Most 90s kids remember Hey Arnold! and its wide cast of characters that covered just about every challenge a kid could face growing up. Among the most memorable is Helga G. Pataki. Between her obsessive love for Arnold (what the hell is his last name? We’ll never know) and the irony of her appearance compared to her personality, Helga is iconic. Perhaps her most interesting feature is her raging unibrow.
I naturally have a bit of a unibrow myself. Growing up, Hey Arnold! was one of my favorite shows, so my parents were familiar with it as well. From the time I entered adolescence all through most of my college years, my mother jokingly called me Helga whenever I waited too long between waxings. Somehow, my eyebrows never became a huge insecurity for me, so I didn’t care about the comments. They look hella fine when they’re waxed and hella fine when they’re not. I didn’t need much convincing of the beauty of my eyebrows’ natural state when I started understanding how feminism intersects with body acceptance and a host of other things. The most I’ll do these days is pluck the middle every once in a while.
However, it took a few more times of me blatantly stating to my mother that I like my eyebrows just how they are for her to stop pushing onto me what is actually a narrow idea of beauty regarding eyebrows. The aversion society has to anyone with a unibrow is a symptom of a culture that feeds us one model of beauty that stems from what heterosexual men find attractive. People often perpetuate the lie that makeup or any other beauty ritual–even down to getting dressed in the morning–is all meant to attract straight men, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Our culture wants to train women to think that way, and many do to the point where they later struggle with severe body image issues, but clothes, makeup, and waxing exist only to make yourself feel like an A-lister if you so choose. Women and girls don’t dress for men. Ever. Even those who conform to beauty standards, especially at a young age, do so more to make other girls accept them rather than to attract boys. Since makeup and other beauty rituals are typically not presented to boys as options for how they may want to look every day, they don’t notice how sharp your eyeliner wings are. Many then grow up to think that they’re helping by loudly declaring that they don’t find makeup attractive, but that is still perpetuating the idea that women dress for men.
What does all of this have to do with Helga? Simply put, Helga is not sorry about her bold unibrow and if anyone gives her lip about it, she’ll pound them. Her pigtails, pink bow, and pink dress exude the typical image of a perfectly feminine little girl, but then there’s her glorious eyebrow.
The juxtaposition is humorous because we, as a society, associate unibrows with ugliness and everything else about Helga’s appearance is so typically girly. However, if we take a closer look, I think we find an example of what should be one of the most widely understood components of feminism: there is no dividing line between socially acceptable femininity and femininity that challenges beauty standards. A person can express themselves simultaneously with both. Helga’s dress, bowtie, and pigtails are images of femininity that we do not find alarming, but her unibrow is a direct resistance to that. Never does she feel like she must either be “fully feminine” or “fully resistant” because both her unibrow and her girliness are harmoniously part of her identity. In the one episode where beauty is an issue, Helga returns to her own sense of beauty with the help of the fact that she and her friends are only nine-years-old and don’t need all that glitz yet anyway.
So in Helga’s expression of herself, we’re given an image that combines “acceptable” femininity with an image of resistance against conventional beauty standards: the unibrow. Yet, Helga is still one person and these things never pose a conflict for her.
When we talk about feminism, gender expression, and breaking down barriers, this is what it will look like in the end. Choosing conventional beauty is not anti-feminist. Mixing and matching is not compromising. In my own life, I will wear a dress to work one day and a vest over a button-down shirt the next day.
As for my eyebrows, they’ll be what they’ll be.