Why Frida Kahlo’s unibrow is important

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Her image is iconic, but it’s the control the artist took of her appearance that still feels radical. GEORGIA SIMMONDS explains why


Frida Kahlo’s extraordinary explorations in self-portraiture are testament to the fact that, in real life and on canvas, Kahlo considered her image on precisely her own terms, celebrating her features – her Mexican identity, upper lip hair and that striking unibrow. “I am my own muse. The subject I know best. The subject I want to know better,” she famously declared.

An enduring feminist icon, Kahlo’s unibrow has become shorthand for: “I won’t curb my self-expression to meet your expectations of how a woman should look.” That shock of dark hair on her brow is a statement rejecting stereotypes about what is and isn’t attractive.

In March 2018, Mattel revealed its Frida Kahlo Barbie – and people were upset. But this time, the doll’s improbable physical proportions were the least of everyone’s worries. The fact that Kahlo-Barbie’s unibrow was minimized, and no facial hair was visible, was a big point of contention – a dilution that devalued the meaning attached to how Kahlo presented herself in life and art.

In the summer of 2018, an exhibition at London’s V&A museum, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, investigated how the artist shaped her visual identity via the clothes and personal artefacts she used to express her cultural heritage, femininity and politics. Included in the exhibition was the eyebrow pencil Kahlo used to accentuate her unibrow; a reminder that, way back in the ’40s, Kahlo was challenging beauty ideals in a way that still feels progressive today. Increasingly, fuller virgin brows are celebrated, but it remains a defiant act to leave untouched, ‘untamed’ hair on your face. Unibrowed Cypriot model Sophia Hadjipanteli has over 180k followers on Instagram, but routinely receives abuse on the platform for not bowing to the status quo.

Kahlo’s unibrow is important because it’s confidently unconventional. Her image remains a shaft of light for women who feel dictated to or shamed by narrow social constructs around what’s ‘normal’. “I used to think I was the strangest person in the world,” wrote Kahlo in her diary. “But then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I'm here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

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Artwork: Frida on the bench, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives. Photograph: Frida Kahlo, c. 1926, Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums. Dress: Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holán. Ensemble from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums.

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