Deez Interviews: Sable Yong, on debunking shame around beauty, dating, and the self

This week’s interview is with Sable Yong, former digital beauty editor at Allure and now freelancer writer, most recently published in GQ, Man Repeller, and Vogue. I love this q&a a lot because it’s ostensibly about what it’s like to write about beauty and dating, but it really turns into a dense unpacking of our assumptions around power, relatability, and the self. Seriously, enjoy.

I read in an interview that you got your start in media from writing a viral Craigslist ad; was that a departure from your original life plan, or had you always wanted to go into writing?

That is true — my first beauty writing gig came from a Craigslist ad I wrote, looking for a roommate back in…2013. One of the founding editors of XoVain responded to the ad and asked if I was a writer because she worked at a new beauty site that needed writers. And the rest is BROWSER HISTORY.

Was it a departure from what I was doing before? Yes because I was kind of aimlessly doing fuck-all, mostly part-time retail, some little DIY crafty Etsy-type things, and generally FiGuRiNg It OuT. I went to college for theater, and during my semester before graduating, I took an internship at a casting agency, and that made me realize that this wasn’t an industry I could see myself taking seriously. This was way before representation and diversity were a Thing™ (also way before social media) so I was also acutely aware that my job prospects as an ambiguously-Asian-looking girl were…shitty. 

But I realized I was only ever happy when pursuing creative projects, and I’ve always been a writer my whole life ever since keeping a daily diary as a child (since destroyed after I recovered them as an adult and realized that everything in them was mortifying), so I’m not surprised I ended up in a career as a writer. I was always interested in beauty — makeup, hair, all that — because I wasn’t allowed to do any of that when I was growing up, until I literally moved out when I went to college. 

On the beauty writing side of your career, you've seen both sides of it — the brand side, for example, writing copy for Urban Decay — and the editorial side, most recently at Allure. How did those experiences inform your decision to go freelance? 

After bouncing between on-staff and freelance, I realized that I was most happy and inspired when I was able to work on projects that I really cared about. The majority of the recognition I’ve gotten has been work that I’ve done when freelance, so that was a big tip-off that maybe that was the route for me. 

I also realized that my own personal work style doesn’t really work in corporate office settings. I’d get so burnt out trying to keep up with all the traffic and commerce goals and pleasing whatever whims the corporate overlords would demand week after week that I was a lot less creative in efforts to produce creative, meaningful work (the stuff I was HIRED to do). Trying to balance both made me feel like I wasn’t good at either. 

It was mentally and emotionally draining for me. I mean, a steady salary is nice but then eight months would breeze by and I’d be like “Wait, what the hell have I done that I’m proud of?” All I’d have to show for it was being tired a lot and buying random trinkets to amuse myself. That’s the 40-hour work week capitalism conspiracy! 

Don’t get me wrong, I fucking love a trinket, but nothing beats the personal satisfaction of ideating some creative idea, producing it, blasting out into orbit, and feeling satisfied at having realized a VISION. 

Most recently, you’ve been writing a lot about dating culture in the time of the ‘rona (see here and here), and I’ve been curious about what inspired this direction in your work. But then I was reading a recent edition of your newsletter about the relationship between beauty and power that seemed to tie it all together, especially these two lines:

The time has come to seduce ourselves instead. Because it was never really about men, was it? It's always been about power, which is so much more appealing and enduring than men.” 

It made me think a lot about this direct line drawn between beauty and dating, and how both revolve around self knowledge and discovery. Are those themes that you've conscientiously been drawn toward? 

I think dating and the Romance Industrial Complex (is that a thing?) really does rely on these ego-driven dynamics that emphasize finding a partner who checks all these boxes, commodifying matches as products. And it’s not as though that’s a new thing, but it’s so much more commodified now that people are digital cards in apps. 

