Register Saturday | July 13 | 2024
Hungry for Connection YouTube

Hungry for Connection

As loneliness increases, watching strangers eat has become a staple in our digital diets.

I first discovered mukbangs during a high school sleepover. When the clock struck 2 AM, my friend suggested we watch a video from Trisha Paytas, the American YouTuber and media personality most popularly known for their candid vlogs and many past controversies. I rarely watched Paytas’ videos, and wasn’t familiar with their mukbang content. But when my friend hit play, I was captivated. Over twenty minutes, Paytas, seated on their living room floor, presents a smorgasbord consisting of three pizzas, garlic knots, breadsticks, chicken fettuccine alfredo, chicken nuggets and a giant s’mores brownie. I watched silently as Paytas oscillated between the dishes, paying close attention to the sounds of their chewing, punctuated by “mhmms” and “woooows” and “that mozzarella cheese in there is so good.” I was mesmerized not only by their ability to consume, but by the lack of shame that accompanied it. Perhaps it’s because I was a seventeen-year-old girl who, like many seventeen-year-old girls, found herself counting calories and spending way too much time looking in the mirror, painfully scrutinizing every lump on her growing body. To watch someone else eat without hesitation scratched an itch I wouldn’t let myself touch. The video still holds my attention seven years later, and has led to an intense fascination with the mukbang genre; every day, without meaning to, I find myself watching an average of thirty minutes of strangers eating food online.

The term mukbang comes from South Korea, and is a blend of the words meokda (eat) and bangsong (broadcast). With a definition as broad as this, many kinds of videos across social media and YouTube could technically classify as mukbangs. And there are a variety of types: there’s the quiet mukbang, where the mukbanger, as they’re called, eats in silence; there’s the chatty mukbang, where they talk to their audience about the food, what TV shows they’re binge-watching or how their day is going. Some mukbangs are more curated, with the mukbanger stationed behind trays of food and a high-tech setup; others are pared-down and natural. Bloveslife’s videos feature ever-changing vibrant, psychedelic or tropical backgrounds floating behind her while she eats. Eat with Boki—who can fit an ungodly amount of noodles in her mouth—turns her microphone volume way up, so that the audience is privy to the softest crunch or the loudest slurp. Mukbangs also vary in length—they can be an hour or a minute long. The food consumed can be a twelve-course meal or just a single burrito from Chipotle. What unites all of these diverse videos as mukbangs is simply that the person is broadcasting themselves eating to an audience.

Some creators don’t classify themselves as mukbangers, preferring broader labels like “foodie,” which generally refers to people with an interest in food and the latest culinary trends—a totally respectable vocation. Mukbangs, in comparison, are often associated with overindulgence, uncontrolled gluttony and exhibitionism. Take popular mukbanger Ssoyoung, who, in one widely watched video, dramatically prepares and eats a live squid. The video is no longer available on her YouTube channel (though it can be found on her Facebook page), possibly because it generated a barrage of backlash against animal cruelty. Although most mukbangs are tame in comparison, scandalous creators like Ssoyoung have contributed to mukbangs’ poor reputation as voyeuristic content that thrives off of viewers’ most bizarre and repulsive desires.

It’s easy to dismiss mukbangs as a frivolous, albeit unusual, internet phenomenon. But their origin sprung out of a twenty-first century cultural shift in South Korea, where a traditionally collectivist culture saw a steady increase in people living alone. One-third of people in South Korea currently live by themselves—a stark increase compared to 15.5 percent two decades earlier. With more people living, and thus likely eating, solo, watching mukbangs during mealtimes can provide a sense of companionship.

