As a writer, I am embarrassed to admit that I am not by nature an observant person.
Perhaps my failing is a result of spending my early years with undiagnosed, almost crippling nearsightedness. My first eyeglasses brought the world into sharp focus, opening up a clarity to the horizon that can still shock me. Although in the past I have taught young writers to notice the small things around them, and to use those details to season their work with the salt of real life, I sometimes have to remind myself consciously to practice what I teach. I am especially bad at noticing things about people: new haircuts, outfits, weight changes, and other physical factors in the human appearance. But recently, my daughter the esthetician, has given me an awareness of a feature I have never thought about before: eyebrows.
All of my daughters have perfect eyebrows. It figures in this contrary universe we inhabit that a woman who barely wore makeup in her salad days would give birth to four daughters who are meticulous about their brows. During their teenage years, my daughters spent considerable time shaping and shading those crescents of hair on their foreheads. My own brows had languished unattended for over 50 years, but once there was a professional waxer and face-design expert in the family, I've had to attempt to maintain them.
The right eyebrows require a lot of attention if one is serious about beauty. There are different looks to aim for, and different techniques to achieving those looks. Styles of brow come and go, from the thinnest suggestion of a penciled brow to a bushier, feral look. My daughter cites Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, and Brooke Shields as icons of eyebrow sultriness and panache. The manipulation of eyebrows is found in history as early as the time of ancient Egypt. Cleopatra probably kept a royal esthetician on staff.
I have learned to my astonishment that one can buy a wide variety of eyebrow stencils, and even eyebrow toupees. It was suggested in the press after a presidential debate last fall that candidate Ron Paul experienced glue slippage under the hot television lights, as one of his eyebrows seemed to creep out of place, resembling an errant caterpillar. The late Andy Rooney's white brows became denser and ever more unruly as he aged, so that by the time of his last few commentary segments on "60 Minutes," his clouded eyes seemed to be peering at the world through macramÃ© shades.Andy, God rest him, could have used a royal esthetician.
One's eyebrows can be a telling expression of one's emotions. They can add subtle truth to nonverbal communication, a quality best demonstrated by the normally unemotional Mr. Spock, whose single raised eyebrow conveyed a world of Vulcan skepticism. A face without eyebrows would be much harder to read.
So what is the physiological reason for eyebrows? Besides the secondary purposes of beauty and nonverbal communication, why are eyebrows part of the human design? Scientists point to the way our eyebrows effectively keep moisture out of our eyes. When we sweat or get caught in the rain, our arched brows divert the moisture around our eyes and down the sides of the face, protecting our vulnerable eyes. This handy function would have helped early humans stay out of trouble by keeping their vision clear as they ran from predators or sought shelter. Scientists posit that if we did not have eyebrows, we might have developed much thicker eyelashes, or skulls that protrude like ledges, to guard our eyes against harm. My daughter the esthetician believes the more interesting question to ponder is: Why are we the only naked primates, with very specific body hair, and with skin rather than a pelt covering most of our bodies? I don't know. I don't usually wonder about these things. Although she is a shaper and sculptor of beauty, she has a mind for science.
My poor eyebrows have lightened to gray along with my hair, and so I find that as I color my hair, I also have to darken my brows to match. Without my daughter's careful tutoring in the art of nuance and blending, my eyebrows might resemble Groucho Marx's shoe polish ones. I am reminded of an aunt who had plucked and shaved her black unibrow down to nothing in her youth, so that as a middle-aged woman, she would not leave her bedroom in the morning until she had drawn on her brows for the day. We women suffer for the lovely faces we present to the world.
As I grow accustomed to the older face in the mirror, I'm also schooling myself to remember to stop and smell the roses, or wake up and smell the coffee, or maybe both. I'm trying to notice and appreciate this beautiful world and the extraordinary people in it. Which may on occasion make me raise an eyebrow.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at email@example.com