But as a woman who dates men, the gender politics are always present, and lot of that in my experience involves a certain performance of femininity that feels different when there’s a specific viewer (ie. date).  I don’t mean relying on looks and feminine behavior as means a seduction, but I am always acutely aware that the things I feel are very strongly ME in are not necessarily attractive in a conventional sense, and I’m also aware that certain things I wear or certain ways I do my makeup are guaranteed man-bait (or I should say, are more likely to elicit certain assumptions about my accessibility), and it’s always interesting to me playing with that balance. 

Beauty is power, and it’s always in the creator’s hands how that power is wielded — like, if you just wanna trap a man, that’s easy work. But lately, I’ve been more into using beauty as a tool for expression that hopefully communicates who I am more “authentically,” because I think being myself is so much better of a way to attract the kinds of people into my life I’m more likely to get along with. 

I’m curious about the kind of pressure that comes with having parts of your personal life — i.e. your grooming habits, your dating experiences — become a big part of your writing, or at least your public image. How do you navigate this public vs. private life push and pull?

Since my work in the beauty industry began through editorial platforms and now also incorporates social media and video, it’s definitely shifted from being the writer of the trends to the FACE of said trends on a visual platform (ie. Blogs, Instagram or YouTube). Now it’s become very much so about being looked at on your social media profiles and developing your own audience. You don’t have to even be that good of a writer or even have a discernible point of view, but if you can turn a look on Instagram (or now TikTok), you can become a big figure in the beauty space — not to knock on influencers, because I am glad that women are making money off their own looks on their own terms (as opposed to only monolithic authorities like modeling agencies or magazines with narrow perspectives, you know?).

Because people are looking for their own communities in digital spaces, people will naturally gravitate towards relatability, which of course comes with being a “real" person online. I mean, now you can never really tell actual authenticity from performative authenticity (aka LIES) so I tend to take anything beauty-related on social media with a grain of salt. 

I’m open about the fact that my career has afforded me tons of privileges I’d never be able to have access to otherwise (expensive products, treatments, injections). But beyond the swaggy parts of being a beauty editor, exploring all the ways that being a human trapped in a corporeal vessel brings a humanity to beauty with the kind of depth you don’t necessarily find in a really nice selfie, you know? Like, I wrote about how bad my B.O. has been at the beginning of quarantine on Allure. Body odor is natural and shouldn’t be something to feel ashamed of.

Conventional beauty standards have always involved a constant practice of denying your own mortality. We hate acknowledging the bodily processes that make us less divine than everything we’ve been taught to admire. We’re shamed for not being born “perfect" as well as for focusing “too much” on vanity. But I find that studying these contradictions in all their unsustainable tension and narrow perspective helps to diminish their power and ability to shame. I think people are so much more expansive and at peace when they can get past feelings of shame. There’s the idea that self-improvement through vanity is fueled by self-hatred (and it can be, especially when fueled by internalized misogyny) but I don’t think that’s true, not if you decide what that improvement is on your own terms.

And as much as I write about dating, I actually keep my serious relationships very private. I know my comfort levels with what I'm willing to share , and for the most part, it truly is nobody’s business but mine. Still, it’s always a good reminder that despite the fact that we’re living in times when people are brands and everything is content, that you alone determine the value of your own experiences.

Finally, what's one piece of advice you think everyone who's considering going freelance should know?

It’s definitely more to manage, and for some people in America who can’t necessarily afford their own health insurance and self-employment taxes on top of their existing bills, not totally realistic. 

But no boss or manager is going to advocate for your own career advancement, monetary worth, or work needs and boundaries more than you will for yourself. Also, the more experience you have freelancing, the better you get at it. To me, the frustrations or difficulties of freelancing pale in comparison to the freedom and creative satisfaction it affords.

Don’t forget to follow @sabletoothtigre on Twitter (but I also highly rec her IG). **Also** I’m kind of taking the next two weeks off to chill, but you’ll still get Tuesday emails and maybe an interview or two!

Deez Links is a dailyish newsletter written by delia cai. You can support the newsletter by sharing it or hitting up our merch store!