I had not spent much time thinking about eyebrows until I became part of the team for the ‘Brews n Brows’ research event at FACT. My own PhD thesis is an oral history of dock work in the twentieth century, so I spend more time reading about hydraulic winches than HD brows. However, the focus on identity, culture and Liverpool in ‘Brews n Brows’ had me hooked. I also knew that I could not give up the chance to work in such a brilliant team. As an eyebrow novice, the experience was a learning curve both professionally and personally.
I developed my research skills and broadened my methodological knowledge through taking part in a focus group, using a 3D scanner, taking photographs and helping with filming equipment. My favourite aspect was being able to talk to people from Liverpool and people visiting the city about a topic everyone can relate to in one way or another. A lot of the conversations I had began with ‘I don’t have a story’ or ‘you don’t want to talk to me’ but ended with rich accounts of eyebrow grooming practices. Men and women who knew they were coming to the event were happy to discuss how they had trimmed, plucked or tinted their brows before arriving. Likewise, many participants were very pleased to say they had never done anything to them. That was the beauty of this project! Either way, eyebrows were seen to be an important part of how people understood themselves.
The common statement of ‘I don’t have a story’ really stuck with me throughout the event. At the start of the week, I would have said the same. The more I was questioned about my eyebrows, the more stories I seemed to have and mid-event the ‘Brews n Brows’ eyebrow technician had given me a wax and tint! I honestly felt like a different person and could not stop looking in the mirror. I began to realise just how important every part of our appearance is to our sense of self. The fact I had done very little to my eyebrows and kept my ‘owl brow’ – the part of my left brow that flicks upwards if left untamed – was deliberate. A choice which I realised was made based upon my teenage disaster with an eyebrow pencil. When delving deeper into my own story, I was forced to focus on my own values and the way I viewed myself.
The reflective element of my ‘Brews n Brows’ experience really taught me how to ask questions in research. Our daily lives may seem mundane or unimportant to us but our actions have far more significance than we think. Somebody taking part in the event said ‘you can tell a lot about a person from their eyebrows’. I am not sure how far I agree with this statement, but I do believe that you can tell a lot about a person by getting them to talk about their eyebrows.
We set up our booth, scanning corner, and photography area in the ground floor of FACT from the 25th – 28th of April. As a consequence of the publicity and buzz around our event, we made the news and local papers. The Liverpool Echo covered us on the 25th and gave a quick overview. Then North West Tonight and BBC Merseyside came to chat to us and covered our story. On North West Tonight at 6.30pm we came at the end of the hard news stories and just before the weather forecast on Friday the 27th. This meant that our event was the moment when the newscasters and the weather person have a little banter. For this segment, they asked each other about their grooming habits and speculated on how to describe the style. The word they used the most was Scousebrow, asking each other whether they would use it to describe their style. This is a term that has been named most by those outside the project and not those who have contributed, which is something we will talk about in more depth when we discuss our findings. The introduction to the feature was lighthearted and friendly. Thanks to the news item and the way it was pitched, we got many more participants through the door who specifically talked about the coverage, which was amazing.
As a follow up, we have also been interviewed by Ngunan Adamu from BBC Merseyside Upfront, who is going to feature our project on her programme. All of this has meant that we have become part of a conversation about the brow on Merseyside, which was one of our aims. The numbers are evidence of this, so too is an overheard conversation on the bus on Friday. Two girls chatting mentioned our event and discussed the language we have been using to describe it. For us, this is success. We want to keep the conversation going, so watch out for more.
If you watch our trailer, at the end Scousebird (she of the popular Scouse Bird Problems site and social media presence) says, “brows on fleek, girl”. The term “on fleek” has a particular association with eyebrows, so we thought we’d reflect on its origins a little and share our findings.
Writing in 2014, Olivia Muenter in Bustle has a useful guide to one possible source, the social media site, Vine, in 2003. While she asserts that it can be used to describe anything, “from makeup photos to selfies to a bacon sandwich”, she most strongly associates it with eyebrows. This is because it originated in the Peaches Monroee Vine account and was popularised by Ariana Grande and others in song, and, subsequently, has taken off on social media sites, such as Instagram, to describe great brow styling.
