Raising Eyebrows

By Ann Wlazelek

Gabriella handed me the mirror.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“I have eyebrows,” I said excitedly. “And they won’t come off!”

Tiny,  hair-like lines, perfectly aligned, had been tattooed in a delicate arch over each of my eyes. How wonderful, I thought, to never have to draw my eyebrows again.

And the whole process took less than an hour. No pain, just a buzzing sound and gentle vibration as if a small electric shaver had been removing my brows instead of creating them with an electric “pen.”

Although body art, or tattooing, dates back to the Egyptians, tattooed eyebrows are now the rage – one of the most popular procedures in a line of “permanent” makeup. No longer reserved for the rich and risk-taking, tattoos of the brows, eyeliner and lips are becoming mainstream. Some are getting the tattoos to look more normal after burns, cancer or reconstructive surgery. Many more want to look younger or more attractive without having to apply makeup each day.

For me, it was a lifelong case of eyebrow envy. While others lusted after the pouty lips of Angelina Jolie, I longed for the bold, expressive brows of Cindy Crawford, Drew Barrymore and every model I’ve seen on the cover of a magazine. Compared to theirs, my brows were skimpy and hard to see.

Realization hit hard in junior high, when my mother had enrolled me in a modeling and makeup class at a local department store. I was thrilled when the makeup artist chose me to come to the front of the class for a demonstration until she announced why.

“You have no eyebrows,” she shrieked. “You are perfect.”

The brows she drew on my face seemed hideous to me at the time: too dark and large for my face. But her tips for where to start, stop and arch a penciled brow served me for some 40 years.

That was until I entered the “Natural Reflections” spa of Gabriella Penzes in Bethlehem. An aesthetician trained in her native Budapest, she has been practicing in the United States since 1987 and estimates that she has tattooed thousands of permanent makeup customers.

I chose Gabriella because I had seen the results of her work on my best friend, whose brows I thought always looked nice but on one particular day looked amazing. My friend shared her secret. Her sister, mother and other relatives also had gotten their eyebrows tattooed.

When she told me the price — $200 at the time – it seemed affordable, especially if I never had to buy another eyebrow pencil, cream or brush.

A bit of research reassured me that the pigments used by tattoo artists and aestheticians, called iron oxides (fancy name for rust), were safe and wouldn’t cause my head to burst into flames should I ever need a magnetic scan.  Mythbusters, the TV show, once ran a tattooed pig through an MRI to dispel the danger.

I made sure Gabriella’s spa was licensed by the state. The spend-thrift in me (aka bargain huntress) sent me comparing prices. Her fees fared at the lower end of the spectrum, from $100 at a local tattoo shop to $650 at a plastic surgeon’s office.

At Gabriella’s, I entered the small treatment room to find warmly colored walls, lamps and a large, padded table. Spa music played as she showed me before and after photos of clients and some close-ups of her work.

“The brows look darker the first couple days,” she said, anticipating my reactions. “And on the fifth day, some women think their tattoos have disappeared. It depends how much pigment the skin absorbs.”

She chose a color of pigment she felt would be flattering to my skin and hair color – a light, golden brown or taupe – and rubbed some on my hand to see if I agreed.

Next, she applied a thick, white coating of Lidocaine, a pain killer, to each brow to numb the skin. The foam would not drip or move, she assured me, as I sat up to ask more questions and jot down answers.  The one question I had to answer, she said, was which instrument I wanted her to use: the pen with electric or without.

“What’s the difference?” I asked. “Which do you prefer?”

Gabriella said the electric pen sounds like a big mosquito, the non-electric is quiet. Still, she said, if the buzzing doesn’t bother me, she preferred the electric because it is quicker and more even. Also, the electric pen holds three needles compared to 10 in the non-electric, referring to the latter as the “primitive tool.”

Enough said. Electric please.

First, Gabriella drew a rectangular border above each eye with a white pencil to outline the outer limits of her free-hand strokes. She showed it to me and it looked fine.  Then, she turned on the buzzing pen and began working on the brow lines. Pleasantly, all I felt was the gentle vibration.

“You doing OK?” she asked every few minutes.

“Yes, fine.”

After the first pass, she went back over some areas with what felt like a rocking motion. I could not feel the needles going up and down as she moved the pen forward and back. And I had a hard time grasping the concept of how it worked until Gabriella likened it to a sewing machine that, instead of laying thread, would lay down pigment.

I liked that.  I wasn’t being tattooed, I was being embroidered!

Fifteen to 20 minutes on each side and Gabriella was done. In the mirror, my brows did look dark for my complexion, but I knew they would fade. Using a Q-tip dipped in ice water to soothe the area she had worked on, Gabriella applied healing antiseptic gel on each brow. She instructed me to use Neosporin at home if the brows felt itchy or irritated as they healed.

I made another appointment for a month later, when she would touch up or add to any areas she felt needed it. “Sometimes we do it all over. Sometimes, it’s just a couple hair strokes,” she said. “Very few don’t need a touch up.”

At home, in my magnifying mirror, I thought the lines looked a bit crude: all evenly spaced at a 45-degree angle, filling in an imaginary eyebrow outline. That’s fine for most of the brow, but I thought there should be some vertical hairs where the brows start, no?

My husband told me not to worry. “If they don’t fade, you are ready for Halloween,” he said, always the kidder.

Just as Gabriella had predicted, the tattoos faded. When it came time for a touch-up, Gabriella added a few new strokes to her original artwork, raising the arch a bit and evening out the starting points. This time, when she used the non-electric pen, I could feel each “stitch” and found it uncomfortable, so she finished with the electric.

Today, I consider the tattoos to be one of the best things I’ve done for myself.  I can swim, wash my face and wake up without eyebrow envy.

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