The mukbang trend began in the early 2010s in South Korea on streaming networks like AfreecaTV;  within a few years, they were globally popular. Their rise coincided with a period where there was significant international interest in South Korean popular culture—such as K-pop like BTS and “Gangnam Style.” Today, thousands of mukbangers post videos from across the world. Tasmin Dhaliwal, a Canadian TikToker, started out making beauty content, but once she began posting mukbangs as well, she discovered that her beauty videos weren’t getting nearly the same level of engagement. Take, for example, a TikTok showing Dhaliwal sitting in her bedroom, scooping soup dumplings into her mouth from a plastic container. The dumplings sound chewy, occasionally gushing with liquid as she bites down. “I don’t think it gets better than this,” she says. I agree, I think to myself, vicariously tasting the dumplings' pillowy texture. The one-minute video currently has over 1.1 million likes and 11.4 million views. For Dhaliwal, the reason for the popularity is straightforward: “Everyone eats, everyone loves good food. It’s something that’s very easy to relate to—and get addicted to.”

But the mukbang craze goes deeper than simply enjoying watching other people eat; like the wide variety of mukbangs, there’s a wide variety of reasons why viewers watch them. Some find them comforting, while others find it pleasurable to hear the crunch of a hard taco shell or a piece of crispy chicken. But it may not be random that the steady growth in mukbang popularity coincides with a global spike in loneliness. As societies become increasingly individualistic, more people are living and eating alone. Some mukbang viewers might be hitting play not just due to an innocuous interest in food, but because they’re trying to feed a growing hunger for mealtime-based social connection.

Mukbangs often get clicks for the relaxation, entertainment or sense of companionship they provide viewers. But there’s another, perhaps more perverse, quality that attracts attention—the spectacle. A YouTube search of “mukbang” pulls up dozens of video thumbnails showing mukbangers surrounded by gratuitous quantities of food—unending landscapes of hamburgers, noodles, chicken wings, french fries and candy. A 2020 study conducted by researchers at the University of Calgary and Nanyang Technological University surveyed 104 people about their mukbang viewing habits: half said the mukbanger’s ability to eat large quantities of food was important to them, and half also said they gravitated toward “eating challenge” videos, where mukbangers force themselves to eat mountains of food. I was especially struck by one participant’s comments: “I like it too when the [mukbangers] eat sloppily. It’s real. I love it especially when they can’t control, it’s like noodles everywhere and sauce all over the place, and that’s hilarious and I love it.”

There’s no shortage of outrageous mukbang content being uploaded online. Ashifa ASMR’s mukbangs begin with her practically drowning in a sea of food. A recent video shows her surrounded by seventy-five dumplings—she eats them all by the end of the video. This is hardly an anomaly. MaddyEats looks like a floating head behind the heaping piles of food in front of her. In one video, she eats an entire five-kilogram chicken burger. Or take Nikocado Avocado, notorious for his binge-eating content, whose video thumbnails show fluorescent-coloured noodles literally spilling out of his mouth. It seems reasonable to wonder why anyone would choose to film these videos, but the answer might be simple—the spectacle gets clicks.

The pressure to make every video more grandiose than the last can be overwhelming, and the effects can have harmful consequences. Medical professionals have warned that the phenomenon promotes binge-eating, especially among creators. In an interview with ABC News, Paytas spoke about the pressure to consume because “you just want to keep one-upping yourself,” leading to videos like the 10,000 calorie challenge, in which mukbangers attempt to consume 10,000 calories in a single sitting. Creators like Nikocado Avocado have built their entire brands around an ability to consume enormous amounts of food. For Nikocado, his fluctuating weight has become a major part of the discourse surrounding his channel. In many of his videos, he films himself dramatically crying, screaming and generally emotionally reacting in strong ways. Yet, the more degrading the videos, the bigger the spectacle, with most of his videos reaching several million views.

