"I Want to be Like Peaches Monroee"
It was one of those heavy-hot late summer days, when school had already started but we were all still bullshitting around and pretending it hadn’t. My best friend and I were terrorizing the end-of-summer sales in the one strip mall in my town when we saw it; there was a car, something vague and big and blocky, with “EYEBROWS ON FLEEK” painted on the rear window over a pathetically drawn eye and eyebrow. We took pictures. I posted mine on Snapchat with the caption, “God, I love America.”
I don’t know when my generation started saying “on fleek” or where the phrase came from, all I remember is fake-laughing at a grainy, 6-second Vine of a woman in a mustard colored shirt. Whenever someone new was introduced to the video, their friends would crowd around, tittering compulsively as “Peaches Monroee” shouted at her phone camera, and then everyone would burst out laughing as the video ended with, “Eyebrows on FLEEK!” The slang was born.
More than anything else, I’ve heard fleek used to describe eyebrows. Somehow it means flawless – or on point, which is just as vague – a summary of everything that is Beyoncé. No one ever defined or explained the phrase, but everyone was expected to know it and use it -- ironically at first, but eventually in their everyday vocabulary like you would say “good” or “apple.”
Four years before I had ever heard the word fleek, when I was thirteen, an older friend asked me if I plucked or waxed my eyebrows. I did neither.
“Pluck,” I said.
She shook her head with admiration, “Lucky you. That would take me forever with my stupid Italian genes."
We were sitting in the aisle of the stable we worked at, facing a propane heater with our legs stretched out in front of us. Gabby’s were impossibly long, stretching far beyond mine to reach dangerously close to the orange face of the heater. At the time, I told myself it was only because she was three years my senior, but in reality, I was already as tall as I would ever be. I had always thought Gabby was beautiful, and had never given a thought to whether or not she tried to be so.
That night I snuck into my mom’s bathroom to find a dangerous new weapon. I dug around in a cluttered drawer until I found a forgotten pair of tweezers and I plucked my eyebrows.
That was the first time I altered my appearance to fit any kind of standard. I took it slow at first, plucking little bits and pieces so that no one would realize I had suddenly decided to conform.
Two years later, I took it a step further by wearing makeup for the first time. A tomboy hitting fifteen and suddenly deciding to be feminine sounds like the average high school rom-com, but that wasn’t the social norm I wanted to uphold. No, I had pulled out a centimeter-long section of my bottom eyelashes and I needed to cover it up.
This anxious habit had started years before. Whenever I was nervous or stressed, I pulled and picked and plucked at my eye lashes. During sleepless nights, I worried at my tender eyelids until I woke up with the morning with my eyes swollen half shut. I fell asleep with a hand to my face and had dreams that I finally pulled them all out; I woke, terrified, and rushed to the mirror, just to be sure something was left.
As a child, I had always received complements on my eyelashes. I was a small, tan-skinned waif and my changing blue-green eyes were framed in long, dark, curling lashes.
“You have gorgeous eyes,” other moms would say, and my mom would beam down at me, because they were her eyes in my face.
I would toss back my mess of curls and say, “Why thank you,” to please my mother and also to sound a little bit like an asshole, because I didn’t care about my eyes or my eyelashes. I cared that I had just beaten this ambiguous woman’s child in a footrace or a soccer scrimmage or possibly a wrestling match.
But that was when eyelashes were in unlimited supply. As I grew older, and my anxiety worsened, they suddenly became a valuable commodity. I understood why society cared so much. I understood why Lily Collins had a make-up artist and why he put three layers of mascara on her face before sending her off to the press. It didn’t matter that her eyelashes looked ridiculous and clearly un-realistic, she deserved to show them off.
Lily Collins is a young actress, known for her bold eyebrows. Emily Orifino at POPSugar.com tells me that the thick, dark eyebrow trend began around 2013, with stars like Lily Collins wearing their natural eyebrows out and about. Emily Orifino says this is great for women, it makes them look younger, and it’s easy to pull off this natural look. Then, Emily Orifino spends the rest of the article describing beauty products you can use to make your eyebrows look natural.
Once, I would have scoffed at the absurdity in Emily Orifino’s article, but now I fervently write down the products on her list. Because, once, I swore I would never alter my natural appearance. But that was before I discovered that tweezer, and gave my shaky-handed habit a steady tool to destroy my face. I plucked my eyebrows away, and them drew them back on as Emily Orifino instructed.
Now, Cosmopolitan magazine explains that the bold, natural eyebrow is out. No longer on fleek. Gabriella Chaudhri says eyebrows need to be understated in 2016, and gives examples of fashion week models with half-plucked brows or nude makeup covering their eyebrows, revealing only a hint of what is naturally there.
For various women, each of these trends could be considered natural. Lily Collins and my old friend Gabby rocked the big and blocky 2013 trend. Anyone with fairer hair will relish the saved time that 2016’s understated trend allows them. Maybe I want to go back to the 90s and compare my eyebrows to Gwen Stefani’s pencil line brows. But we’re never satisfied with what is natural. We mangle and twist our appearance to fit whatever standard is trending and shout #onfleek to justify hours spent changing ourselves.
When I visited a close college friend’s new house for the first time earlier this fall, I commented on a large collage of Polaroids on her wall.
“Hey! I’m not in any of these.”
“Of course you are,” she said, pointing to a selfie of the two of us, with me ducked under her arm in our customary pose.
I stared at the picture for a few moments. “That doesn’t even look like me,” I said.
“That’s because your eyebrows were on fleek that night!” She said it like flee-eek, like yelling a player’s name at a baseball game. Like making myself unrecognizable was the way to victory.