A conversation with the founder of Very Good Light, a beauty and grooming destination for men, on what it means to be a man in 2019 and where he sees masculinity going next.
By some accounts, manhood is “under attack.”
According to David Yi, the offenders are “smothering” the traditional ideals of masculinity — dominance, stoicism, aggression — with concepts like showing affection, cooperating, and being vulnerable.
Yi knows better.
And with his online destination Very Good Light, he wants to update the tired notions of masculinity and male beauty standards that stop men from embracing their true selves.
Before launching his own site, Yi helmed Mashable’s entry into the fashion space, shedding light on the stories of marginalized communities by exploring their outfits and lifestyles. Then, in 2016, after growing frustrated at the lack of available resources for men’s skin care and beauty products, Yi decided to stake out his own corner of the web.
“It’s all about shining a light on beauty and tips on how to get good looks, but more so, Very Good Light is about shining your best light from within: practicing self-care, self-love, and self-respect,” Yi tells me when I speak to him on the phone.
The site bills itself as a grooming and beauty destination, covering topics like moisturizing routines and facial products. But its goal is just as much about helping guys feel comfortable in their skin as making it smooth and soft.
“I think that’s the bigger mission. Beauty is only skin deep. Let’s go further and really become confident, really well-rounded, self-loving men for the future,” Yi says.
Here’s more of our conversation about Yi’s unique place in the packed beauty sphere, the true definition of masculinity, and how he compares the progression of men’s fashion to men’s beauty.
Raj Chander: What do you think about the idea that so many deeply held beliefs about what it means to be a man are actually harmful?
David Yi: Toxic masculinity isn’t saying that men at their core are bad human beings or toxic people. Toxic masculinity is the thought that there are exasperated problems of guys that are harmful to themselves and others [that] need to be addressed.
Men who are really aggressive, or who maybe prescribe to being sexual predators, or who are not able to express themselves... these are toxic forms that need to be addressed [and] corrected.
I think that now, with grassroots movements from #MeToo to Time’s Up, different guys are just not wanting to prescribe to this notion of masculinity. In 2019, like no other time in history, men have been forced to look in the mirror and see who they really are and who they want to be.
RC: I think many of us would agree that the traditional forms of masculinity that so many guys prescribe to — dominance, aggression, and competition — are outdated. What does masculinity really mean to you?
DY: Being your true masculine self is having the audacity to be your authentic self. A lot of men are so scared and so hesitant to really show who they are because they don’t want judgment. They don’t want their standing in society to be taken away from them.
So, I think that being your most masculine self, or the most masculine act, is to have the audacity to be your most authentic self. I think that has a lot to do with finding your truth and living out your truth, and just being comfortable in your own skin.
You don’t have to do certain things or act a certain way because that’s expected of you. You should be able to be nonconforming and not have to conform to what society sees you as being. If you want to wear something, go for it. If you want to do something, do it... you should be able to be comfortable with who you are. And to me that’s what it means to be your most masculine self.
RC: How does Very Good Light help promote the development of forward-thinking and independent masculinity?
DY: We need to evolve masculinity so that all types of men can feel free without the repercussions of society and societal pressures to be a certain type of person.
Masculinity has been formed by how we’ve been raised, social conditioning, by rituals that have been passed on... at the core, a man should be free to be who he wants to be without feeling that they have to kind of conform to what the world sees them as being.
If men were more free to be who they wanted to be, we’d have less problems in the world. Most guys are wearing masks throughout their day. I want [Very Good Light] to empower guys to feel like they don’t have to wear that mask anymore.
RC: Very Good Light is billed as a men’s beauty destination. What’s your take on current male beauty standards?
DY: When we look at where we are in American culture and Western culture, we are still leaps and bounds away from where Eastern standards of male beauty are in 2019.
I think the Eastern standard of beauty has progressed so much that men wear makeup, men prescribe to really taking care of their skin, they practice self-care... in the West, we are still not there yet. There needs to be more freedom for guys to take care of themselves and to want to take care of themselves.
I think skin care will be a big thing for men in 2019... do I think that [most] men are ready for makeup, per se? Right now I don’t think so. But I think that in the next couple years, we are going to start seeing that.
RC: That’s an interesting prediction. What do you think is going to spur that type of progression in male beauty norms and what’s considered “acceptable” for men to care about?