Though this specific iteration is only about a decade old, the desire to appreciate and gawk at a superabundance of food is nothing new. Food was depicted as especially decadent in art during the seventeeth century's Dutch Golden Age, a period in which scientific and economic development in the Netherlands led to an increasingly bourgeois upper-class culture. Dutch artists like Pieter Claesz and Jan Davidsz. de Heem painted lavish still lifes of delectable spreads of food: baskets overflowing with pearly grapes, trays littered with thick slices of bread, plates with meat pies oozing ground beef. In de Heem’s Still Life with Ham, Lobster and Fruit, the table is barely visible underneath the bright red lobster, massive slab of ham, figs, grapes, oranges and cantaloupes that spill across it. The sumptuous yet haphazard display celebrates the overconsumption of the wealthy. In the Pop Art era of the 1950s and 1960s, artists such as Andy Warhol and Wayne Thiebaud also painted mass quantities of food, like rows upon rows of Campbell’s soup cans or Boston cream pies, respectively. But this time, the spreads were representative of the masses rather than the elites; the synthetic colours and repetition of products spoke to postwar consumerism in the West.

The superabundances represented in Pop Art and the Dutch Golden Age aren’t far off from the excess of food showcased in mukbangs. Likewise, the socioeconomic disparities remain simmering in the background. In 2019, the term “Dutch Golden Age” was dropped by the Amsterdam Museum because it fails to acknowledge that the wealth during this period was a direct result of colonialism and slavery, or the poverty in the country at the time. In Pop Art, the large quantities of food could be seen as a response to the empty shelves that had haunted grocery stores during the Second World War.

The United Nations Development Programme reported that 821 million people—two-thirds of whom live in Asia—were chronically undernourished in 2017, often due to environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. While countries in the Global North benefit from industrial agriculture, the environmental impacts ravage communities in the Global South who often bear the brunt of climate catastrophe. When I picture the massive bowls of noodles and the rows upon rows of burgers I vicariously consume online, I think about the fact that 11 million tonnes of avoidable food waste is generated each year in Canada. Accusations have fluttered around that some mukbangers spit out their food in between shots to maintain their thin appearances while still gorging themselves on camera. Mukbangs might be a kind of fantasy cropping out of the insatiability of our consumerist culture, which continues to flourish in spite of the environmental or humanitarian costs.

The hunger for the spectacle is only one reason why people are drawn to mukbangs. According to a 2019 study from Georgetown University, watching and hearing a mukbanger eat provides some secondhand gratification. Particularly, when mukbangers respond to viewers’ comments, act out certain requests, display their meal and hold up food to the camera, it allows viewers to feel connected to the experience of eating on a sensory level. Depictions of food can be satisfying in their own way. My own fixation on the aesthetics of food began two years before I discovered Paytas’ mukbang, during a grade nine art history class. Projected on the screen in front of me was a large, glistening salmon lying on a piece of saran wrap. The painting, Salmon on Saran by the New Brunswick-born artist Mary Pratt, looked lifelike. I didn’t want to eat the limp fish staring at me—but I was mesmerized by the iridescence of the scales, and by how the painting’s warm mauve tones and shiny saran wrap communicated the tender ritual of preparing a meal. From that day on, I paid closer attention to the light, colour and texture of food. A 2022 paper published in the journal Food Quality and Preference evaluated the visual appeal of food and found that aesthetic factors like symmetry, glossiness and colour contrast with backgrounds played a large role in food’s perceived attractiveness. A bright yellow yolk dribbling out of a fried egg against a white plate, for example, could be stimulating to viewers. For some, vicarious pleasure is achieved through looking at the bright magenta of pickled red onions on a sandwich, or the stringy texture of tender meat in a chicken leg.

The auditory aspects of eating can be just as important. One of the most popular types of mukbangs are ones with aspects of ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, a type of auditory content that's said to arouse the senses and give some listeners a tingling sensation that travels down the scalp and spine. Mukbangers like Mellawnie ASMR or Eat Spicy with Tee try to spur this sensory phenomenon by positioning themselves close to sensitive microphones to document every little slurp, bite and chomp. HunniBee ASMR, whose food frequently matches in bright greens, pinks or blues, whispers quietly in between loudly eating the monochromatic candy in front of her, enhancing the ASMR aspects of the video. Even mukbangers who steer clear of ASMR still consider sound effects when filming. The Toronto-based creator Maxwell Lebeuf, known as Mukbang Maxwell on TikTok, happens to be a trained classical singer; he fills in the lower resonance of his voice during his videos to speak in a “warm whisper.” He says he regularly receives positive comments about his soothing tone.