Researchers for the Merriam-Webster dictionary dug deeper into the origins and spoke to Peaches, who asserts that she said “on flick” in the video, but the sound quality meant that it sounded like “fleek”, so a mishearing led to the creation of a new word. Merriam Webster includes a table showing how the use of “on fleek” has rocketed in the last few years to become word of the year in 2015. Neal Whitman describes the wider usage as “semantic broadening”, where a word can stretch to other meanings. Whitman unpicks the flick/fleek connection and explains how “on flick” can be used to label a particular make-up technique, specifically the feline flick.
So, we would like to join the Merriam-Webster team in saying, “cheers to Peaches Monroee for introducing a term that was up to the task of identifying eyebrows done right”.
For those who like their definitions sung, check this out.
As promised, we have a trailer. This will give a taster of what is to come and is a big invite to all of you who want to tell us about your brows. We know that there are a lot of stories to tell about the brow and we want to hear them. Let this be the start of a Merseyside conversation about craft, technique, and styles.
Although we are not focused on one type of brow, as part of our project we are interested in finding out what people think about the ‘Scousebrow’. It has gotten negative press and snark (not linking, but easily found), and we’re interested in knowing whether such attitudes are shared by those who live in Merseyside. In order to understand the brow, you can go to YouTubers who describe what it is and how it’s done. These are varied and, looking through them, the ‘how to create the Scousebrow’ video advice peaked around 2014.
A question we are sometimes asked is: where did the word originate? It may not seem like it, but the word emerged relatively recently in 2011. For more detail, take a look at this academic paper which considers three English dialects (Scouse, Geordie, and Cockney) and a selection of related words in online searches. The author describes two details that are useful for this project. The first is that Scouse is only in use to describe someone from Liverpool since 1945 (Jensen 2017, 53) and, the second is that Scousebrow came into use thanks to the Channel 4 scripted reality TV show Desperate Scousewives (2011-12). Scousebrow became a major search term online in Scouse-related words reaching a peak in 2016 (Jensen 2017, 61-63). This is a fascinating phenomenon that has had wide-ranging coverage and interest. We would love to know how you feel about the Scousebrow, if you are from Merseyside and sculpt and craft your brows. So, come to our event at FACT from the 25th-28th of April and tell us about your brows.
Yesterday, Google created a Doodle for the Mexican version of the Mexican actress María Félix on the occasion of her 104th birthday. Her eyebrow movements were the original inspiration for this project. She was born and died on the same date – the 8th of April. The year of her birth is subject to some variation, depending on the source, but she lived a full life and died in 2002 in her eighties. She starred in 47 films and became known as La Doña – a term that denotes respect and authority – after her breakthrough role as the eponymous character Doña Bárbara (Fernando de Fuentes and Miguel M. Delgado, 1943). At the peak of her career (1940s-1950s) she was the best paid actor (male or female) in what was a flourishing industry in Mexico. Mexican film production at the time dominated the Spanish-language market in Latin American and Spain and was widely distributed throughout the world. She occasionally acted in Spanish, Italian, and French productions, but never in English. She lived a celebrity life full of scandal and glamour. By the end of her life she lived in opulent surroundings with her French husband in residences in Paris and Mexico City. Despite all of this fame and renown – or maybe because of it – her work is relatively understudied. For me, one means of understanding her work is to find new ways of discussing the brow so that I can get a keener insight into why, despite her considerable success and skill, women like her are not given the academic attention they deserve.
As part of our event at FACT we will have a trailer and an audio-visual essay co-created by Niamh Thornton and Liz Greene. We are currently working hard to edit material by vloggers and Instagrammers, and finding inspiration in the many film stars and celebrities who use their brows as part of their performances. After many hours of viewing, it has been fascinating to watch the similarities and differences in approaches and advice given. Pencils, stencils, threads, and products abound. The release date for our trailer will be next week.
When I mention that I am doing a project on eyebrows and I research Mexico, Frida Kahlo’s name is always mentioned. So, it is no surprise that in a review of an exhibition of her “intimate belongings” at the V&A her “ebony eyebrow pencils that she used to emphasise her monobrow” is included. For more, read on. Kahlo’s image is to be found on multiple objects that can be bought throughout the land. So, will the exhibit now encourage a new direction in brows, just as her Tehuana-style blouse has introduced a taste for embroidery?
Eyebrows are a constant in the press and online, with many different opinions about whose works and whose doesn’t. We want to get away from eyebrow shaming and give you an opportunity to get your eyebrow scanned, talk about what your brow means to you, and shake off the negativity around the brow. We are interested in the choices you make when you pluck, sculpt, and position your eyebrows and to challenge the current negative press around the (Scouse)brow.