In the past half decade or so, women have been gifted yet another feature to fret over: their eyebrows.
As Instagram came of age, so did arch trends: out are the linguini-thin lines popular in the early-aughts, which left many of us pouring hot wax inches above our pupils in pursuit of Drew Barrymore brows. In are thick, bushy caterpillars seen on the likes of Cara Delevingne and Meghan Markle (who reportedly turns to Audrey Hepburn for inspiration, when it comes to the upper third of her face.)
Prescriptive advice on how to style eyebrows can be maddening. Look up any online tutorial and you’ll get this main advice: your arches should look natural. One might think that means they can just let their brows grow the way they are. How naive.
Increasingly, Natural brows has become shorthand for arches that have been enhanced with a serum, pencil, gel, or prodded with a tiny tattoo gun that deposits a fuller-looking arch for around $2,000 a pop.
It’s enough to make you want to give up and buy an eye patch that covers everything. But anyone who has ever felt, as the term goes, “brow envy,” isn’t alone. Last year, conspiracy theorists speculated that Justin Trudeau might be insecure about the divisive feature, after a video taken at the G7 summit appeared to show one of his arch extensions fall off.
Those in pursuit of perfection can turn to beauty blogs and Reddit forums for help with styling. (One oft-repeated rule: “Your eyebrows should be sisters, not twins.”) But, like most salon talk, gossip begins to flow fast. For every well-intended tutorial, there are dozens more memes shaming over- or underdone brows, dutifully catalogued on Pinterest boards and Instagram pages.
“Eyebrows are so important in unexpected ways,” makeup artist Mary Irwin told The Daily Beast. “Think about Frida Kahlo, Brooke Shields, the 1920s skinny brow—those all made statements about beauty, politics, and our place in the world. Unfortunately, personal preference can sometimes override common sense and people end up with crazy shapes that don’t fit the proportion of the face and just look awful.”
Enter, Awful Eyebrows, a subreddit dedicated to documenting just that. With over 150,000 followers, administrators have described it as simply “a place for embarrassing eyebrows.” Users can upload photos of celebrities, reality TV stars, or—in one case—“the homewrecker my dad left my mom for,” and judge their makeup skills. Or lack thereof.
Irwin isn’t surprised by such emotional responses. “[Brows are] a big part of what shapes a face and makes it look proportional and attractive,” she said. “When something is ‘off’ or extreme, and not in an artistic sense, it triggers a ‘something’s wrong’ reaction.”
One Awful Eyebrow regular, a 21 year-old from California who told The Daily Beast his name is James Smith, has used the subreddit since 2016. “I have only posted once, but have thought about it constantly,” Smith said in a DM. “Eyebrows are something I never really thought about sharing with anybody until I found the subreddit, and then anytime I have seen someone look that bad, I always know the perfect place to post them.”
Smith defines “awful eyebrows” as “anything that makes me think the following: ‘Why would anyone intentionally put the effort to modify their look to look like THAT?’”
He doesn’t think “natural” brows are ever awful: “I see them more like a bad haircut.”
Even though people flock to the forum to post screenshots taken from Facebook or Instagram—presumably without the subject’s consent—Smith doesn’t think that Awful Eyebrows “shames” anyone. (Some of community’s rules are, “No harassment” and “No mocking of features that cannot be helped.”)
“I think it is more of a public discussion than public shaming,” Smith said. “No one on reddit is really malicious toward the subjects of posts, even if [they have] really goofy or messed up eyebrows. We come to the site for the commentary, and most of us don’t enjoy cruelty or encourage shaming.”
Indeed, when brave souls decide to post their own photos on Awful Eyebrows for help with makeup tips, the comments usually skew to thoughtful, constructive advice with abundant smiley emojis.
Irwin, the makeup artist, turned to a principle of psychology to explain why there are so many “awful eyebrows” out there. “It reminds me of the Dunning-Kruger effect, where cognitive bias makes people mistakenly assess their ability as higher than it is, and leads to the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability. It’s the aesthetic version of that—you’re convinced you look good, and nothing will tell you otherwise.”
For Irwin, good brows don’t have to be “uber-full,” à la those famously fluffy ones that live below Delevingne's forehead. “They should be proportional to the face, in a color that’s flattering to the skin and hair. I know people who bleach their brows to look invisible, and it’s amazing. It’s all about your taste level.”