You cannot find a pair of bushy eyebrows anymore. They have gone the way of virgins, that is to say, they are now the stuff of Persian fairytales
Still, I cannot seem to stop thinking about them and why they have left us. Eyebrows have enjoyed a special place in the history of our people. Iranians are apt to speak rapturously of a woman’s “cheshm-o-abroo.” In describing a beautiful woman, we do not speak of her eyes alone, but of her eyes and her eyebrows, as if they were of a piece. Their role in supporting the beauty of a woman’s face is not merely incidental. Eyebrows are in fact crucial.
Look at any of the Persian miniatures. Study the maidens carefully as they recline against cushions and pour wine into the mouths of their lovers. You will see that their eyebrows are etched with the same meticulous care that the artist has lavished on their lips and their bosoms.
Sadly, there is no corresponding appreciation of eyebrows in American culture.
I learned this very early on. When I was in fifth grade a new girl from Iran came to my class. Her name was Maryam and her eyebrows met in the middle of her forehead. There was therefore a faint resemblance between us, and after her arrival I could never look at my eyebrows the same way again.
Maryam always wore her hair pulled back in ponytail, a style that only accentuated the majestic sweep of her eyebrows. She also had a habit of beginning every sentence with a high-pitched “I theeenk” and cupping her hands under her dimpled chin as she did this. She was a sweet girl; the accent and the eyebrows were her only offenses. But several times a day she would be bullied into saying “I theeenk” over and over until her black eyes welled with tears. “Hey, listen to unibrow,” someone would shout, and the class would be overtaken by a riot of laughter.
Let’s say that, like Maryam, you went through something like this and were tempted to pick up a pair of tweezers. You might as well have emerged from the bathroom with a banner across your chest declaring, “I am a slut.” Interestingly enough, in Iran such details of a woman’s appearance had become a matter of political protest. You could signal your opposition to the regime just by plucking your brows, wearing makeup, coloring your hair. In America, eyebrow grooming among Iranian girls enjoyed no such cachet. If your mother was anything like mine, she was bent on keeping you in the medieval period so far as your eyebrows and your virginity were concerned.
Ah, virginity. Isn’t this what it was all about? Why else the intense, relentless preoccupation with appearance? Of course traditionally a girl’s eyebrows were first plucked on her wedding night — just like, you guessed it, the “flower” of her chastity.
In America the Persian fairytales faded, but the cult of virginity survived. Yet it seems to me that to preserve one’s virginity in point of fact was in the end perhaps less important than to preserve the impression of virginity. If you took a pair of tweezers to your brows, your mother might not hesitate to tell you looked like a whore, which you would know to translate as a girl no man would ever choose as his wife.
Though my mother’s wrath would have been far more unsettling to me than any future I could then imagine as an unmarried woman, I didn’t dare take my chances. My eyebrows remained unruly for years.
As we all know, appearances can be very deceiving. Just look at what those maidens in the miniatures have been up to all along.