brow. It’s such a key facial feature that needs to be celebrated and maintained,” says Vanita Parti, founder of the U.K.-based Blink Brow Bar chain which has an outpost at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.
Even women with the most low-key beauty routines have at least one or more brow professionals on heavy rotation. “I'd definitely say eyebrow threading is the number one service I get regularly and can’t do without. I'm a bit irregular with haircuts, I don't get facials, and mani/pedis are more of a special occasion thing for me,” says New York-based journalist Sarah Khan who followed a three week threading schedule pre-pandemic.
In the old days, regular appointments were hardwired into our mental calendars. Sadia Brangan, the founder of Manhattan’s two Thread brow bars, used to get in a session every week, but after shutting her salons on March 22, her access to threading was out of reach. “I didn’t think about my hair once during lockdown but I definitely worried about when I’d be able to get my brows and face done. I watched a tutorial on Instagram and tried to thread my face, starting with my upper lip. I couldn’t even get the thread to reach my lip,” she laughs.
Parti says desperate clients have been posting memes, pictures and stories on social media of their monobrows and disasters when trying to wax, tweeze, or dye their brows, begging Blink to get back in action. “It was great to feel so needed!” she says.
In quarantine, with month after month of zero access to professional brow shaping, some desperate moves have been made. It took a month before Riddhima Kapoor, chief of staff at beauty brand Aavrani, cracked and bravely gave threading a go. “I first thought threading can't be that hard, so I spent an afternoon with sewing thread and YouTube tutorials. After cutting myself multiple times, I can report that threading is difficult, so I've decided to leave that to the experts,” says Kapoor. A facial razor is what she’s relying on for maintenance these days.
I, too, have been tempted by the ease of the razor, and on a Zoom call with Healy, he dropped an incredible amount of helpful tips — the most liberating being the permission to use one on fine, vellus hair. I told him I loved the shape of my brows most when I tweezed them myself but couldn’t handle the tedium of plucking out the peach fuzz around the periphery. A facial razor made quick work of the strands that were too thin to tweeze effectively.
For some, however, it’s thread or bust. Sarah Khan recently bought her first pair of tweezers since high school, but a few plucked hairs later felt too weirded out to continue, letting her brows grow out for almost eight months till she could thread again.
If you’ve never threaded before, you’re probably wondering why many are so desperate to be reunited with their threading specialists, especially when an array of self-administered de-fuzzing methods are a drugstore run away. Threading takes nothing more than dexterity and a looped length of cotton thread, one end of which goes in the professional’s mouth and gets yanked on, while the other is positioned like a lasso around the hair to be removed. The hair is pulled out from the root, without damaging the skin around it. South Asians and Middle Easterners have been threading for generations, since this method is a particularly well-suited one for thicker facial hair. Other depilatory methods like waxing and epilators work well on fine hair, but often result in inflammation or breakouts on skin with denser hair growth. Razors, which cut off hair at the level of the epidermis, leave a stubble-like effect, as well as cause the hair to regrow quickly. “Many Indian families have grown up with it and passed the skill on through generations,” says Parti. Brangan points out that this method also has a very small ecological footprint; the only waste left behind is a length of thread.
During the lockdown, studios in New York were closed for nearly four months, and owners needed to innovate to stay afloat and service clients. Healy began offering two options with which people can leverage his trained eye and expertise while using their own hands. Clients send in pictures of their brows, and Healy marks which areas need to be trimmed, plucked, filled, and left alone. In addition to these detailed visual instructions, clients can add on a 20-minute Zoom appointment with him or another specialist.
I benefited from his simple yet genius tips, like actually feeling the bone structure under the brows to see where they should sit: “You want the brow to be right on the brow bone, not on the forehead or on the temple, so stay off the brow bone and take off anything else,” he said, which gave me a precise guide as to what was essential and what was superfluous. And I had a lightbulb moment when he made me swap my brown-toned brow products for cooler-toned pencils and powders. “Makeup tends to oxidize after sitting on the skin for a while, so cool-toned colors warm up to blend beautifully for South Asians who have cool-toned hair, while brown starts to turn reddish,” he says. His tip is to look for cool, deep grey shades with names like smoke, charcoal, slate or onyx and stay away from brown, chocolate or espresso.
Threading studios haven’t been far behind on innovation. Brangan says it became apparent to them early in lockdown that even when businesses would be allowed to open up, there was no way they could keep clients and practitioners safe with threading by mouth. In the months they were closed, one of their staff members found this innovative hack that most threading salons are now using: fastening the end that usually goes in the mouth to a loop worn around the neck. They practiced at home on their families till they were allowed to open up again. Sarah Khan, who tried the loop method at a neighborhood salon after months of no brow shaping, says it was over blindingly fast, just like the old days. “The idea of threading was stressing me out, given the proximity between the faces. But overall it was much safer than the hair salon I went to,” she says.
Brangan says her staff and customers are so happy with the new loop method that they plan on continuing with it, and will keep wearing masks, even when COVID-19 is not a threat any more. “In our industry, we’re always so up close with our clients that we sometimes pass around seasonal colds and the flu. Masks will protect us and our clients from day-to-day stuff in the future as well.”
Saira Khan finally got her regular brow groomer to make a house call in September, the first time she got a professional brow shaping since March. Quarantine, she says, crystalized for her that her beauty routine included more services than she needed. Her skin looks better than it ever has, without regular facials. Her nails, which had polish on them for 10 years, have been color-free, a look she’s going to embrace even post-pandemic. “The only things I missed were pedicures and eyebrows.” Same, girl, same.