But not everyone watches mukbangs purely for these sensory or aesthetic reasons. The 2020 study from the University of Calgary and Nanyang Technological University found that three of the most common motivations for watching mukbangs were spectacle, vicarious pleasure and a sense of connectedness. Meanwhile, a literature review published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction in 2020 found innocuous reasons for mukbang viewing, like sensory satisfaction, entertainment, comfort and a feeling of community; but also more serious ones, like loneliness and disordered eating. Although less common, the review also found that some watch mukbangs for sexual reasons, fetishizing the women mukbangers who eat large quantities of food.

The attractiveness of women mukbang creators does seem to be a part of their appeal. Park Seo-yeon, popularly known as “the Diva,” was one of the first mukbangers to rise to stardom on AfreecaTV; the fact that she’s a conventionally attractive, thin young women who, against all odds, spends hours eating enormous amounts of food can’t be ignored. In a 2014 interview with Time she admitted its relevance, saying, “I try to look pretty, eat pretty, and eat a lot of delicious food.” For women mukbangers who earn a living off of their videos, playing into their sexuality by stretching out those “mhmmmms” after a big bite might mean more subscribers. In a 2017 paper on mukbangs and food porn, media and communications researcher Glen Donnar writes that mukbangs can facilitate a “sexualised, voyeuristic gaze,” especially when pretty women like Seo-yeon are in front of the camera. But he also notes that when women film themselves eating such large portions, it “interrupts gendered body prescriptions that associate ‘ideal’ or ‘appropriate’ femininity with self-denial and restraint.” In this respect, women mukbangers simultaneously cater to and subvert the male gaze by playing into feminine tropes while refusing to deny themselves the pleasure of eating good food—and lots of it.

Despite the spectacle-laden binges of creators like Nikocado Avocado, some say that mukbangs actually healed their relationship with food by normalizing eating, particularly in front of others. Internet foodie Kate Norkeliunas said in an Instagram Reel that watching and filming mukbangs meant she had to confront her “fear foods” like Taco Bell after years of struggling with an eating disorder. Lebeuf says that viewers have sent him messages saying his videos helped them overcome eating disorders. A 2020 study in the journal Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry by Mattias Strand and Sanna Aila Gustafsson found that people who suffer from eating disorders might be at higher risk of harmful mukbang viewing, and that for some, watching mukbangs might lead to binge-eating or abstaining from food; but for others, mukbangs can actually be a constructive tool that helps revive their appetite. Lebeuf says he purposefully makes his channel feel “safe and cozy” so that viewers don’t feel judged for taking pleasure in food. “There’s so much negativity around food in general,” he says. “There’s not a lot of spaces that really celebrate it.”

Over the years, several friends have confided in me that they don’t enjoy eating in public. I thought it was a ridiculous aversion until I began seriously considering the ways I might be subconsciously ashamed to eat in public, too. I can picture the tiny bites, the bashful hand in front of my mouth while I chew, the quick glances into the reflection of my phone screen to check whether there’s any trace of sauce on my chin or food in my teeth. When I open Instagram and watch Norkeliunas take a “big daddy bite” out of a chicken caesar wrap, it feels like watching someone take a sledgehammer to the messages I internalized as a teenager that told me to eat as little as I could. Lebeuf agrees: “it’s very punk rock to me,” he says, adding that the tradition of South Korean women videotaping themselves eating alone is “an act of defiance” in a society that generally looks down upon it. In many ways, mukbangs do feel rebellious within a “thinspo” culture where restrictive eating is encouraged. But in other ways, mukbangs don’t feel as radical. In a world rocked by increasing loneliness, they might just be band-aid solutions trying to patch the void left by a growing lack of real-life communal eating.

