“Did you see her eyebrows?!” I gushed to my husband, sitting next to me in the SUV we were about to test drive. He was fiddling with dials on the dashboard, half listening.
He’s been answering this question the same way for years. I, however, couldn’t stop staring at the saleswoman’s brows, fanned out like tiny fringe on a baby peacock.
After strapping our daughter into her car seat, we drove around the block. “I really like the car,” I told the brow-endowed saleswoman. She nodded and smiled. What I wanted to say was, “But I really love your eyebrows.”
I once had brows to rival a Kardashian’s: lush, thick, dark as midnight. In my twenties, when I began to have them shaped and waxed, my grandmother begged me not to mess with them too much. I promised I wouldn’t, but I loved my monthly trips to the aesthetician and the super-slim arcs that were so popular in the late ’90s. Maria, my brow maven, readily slashed my brows in half at every treatment, wielding strips of wax so hot I always flinched.
About ten years later, hair began disappearing from my arms and legs. I didn’t think much about it until the tails of my beloved brows began to fall out as if caterpillars were munching on them. I panicked. My dermatologist tested my thyroid (normal), and suggested biotin, a B vitamin that promotes hair growth. It didn't help. I was in my late 30s, newly married, living in Los Angeles, working in a media job that rotated my hours every week. For three years, flip-flopped shifts and long weeks of broken sleep cycles ruled my life. Maybe my disappearing brows were a sign of how off balance my body had become.
When I left that job, I was still using a standard eyebrow pencil to fill in what was left of my brows. But they were vanishing fast. A new dermatologist diagnosed me with alopecia areata — patchy hair loss that is usually stress-induced — and injected cortisone at the brow line to jumpstart growth. He also prescribed powerful anti-inflammatory creams that I rubbed into my sparse brows, turning them into inflamed half-moons, hot to the touch. I spent hundreds on Latisse (an FDA-approved eyelash enhancer), downed gigantic flaxseed pills, and massaged my brows with castor oil nightly to cajole them into sprouting seedlings. Nothing worked.
In March of 2012, newly pregnant, I stopped all medication, had my stylist cut bangs, and focused on my unborn daughter. When Olive arrived, my heart was full but the space above my eyes was completely empty.
Throwing myself into motherhood meant shelving my brow concerns. For a year, I let my post-natal body settle itself, and when venturing out, wore knit hats pulled so low they brushed the tips of my eyelashes and the roundest sunglasses I could find. Mostly, though, I stayed home with our baby, blissfully barefaced. I grew to love this time, free of the accessories and tricks I usually relied on to look normal.
By Olive’s first birthday, I felt strong enough to return to the brow project. Frustrated by my doctors’ lack of answers and ineffective treatments, I searched out a physician who specialized in hair disorders. It took him mere moments to brush back my bangs and declare that I didn’t have alopecia areata, but FFA — frontal fibrosing alopecia, which is a type of cicatricial, or scarring, hair loss.
I asked him if my brows would grow back, still thinking that maybe they could be saved with the right medication.
“You have a scarring alopecia,” he said. “The hair is gone.”
Tears tumbled like shameful little beads. A nurse handed me a tissue and, between sobs, I asked what I could have done to save my brows when they began shedding years before. Medication, like spironolactone, which slows down the production of the hormones responsible for hair loss, may have helped, he said. But now it was too late.
I was in my early 40s and had grown used to the fine lines and freckles that dotted my cheeks, the cellulite permanently camped out on my thighs. I could easily hide those things. But I couldn’t hide my bare brows. Knowing they’d never return, I felt naked. Freakish. Exposed. Like someone had scrubbed my face of expression.
I felt like I had lost me. I had somehow made my brows worth more than the sum of my most important parts — wife, mother, daughter, writer. I thought of Olive, who had never known me with brows. And didn’t care. I was just Mom. My husband tells me I’m beautiful all the time. Why was that not enough?
And yet, I still wanted brows. And I wanted them to appear natural. Drawing them on required a steady hand and an arsenal of products — stencils that provide shape, heavy brow gel, makeup pens with inky color that give the appearance of brow hair. Though I worked hard to create something from nothing, I was convinced everyone noticed how fake they were, and maybe snickered behind my back. I hated the façade, and I couldn’t shake the sadness. Guilt also consumed me. People lose limbs, breasts, their memory. As far as I could tell, eyebrows merely kept shampoo from running into your eyes.
But every makeup-loving human knows eyebrows frame the face. While I mourned their absence, I tried endless methods to make my drawn-on brows look more authentic. I spent hundreds on microblading. I researched eyebrow transplantation, but since FFA is a rare autoimmune condition, there’s no guarantee transplanted hairs would grow. In 2016, I gave in and got traditional tattoos inked, but those also lightened quickly. I returned to drawing on brows every morning, following the tat’s faded outlines — and stashed tiny pots of brow color in every purse I owned.
It was exhausting.
Then, when my daughter was seven, one moment put an end to my grief. As I laid out my brow tools one morning, I looked in the mirror and saw Olive dancing behind me, practicing grand jetés and flicking her hair. I thought, this kid has watched me draw on brows her whole life. What message was I sending? Would she grow into a young woman so mired in perceived “flaws” that she would think herself less capable, less smart, less whole?
“Well, Mama” she said, watching her feet hit the tile floor as I lamented my crooked, drawn-on brows for what seemed like the 1000th time, “it’s not like you don’t have eyebrows. They’re just different.” Leave it to my spry little bean to jumpstart my journey out of sadness. Not worse, not less than. Just different.
After 10-plus years, and countless efforts to correct my FFA, I stopped caring so much that day. Message boards and Facebook groups led me to the Cicatricial Alopecia Research Foundation, and an informal hair loss support group near my home. Hearing the stories of other women helped me feel less alone.
I still obsess over eyebrows, but I no longer feel that I’ve lost something important. When I discovered temporary brow tattoos, I felt re-born. The color and style reminded me so much of what I once had. I remember one morning, as I was pressing one on, my husband leaned in to grab his toothbrush, and stopped to watch. I lifted the paper backing to reveal lovely pressed-on arcs.
“Your brows look amazing,” he said. “You’ve gotten so good at doing them.”
I have. I see it, too: a new version of myself – what I’ve gained, how far I’ve come.
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