When Rihanna debuted literally pencil-thin brows for her history-making September cover of British Vogue, the general response was one of awe—and fear that the look was coming back.
Rihanna (who requested the look) told editor-in-chief Edward Enninful that she considered skinny brows “ladylike ... but punk.” But while many of us saw references to the beauty trends of the 1920s (think Betty Boop and the Harlem Renaissance) and contemporary South African celebs, Mexican-American writer Krystyna Chávez was none too pleased at what she considered a culturally denigrating moment, as she explained in an article for Marie Claire calling Rihanna’s look “problematic”:
[T]o me and thousands of other Mexican and Mexican-American girls looking at these photos, RiRi’s brows look a lot like the chola brows our mothers feared we would one day wear—the brows that are now untouchable and unwearable to women like me, especially in conjunction with hoop earrings and, god forbid, lip liner.
The “chola” look originated in Los Angeles as a signature beauty aesthetic of Mexican-American female gang members; in fact, as Chávez writes:
[P]encil-thin brows weren’t seen as a fashion statement—they were seen as a gang affiliation. ... Considering it was highly unlikely that Rihanna had suddenly joined a gang, and seeing as the Caribbean singer wasn’t exactly raised on the streets of East L.A., my Mexican-American heart was deeply confused, and deeply annoyed.
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And Chávez wasn’t the only one who took issue with Rihanna’s look; across social media, Mexican-American women voiced their disdain for what they considered an appropriative moment.
And admittedly, the optics weren’t great when Chávez included a photo of Rihanna’s 2013 Halloween costume, in which she effectively impersonated—you guessed it—a chola (complete with a chola name). Now, this we’re willing to agree might be a bit problematic—though ironically, Rih’s eyebrows were actually thicker with her costume than on her Vogue cover.
But while Chávez admits that thin brows neither originated nor are exclusive to chola culture, it’s also very clear that her own marginalized experience is the only one informing her criticism:
To most Mexican and Mexican-American women, drawn-on eyebrows are a look historically representative of a marginalized culture—my culture—and have become a Latinx street style viewed as “trashy” by the rest of society. That is, until Rihanna wears them.
And the “my culture” stance is perhaps where Chávez’s argument falls apart; because while the look may be triggering when viewed exclusively through her own cultural lens, thin eyebrows are part of our culture and history, too. Is Rihanna not allowed to pay homage to her own cultural touchstones?
The fact is, Rihanna didn’t need to appropriate chola culture to inspire her look for Vogue. As black women, we are not only also marginalized but have our own reference points—and our own way of interpreting them. And as at least one commenter pointed out, what Chávez and others missed—other than the obvious references—was the opportunity to reinterpret a troubling history for themselves.