Eyebrow threading holds cultural significance for South Asians, Middle Easterners

Eyebrow threading holds cultural meaning

Every two weeks Elnaz Sajadieh books an appointment to get her eyebrows threaded by Noureen Wadhvania.

The 28-year-old real estate agent has been trusting Wadhvania with her eyebrows for more than a decade, and jokes that she would never “cheat” by going to anyone else. The process is relaxing for Sajadieh, who has a peaceful look on her face as Wadhvania methodically works to maintain her signature eyebrow arch.

“It just feels good, like a message,” Sajadieh said. “I think eyebrows can truly transform someone’s look.”

For people with Middle Eastern and South Asian roots, eyebrow threading is not just a beauty ritual — it’s cultural too.

“I do find that threading to be more of our culture as opposed to waxing,” said Sajadieh, who is an Iranian American.

Threading, which is a hair removal process that involves twisting thread into a loop which is used to remove excess body hair, has its origins in the Middle East and South Asia.

The method has been used for centuries in beauty routines of both men and women throughout the region and in some countries, it has ties to rites of passages or significant milestones. For example, in Iran soon-to-be-brides would traditionally hold off on getting their eyebrows threaded until marriage, when they would hold a threading party before the ceremony.

Although those rituals are less common today, threading has remained popular overseas, and is becoming a go-to hair removal method in the U.S. This is partly because of newly arrived immigrants who have opened up shops and shared the practice with their neighbors.

“I take full pride in saying it’s an ancient technique, it’s an Indian technique, because that’s where it all started, you know?” said Wadhvania, the founder of Beauty Brows N Beyond in the Lindbergh area of Atlanta. “So when people come in here and I’m like ‘yes, I’m from India and I proudly can say that I can thread your eyebrows.’”

A slice of home

Rabarb Aladin opened Hair Images in the Briarcliff Heights neighborhood in 1994, and said it was one of metro-Atlanta’s first eyebrow salons.

Aladin taught herself how to thread when she was 14 and living in Pakistan. At the time she would tie a piece of thread to a dresser, and practice holding it properly between her fingers. She began practicing on herself, and over time became the go-to person among her friends and family for the hair removal process.

Elnaz Sajadieh has eyebrow threading done by Noureen Wadhavania at Beauty Brow N Beyond on Thursday, Oct 14, 2021.  Sajadieh, who is Iranian American, has been getting her brows threaded by Wadhvania for more than a decade. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

“When we migrated to the United States I realized it is so important for me to tell people that I know how to do this and I started spreading the word around,” she said. “Threading is so important for women, because I think, we speak with our eyes and the main attention goes to our eyebrows.”

Aladin is also quick to point out that wearing face masks, which have become ubiquitous during the coronavirus pandemic, makes eyebrows even more of a focal point.

“The only thing you see is the eyes, right?” Aladin said. “So it’s very important for us to at least keep up with the eyes, if not the rest of the face, while wearing a mask.”

Traditionally, stylists hold thread in their mouths while working on eyebrows, but to stay safe during the pandemic, many are now coming up with alternatives.

“We tie (the thread) from the neck so that we don’t breathe on customers,” Aladin said. “We do it with the neck which is equally good.”

For Wadhvania, eyebrow threading was a skill she picked up while living in India, after her mother insisted on her taking class during a semester break in college. She was given two choices, she could either take a cooking class or enroll in a beauty course.

“Me being a rebel, I was like, ‘cooking, who does that? I’ll do beauty,’” she said.

Wadhvania immigrated to the U.S. in 2008, and her ability to thread eyebrows opened business opportunities for her. The metro-Atlanta area has seen a spike in South Asian and Middle Eastern populations over the past decade, and that helped create a demand.

She also began to recognize the effect threading had on people, and remembers one of her early clients having a bad day and venting while she got her brows shaped.

“When I did her eyebrows, she started feeling so confident about herself,” Wadhvania said. “She’s like ‘oh I love it, my face looks so beautiful.’” That’s when Wadhvania realized that, “eyebrows aren’t just eyebrows. You can build up someone’s confidence. When your eyebrows are looking absolutely perfect it just adds that oomph to the face.”

Growing trends

Eyebrow trends have evolved over the years.

While pencil thin brows were all the rage in the ‘90s and 2000s, current trends favor thicker and fuller brows, which are common in people with Middle Eastern and South Asian ancestry. Those are also features that many were taught not to love about themselves growing up.

Noureen Wadhavania threads a client's brows at Beauty Brow N Beyond on Thursday, Oct 14, 2021.  Wadhvania, who is from India, says she is proud of the Indian origin of the hair removal technique. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

icon to expand image

Credit: Jenni Girtman

“I had very thick eyebrows growing up and my mom was like, ‘no don’t thin them out,’ and ‘it’s beautiful to have thick eyebrows.’ I never understood that because everyone had thin eyebrows so I wanted to have that,” Sajadieh said.

Some were even teased for their brows.

“I really had a bad unibrow and I remember one time in sixth grade, I was sitting next to this kid and he said something about it, and it will always stick with me,” Alina Khalaf, 19, said. “I went home and I was like, ‘we have to do something.’”

Khalaf, who is a Georgia State University student studying business marketing, turned to her Aladin, a relative, to thread her brows.

At first, she would just get her brows cleaned up, meaning only stray hairs were removed. As she got older, Khalaf began defining her eyebrows a bit more and has also grown to love the fullness of her natural brows.

She also enjoys introducing threading to her friends, and looks at it as a nod to the Palestinian and Afghan roots of her ancestry.

“Even when I go to the salon I’ll see people of different backgrounds in there and they really like threading,” Khalaf said. “It’s cool to see all types of people getting their eyebrows threaded because I feel it really evolved in the Middle East.”

Naila Aladin has since taken over Hair Images from her mom, and shares her niece’s enthusiasm for sharing threading outside her community.

“You automatically feel this connection because we know where threading came from,” she said.

Forming bonds

Sajadieh had grown up watching her older sister getting her brows done, and wanted to get in on the beauty ritual when she was about 10.

“I wouldn’t get it done often because I didn’t need to, but I started started at 10 just cleaning them up,” Sajadieh said. “I knew a lot of girls who’d get them waxed and I was the only one who’d get them threaded. A lot of people found threading more painful, I find waxing more painful.”

Sajadieh values the relationship she has developed with Wadhvania and now recommends her to her clients.

“Every eyebrow shape is different, so it’s trying to make them both as even as possible, and (Wadhvania) does that,” Sajadieh said. “Noureen loves what she does and you can tell.”

For Wadhvania eyebrows are about confidence, and she is thankful to have an outlet to empower women of all backgrounds.

“I feel like a confident woman is just unstoppable,” she said.