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Indelible You

Jeffery Segal explains permanent cosmetic artistry: Basically, it's tattooing.

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Jeffery Lyle Segal shows us his photo album of "before" and "after" snapshots. Almost all of his clients seem to share an obscure American malady of the 1990s: substandard eyebrows. It appears there's an epidemic.

Segal, a cosmetologist, is giving a free public lecture called "Permanent Makeup and Paramedical Camouflage: Issues and Answers." I never thought I had any questions about permanent makeup and paramedical camouflage but now I seem to. Like: What the hell are permanent makeup and paramedical camouflage? Why do paramedics need to be camouflaged, anyway?

I enter the back room of the Lincoln Park library with caution because I fear a gathering of the horribly disfigured, the hopelessly vain, and paramedics. But it's just Segal and another guy, who looks like a workingman, about 50, short sleeves. Hairy arms and a thick Eastern European accent. He doesn't appear to be among what one might call the cosmetically challenged. Must be a paramedic.

Segal explains to us that permanent cosmetic artistry is pretty much tattooing. A common application is giving someone permanent eyeliner.

Like who? Well, for example, he says, maybe the blind, who can't see themselves putting on makeup. "Someone's hands may be arthritic, they may shake. They might be allergic to cosmetics." Permanent makeup is in demand among female athletes, he says, because when they work up a sweat their makeup runs. This way they don't have to worry about it. They can run a marathon and still look smashing.

"Research has shown that people will respond more positively to people who are better looking. The better looking you are, the more positive personality traits people will ascribe to you. It's an investment in your success. It's dressing for success in its most basic form."

Permanent eye lining runs about $600.

Permanent makeup is especially handy for black people, black men in particular. There's a disease called vitiligo that causes black skin to turn white. Previously the only hope for black men turning white was conventional makeup, Segal says. And a lot of men are just too proud to wear it. No longer a problem. He tells us about a black man whose lips turned completely white. Injections of permanent makeup turned his lips pink again. "And he got his self-esteem back."

That's the main difference between tattooing and permanent-makeup artistry. Permanent makeup often offers the hope of camouflaging conspicuous scars and discolorations.

But almost all the people we flip past in this photo album are eyebrow cases. Here's a woman about 45 or so, the wrinkles are beginning to show. She came to Segal because she thought her eyebrows made her eyes look too far apart, so he sketched in a few more permanent hairs, gave them a different arc.

Doesn't look much different to me, but until now I never gave much thought to eyebrows. The only person's eyebrows I ever made note of were Brezhnev's, and who could blame me for that? But the man with the accent is well aware of the inadequacies of his eyebrows. He leans in toward Segal to show him how his eyebrows start off nice and bushy near the nose but gradually thin out. He's plucked at them and worked on them to no avail.

"Well, if it was important enough to you to get that fixed up," Segal says, "it would cost you about $125."

A woman came to Segal once who had gradually lost her eyebrows. He went over her options with her, but she insisted on a sharp black stroke that made her look like she was in no mood for anyone's BS. Segal finally told her he couldn't help her. He knew someday she'd grow to regret her choice of eyebrows.

And now there's a snapshot of an unhappy-looking man, 50 or so, leather-faced, working-class. Now that I'm becoming aware of eyebrows I can see where his are a bit patchy in the "before" picture, but certainly nothing gross. In the "after" picture he's got these bold, black eyebrows that look like they're full of shoe polish. Segal's not proud of this one. He knew it would look silly, but that's what the man wanted.

"I should have turned that man away," he says. "His problems went much deeper than his eyebrows. He wanted to concentrate all his emotional problems in one small area. He didn't need me. He needed a headshrinker."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.

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