self reflection

How I Learned to Look Like Myself

Photo: Getty Images

When I was 13, I hectored my mother into taking me to our local Indian salon to get my eyebrows shaped. She was unconvinced: She felt I was too young to alter my face, but I was too much of an adolescent nightmare to deny. A beauty battle erupted, and my mother surrendered and reluctantly indoctrinated me into our culture’s preferred grooming tradition: threading.

One weekend, we walked into the Payal Beauty Salon in North Brunswick, New Jersey, where the walls were plastered with laminated posters of angular haircuts and billowing blowouts. The salon’s clientele was South Asian, but the models in the posters all had white skin and light eyes. As I slid into the technician’s chair, my mother hovered in the mirror behind me, clicking her tongue in disapproval.

“The thinner your brows, the older you look,” she told me, as if rattling off the “side effects may include” portion of a drug advertisement. But nothing could change my mind. I considered eyebrow shaping to be a minor tweak; my mother, however, saw it as transformative. “It will change your whole face,” she warned. “You’ll look like an old woman.”

Her own mother, my late grandmother, had forbidden her from brow-shaping until the night before her wedding, back when my mother was 21, an unhappy bride in a mustard-yellow sari. We come from a family where women become women too fast. What was my rush to look like one?

After a few squirming minutes, the deed was over. I looked into the mirror, into a slightly seemlier, more mature-looking face. The technician smacked her gum and spanked my eyelids with jelly aloe. Soon, the practice became ritual. Every two weeks from the ages of 13 to 20, I went into the salon for an appointment. I got threaded until there was almost nothing left to thread, until my full, flat Indian brows had been skinnied down to clean, black arches.

I knew that eyebrows had a purpose: They made a face more expressive, and they kept debris and sweat from the eyes. But that logic couldn’t contend with the dozens of tiny, aquiline brows raising their arches up at me from every magazine cover. This was the late 2000s, before boy brows were the ideal and Fenty Beauty made shade inclusivity the norm it should have always been. The aughts aren’t a far-off beauty era, but they were so lacking in diversity that now they seem like ancient history. It was a time before I had the room to consider myself beautiful.

Maybe it’s a cliché of girlhood, and of girlhoods of color, in particular, to try on different faces until settling into the weight of your own, but I did a lot of trying in my teens. It started with threading, but my obsession with grooming spurred new and wayward routines. I wanted to look older, prettier, whiter. I wore drugstore foundation in a shade too light for me. I did my own “caramel” (read: orange) highlights. For too long, I dabbled in colored contacts, a period I dismiss as that colonial bullshit whenever embarrassing Facebook photos resurface.

“You do what you want,” my mother told me, half-accusatory, half-resigned.

I did. I flossed away my face to reveal a different one. But the new woman looked nothing like me. At night, I’d wash off my makeup with warm water and soap. Steam rose in the mirror, and after it let up, I’d steal a glance at my real face, wheat-colored and dark-eyed and round. It was my face, but I only wore it in private. I didn’t know how to look like me, so come morning I’d blend all the shades of my artifice and become someone else again.

The skinny brows persisted for years. In college, I moved to Manhattan, where I had to find a new spot to get threading. Soon, I discovered a peculiar dynamic of South Asian salons: Technicians are hospitable to all clients, but they’re blunt with South Asian ones. There’s an assumed familiarity that results in boundary crossing and brutal honesty. “You couldn’t have first trimmed this?” I’ve been asked before a bikini wax, or been told Let me do the upper lip too; you need it” at a brow-threading turned upper-lip-waxing appointment. Another time, a stylist asked me, Your hair’s like grease, do you ever wash?” before she cut my hair.

One Sunday afternoon, when I was a sophomore, I walked into a threading salon on Columbus Avenue. It was a cramped space with bright green walls. There were no posters to look at while you waited, but a small TV mounted to the back wall blared the technicolor of a Hindi soap. When it was my turn, I slid into the technician’s chair and pulled my eyelids taut, as I’d done so many times before. But she refused to thread me.

“These aren’t your brows,” she said, frowning and shaking her head.

“Yes, they are,” I protested. But I knew she was right, because it was something I had started thinking when I looked in the mirror: This is not your face. 

The technician prescribed me a new routine, to rub castor oil into my brows before going to bed. She warned me that the oil was viscous, that it stank of vegetables gone runny and rank, but it was good for growth. I left the salon in an insulted daze, but I heeded her advice, and picked up a bottle on my walk home. Where bluntness shames you, it also saves you. I might never have listened to my mother — we are two points in a line of contentious women — but something about being called out by a stranger almost instantaneously set me straight. In the weeks that followed, I put away the colored lenses and the lighter foundations. I stopped threading my brows, slowly growing to accept the unkempt look. Months of no-threading turned into years of no-threading. And now, in my early 20s, I look more like myself than ever.

Four years ungroomed, my brows still haven’t regained their girlhood fullness, and I don’t think they ever will. They’re studded with gaps of hair-follicle damage that I fill in with pomade. Most of the time, those spots infuriate me. Other times, when my face is freshly washed and I am in good spirits, I’ll observe my brows in the mirror, and they’ll appear so nonsensical that I laugh. How can the same thing be so thick here, so sparse there? Thick and sparse; self-loathing and self-love, two truths in one face.

How I Learned to Look Like Myself