David Yi on History’s ‘Pretty Boys’

Did you know Neanderthals baked and highlighted their faces? Or that Ramses the Great employed someone under the title, Chief of the Scented Oils and Pastes for Rubbing His Majesty’s Body?

David Yi, WWD alum and founder of popular men’s beauty publication Very Good Light, unearths the above and more in “Pretty Boys,” his book that will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in June. In it, Yi, who spent two years researching, reflects on beauty history from a modern lens.

The book has culled reviews from Bretman Rock and Patrick Starrr, both of whom are featured, among others, for its presentation of historical context to timely topics such as gender identity and the ubiquity of Western beauty standards. It is both entertaining and educational, with beauty how-to’s sprinkled throughout.

Here, the author expounds on the rise of hypermasculinity, beauty’s political past and Biden Beauty, the initiative he and the Very Good Light team launched to incite young voters to cast their ballots for President Joe Biden.

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Beauty Inc: You write about how colonization led to the rise of hypermasculinity. Can you explain that?
D.Y.: Europeans were literally taking their flags and putting [them] on countries, saying, “This is mine.” With that was that standard of Westernized beauty: You had to have a [certain] skin tone, eyes or a nose that looked a certain way. This exacerbated with the globalized world. Also, eugenics, this idea that certain genes are more powerful or better than others.…America was built off of white supremacy. It only makes sense that it’s trickled down generation to generation. As a beauty industry in 2021, we have the ability to amplify BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] folks and to understand our conditioning and why we feel this way and how this isn’t normal. We shouldn’t normalize this anymore.

Beauty Inc: What surprised you most about your research?
D.Y.: I was surprised by how gender was created as a means of power. The Enlightenment Period was the moment in Western culture when men were no longer able to express themselves. They had to be somber. That was the real start of the gender binary and its roles.

Beauty Inc: You also talk about the hypersexualization of women.
D.Y.: The advertising industry really had a big part in forcing women to wear makeup. In the 1800s, women who wore makeup were seen as sex workers. It was this pejorative thing, like, why are you wearing makeup? It all changed [during World War II]. Men come back [from war] and they need to feel as if they’re inspired. Everyone was like, women need to start wearing stockings and lipstick and makeup because they’re taking these masculine jobs that men left behind because of war, so how do we differentiate men and women? You have to be hyperfeminine.

Beauty Inc: Your book highlights beauty’s political past. Talk to me about Biden Beauty.
D.Y.: We wanted to target Gen Z, the new voters, with a very interesting product. We sold one Biden Beat, which is a makeup sponge, every 60 seconds, and all proceeds went to helping Kamala Harris and Joe Biden into the office. The beauty industry has almost a responsibility to be political. As we know from this book, beauty has always been political, right? 

Beauty Inc: How did you conceive of Biden Beauty?
D.Y.: It was a team effort from Team Very Good Light. One day in the summer, I was like, why isn’t it that the beauty industry is getting behind a presidential candidate? Why is there so much fear? I was like, we just need to come out with a beauty sponge. This is something that is universal. You don’t need to be a certain shade or have a certain eye shape. It’s inclusive for all people. It was also kind of a bizarre item, too. Joe Biden and a makeup sponge? We call it the Biden Beat: “Beat out Trump and beat your face,” which is our slogan. And it worked.

Beauty Inc: How do you think the Biden administration will impact beauty?
We’re certainly going to have people who feel empowered because they see folks in power that look like them. Kamala Harris, she is the first woman vice president, the first Black and Asian vice president, and I think that she has a lot to offer. The world is going to be a more beautiful place because she’s going to redefine many standards of beauty. I think representation matters.

Beauty Inc: What’s exciting you in beauty right now?
D.Y.: This movement towards being minimalistic and minimal skin care for your microbiome. Ensuring that your skin barrier is working properly, that your acid mantle is intact. I also think that this new generation of Gen Z-ers, who are obsessed with skin care, is exciting. But we have a lot more work to do as a beauty industry when it comes to inclusion and understanding that power shouldn’t just be behind the scenes, but needs to be an equitable process where everyone from different backgrounds has a say. I really hope that DE&I [diversity, equity and inclusion] isn’t just a key word that people say now. This is real life to us and folks who aren’t white, who aren’t cisgendered or straight. We need to keep pushing it, because this industry needs to be held accountable.

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