The origins of eating as a social act span centuries. In the 2021 paper “What Is Commensality? A Critical Discussion of an Expanding Research Field,” researchers Håkan Jönsson, Maxime Michaud and Nicklas Neuman write that food sharing is “a fundamental part of human evolution,” noting that food remains have been found in communal spaces, like around fireplaces, from thousands of years ago. But the number of people living alone—and likely eating alone—has been rising globally since the 1960s. Data from Statistics Canada shows that the number of single households in the country grew from 1.7 million in 1981 to 4.4 million in 2021; in 2016, single-person households became the country’s predominant type of household for the first time. Despite this, Canada has one of the lowest proportions of single-person households among G7 countries. In Finland, Germany and Norway, four in ten people live alone. It would be a mistake to suggest that people who choose to live alone are inherently lonely; many find comfort in having a space to call their own. But it is a notable social transition that has occurred amid a rapid decline in community spaces that were once a fundamental part of social life, such as the church and the office. With fewer people participating in organized religion, more people working remotely and an increase in single-person households, community is more fragmented than ever before. In a 2016 report, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing found that Canadians were spending 30 percent less time with friends compared to twenty years earlier.

The pandemic has increased this disconnectedness. In 2021, a Statistics Canada survey found that more than one in ten people over the age of fifteen said they “always or often felt lonely.”  While isolated, many found solace in digital spaces; like many content creators, mukbangers saw a rise in views and subscribers. Lebeuf began creating mukbangs after his restaurant and theatre jobs took a hit during lockdowns, and over time his TikTok followers grew to 1.2 million. “Being able to sit down and eat with someone I think was really valuable,” he says, adding that because of Covid-19 restrictions, “no one was doing that with their friends.” Mukbangs simulated eating in the company of another person during a period where it was physically dangerous to do so. And they’ve retained their popularity ever since, with some creators raking in millions of views.

“Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and intoxicating to me,” said late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Growing up, my family dinners were annoying but sacred. When I had roommates during university, I laughed or gossiped my way through every meal. I generally enjoy living alone, but every now and then, when I catch my reflection in my iPhone screen while slurping from a plate of spaghetti, I think, solitude comes at a price. In our contemporary society, taking time to slow down and eat with others isn’t seen as valuable; our time is better spent investing in ourselves, our careers and our productivity levels. But the explosive popularity of mukbangs might be an indication that deep down, many of us still yearn for commensality—the practice of eating together. The American Heart Association’s 2022 survey found that 84 percent of respondents said they wanted to eat more meals with loved ones, yet all respondents reported eating alone about half of the time. With time spent with friends decreasing, the options for real-life commensality are disappearing along with it. It’s unlikely that throwing on a mukbang will meaningfully fill this void; but until we learn to counter the loneliness epidemic, it might be the best we’ve got.

Despite my skepticism about the helpfulness of mukbangs, old habits die hard. When I see that Trisha Paytas posted a new video, “Trying Taco Bell’s NEW Strawberry Twists + Chicken Rolled Tacos,” I settle into my couch, already captivated by their slightly high-pitched voice and cheerful demeanor. “I like your nails,” they say, giggling with the cashier at the drive-thru window. “Barbie vibes!” They order rolled chicken tacos, chips and cheese, strawberry twists and the strawberry cream delight slushie. Eating virtually with Paytas feels like eating with a friend. They talk about how they wish people would smile more, and about their stomach issues; they show me the inside of their chicken taco and discuss its contents—lots of cheese and rice, minimal chicken. They mention that they lost thirty pounds in high school by only drinking SlimFast, and that before meeting their current partner there were many meals where they felt lonely: “I waited my whole life to have dinner plans like I have dinner plans now—cooking with my husband, or my daughter, all of us sitting down together.” Although I’m watching the video alone in my studio apartment, I don’t feel alone—at least until the video ends. “If you’re eating by yourself today,” says Paytas, “Thank you for keeping me company.” ⁂

Rachel DeGasperis is a journalist and writer based in Toronto.