DY: I equate men’s beauty right now to where men’s fashion was in 2012. Arguably, before 2012, men didn’t really care about style. People judged them if they were into high fashion. Men equated style to “just for the girls” or maybe “just for men who are gay.”
It was only through, I would say, Kanye West, who wore [things like] leather joggers, who really pushed fashion forward. I think he really opened the door and gave men permission to participate in fashion. That trickled down to hip-hop stars, which in turn trickled down to athletes and NBA stars, who are all really into fashion.
We start seeing that the pregame rituals of these athletes, these NBA stars coming out of their buses, becomes a fashion runway walk. This really opened the door for guys to not only like style and accept style, but it is expected of them now.'
RC: It does seem like there’s been a tremendous progression in fashion for men in the last 10 years. You bring up NBA stars. I look at a guy like Dwyane Wade, who’s progressed so much in his fashion sense since he joined the league in 2003. It’s really remarkable.
DY: It is interesting to see the evolution of the American guy. By and large, with guys across the board, if they are given permission, they feel that it’s OK to partake.
Once you gave guys permission to wear Chanel, or Louis Vuitton, or be front row at Paris Fashion Week, it was cool. And once you give permission to guys to partake in skin care, or grooming, or beauty, it’s OK and it’s cool.
I think guys just need permission from others, and they’ve always been chasing permission to see if something is OK. But I think now we are in an era when you can define who you are by yourself.
RC: Men’s beauty is a relatively unexplored vertical, compared to what’s out there for women. What’s the response been to your foray into a new space that pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable to mainstream guys?
DY: It’s been so, so encouraging that we have so many supporters. I never thought I would be my own entrepreneur in 2019 to tell you the truth... I just thought I’d be an editor and journalist the rest of my life!
It’s taken me through so many twists and turns, and I’ve just been so filled with love and positivity thanks to my readers. Honestly, it goes back to the readers and making a difference and redefining masculinity, creating that safe space to be who you want to. I think that’s just so beautiful, and I think that’s my bigger calling in life.
When I feel sick or uninspired, or when I’m having writer’s block and I don’t want to do anything, I look back at that greater goal and that greater picture — my readers — and I’m like, this is what gets me out of bed. I’m really thankful for everyone who has supported us and been a believer in what we’ve been doing from the beginning.
I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it weren’t for that greater mission: to allow all types of guys to find a home and talk about things they want to talk about.
RC: You also touch on some themes involving race, especially pertaining to the male Asian experience. What made you decide to add this dimension to Very Good Light?
DY: I think it would be a disservice if I didn’t write about my own identity, or me going through life as an Asian-American. There’s a lot of work to be done within the Asian-American male space, especially to overcome a lot of these negative stereotypes that have been a detriment to a lot of Asian-American men in their lives.
One of the biggest things [involving Asians] is emasculation in this country... this has been going on for the past 200 years. If you look into Yellow Peril, which happened in the late 1800s, it was a direct kind of propaganda from the U.S. government, from white men, to scare off white people and Americans to see Asian men as these villains or emasculated creatures so that their white women wouldn’t be taken away from them.
It was just direct propaganda [...] by and large, [and] that propaganda has been super successful, because 200 years later we are still prescribing to these antiquated notions of what an Asian man is supposed to be.
These positive portrayals [of Asian men], from having heartthrobs like Henry Golding to having amazing comedians and writers from all types of places, from Aziz Ansari to Hasan Minhaj, are really changing perceptions and doing proactive work to expunge these toxic portrayals of Asian-American men.
A big mission, not only for Very Good Light but for me personally, is to always advocate for disenfranchised groups and always shine a light on groups whose stories aren’t really being told.
RC: What do you have planned for Very Good Light in the future?
DY: We just launched our first product. It’s a beauty bag called SOON that is symbolic of our website, showing all genders — male, female, however you identify yourself — that they can partake in beauty and wear it out proudly.
This bag represents a lot of what we talk about. It’s the first bag for men to wear out and feel stylish and empowered. [Otherwise] I want to continue advocating for those who aren’t getting attention and continue to redefine masculinity. I think we have a lot of work still left to do.
Raj Chander is a consultant and freelance writer specializing in digital marketing, fitness, and sports. He helps businesses plan, create, and distribute content that generates leads. Raj lives in the Washington, D.C., area where he enjoys basketball and strength training in his free time. Follow him on Twitter.