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Martha Brockenbrough
Martha Talks Back: Reader Questions Answered

Dear Martha,

Why do we have eyebrows?

- 7-year-old boy

Dear 7,

Eyebrows are so trendy these days. That TV-makeover show for men made itself famous for curing a man of his unibrow. And you can't pick up a fashion magazine that doesn't instruct women on the do's and don'ts of eyebrow grooming.

With all that fashion focus, you'd think eyebrows were a mere accessory, designed to make us look good.

Bjorn Borg
The truth is, they are an accessory. But unlike something purely decorative, like an eyebrow piercing, eyebrows are also useful, like umbrellas. They keep the rain out of your eyes. They keep the sweat out, too, which makes them even better than an umbrella, and certainly less goofy looking than the Björn Borg headband thing that was all the rage when your parents were kids.
This is the real reason you don't want to shave your eyebrows off, or pluck the hairs out one by one. While being eyebrow-free might make you look funny, the real problem would be that you might not be able to see well if your face got wet. This could have been really bad news if you were a cave boy trying to run away from a saber-toothed cat, just as it would be bad news at recess if you were playing kickball at recess and you couldn't see home base.
Some hairy facts from Encarta's article on hair:
  • All mammals have hair
  • Hair is called fur when individual hairs are fine and close together. It's called wool when it's soft, kinked, and matted together. If hair is coarse and stiff, it's called bristles. And pointy bristles are called quills.
  • Hair is a kind of protein known as keratin. It doesn't have blood vessels or nerves, which is why haircuts aren't a painful and messy experience.
  • Each hair follicle has its own tiny muscle that can help the hair stand up.
  • Hair grows faster when it's short than when it's long. When it's short, it grows about ¾ inch a month. When it's more than a foot long, it grows about half that fast.
  • Young women from the ages of 16-24 enjoy the fastest hair growth.

The shape, texture, and placement of your eyebrows are all things you inherited from your parents. In other words, having a monobrow is something you can blame on your folks, if you ever want to make them feel really guilty.

Another question is, if hair is so good at keeping water away, why aren't most people very hairy?

Want to Learn More?
Traditionally, scientists have thought we shed our hair to help stay cool. More recently, though, some researchers have suggested in a publication called Biology Letters that we actually lost most of our body hair for a different reason: to create a less friendly space for parasites like lice to live, and to show off the healthy skin that resulted.
The less hairy a person was, the more likely it was that he or she was free of yucky bugs, and--just as your parents passed their eyebrows down to you--the less hairy people of long ago passed that trait on to their offspring.

The problem with this theory, the researchers admit, is that humans still have fur in some places, like our armpits.

What would explain that, they say, is that the smell, which would get stronger when spread out over all that hair, smells good to us on some level.

For that reason, you should be glad you're 7, and you just don't have to worry about that sort of thing. Peeee-yew.

Go to the Martha Talks Back homepage.

Martha Brockenbrough
Martha Brockenbrough lives, writes, and plays in Seattle. She is author of It Could Happen to You: Diary of a Pregnancy and Beyond.

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