Every evening at 8 PM, The Diva sits before her laptop in her South Korean apartment, turns on a camera, and eats for the world.
“I’m going to eat the pizza,” she tells her viewers in singsongy Korean. “It was baked in a wood-fired oven, so I think it’ll taste really clean and delicious.”
She dangles a cheese-slathered slice before the camera— her imagined dinner company—and begins to eat.
“This is much better than the gorgonzola pizza,” she giggles, referring to a previous broadcast.
In a single sitting, spanning a few hours, The Diva consumes days worth of calories: giant bowls of noodles, buckets of greasy chicken wings, plates of fried meat, entire pizzas. One Sunday, I watched her consume four plates
of inch-thick prime beef, alongside a tray of grilled mushrooms, zucchini, and eggplant. I heard the meat sizzle, saw the juices squirt, and witnessed her chatting and giggling in animated Korean. I didn’t understand a single word, but I was enchanted.
These programs, called muk bang in Korean, have been variably referred to as “eating broadcasts,” “gastronomic voyeurism,” or even “food porn,” and are a growing trend in South Korea. The phenomenon first appeared in 2009, when people began filming parody shows where they mimicked the signature behaviors and speech patterns of celebrity chefs. These tongue-in-cheek shows later developed into earnest eating broadcasts, which saw some of the hosts become celebrities in their own right. The petite Diva, whose real name is Park Seo-Yeon, hosted one of the most popular broadcasts of this kind, earning over $9,000 per month from the hosting site, Afreeca TV, for displaying her eating talents. She recently suspended her broadcasts due to family reasons, but fans continue to get their fix by watching old sessions on YouTube. A chat room that accompanied her broadcast allowed her to interact with viewers in real-time, responding to their questions and taking food requests. They could even send her money in the form of “balloons,” a digital currency that can be swapped for legal tender. In return, she provided virtual company and the promise that she wouldn’t promote foods that aren’t to her liking. After two years spent juggling her eating broadcasts with a day job at a consulting agency, she quit her job—to eat for a living.
In recent years, societal obsession with food as spectacle has skyrocketed. This Fourth of July, an estimated 35,000 people gathered to watch Joey Chestnut devour 61 hotdogs in 10 minutes at Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island. The annual event, referred to as the “Superbowl of Competitive Eating,” aired on ESPN— all part of Major League Eating’s push to earn some extra coverage and see competitive eating officially labeled a sport. Our interest in food as spectacle is made manifest on a more everyday level in the array of cooking programs broadcast on TV. Today, there are entire channels devoted to culinary shows, ranging from the cook-offs of Masterchef, Top Chef, and Iron Chef, to the how-to programs of celebrity chefs. When the Food Network spread from North America to the United Kingdom and Asia, in late 2009 and 2010 respectively, large swathes of the world were suddenly able to watch food sizzle, sautée, and steam, 24/7.
Competitive eating, in particular, has attracted a lot of coverage in recent years, with articles in The Atlantic (“The High Art of Competitive Eating”), The New York Times (“The Hideous Masters of Gluttony”), and even a 2004 documentary film: Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and The Art of Competitive Eating. All of this coverage has centered on the eaters: how they train (undergoing hypnosis, doing regular hand-eye coordination exercises, or fasting for days before the competition), how they eat (separating bun from hotdog vs. eating it whole), and how they look (the slight Japanese gurgitators vs. the heftier American eaters). Yet, little attention has been given to the spectators’ impulse. Why do we watch for hours as chefs create mouth-watering recipes, only to have judges eat a single bite? What’s the appeal of watching grown men, their faces caked in black beans, shovel entire tacos into their mouths for minutes on end? What draws people to sit before their laptops and dine with The Diva, watching as she engorges herself?
Throughout history, various faiths and traditions have frowned upon overconsumption. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset in order to redirect one’s focus from worldly activities and cleanse the soul from impurities. Yom Kippur sees Jews fast in order to seek atonement for their sins. The Baha’i faith sees gluttony as the result of man’s spiritual side being overcome by his animal nature. Similarly, in Catholicism, gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, disapproved of as a misplaced desire for food withheld from the needy. Aside from proving one’s devoutness, these rules were tied to food’s status as a precious commodity that shouldn’t be squandered.
Today, gluttony’s transgressiveness is arguably determined more by social etiquette than religious doctrine. “Eating is one of the most intimate acts we perform in public on a regular basis,” Vivian Halloran, professor of Food Studies at Indiana University, told The Indy. “We put extraneous things into our bodies in the company of others.” To police this personal act, we’ve developed rules of etiquette. Etiquette, it’s crucial to note, isn’t simply a response to eating—it actively shapes our views of eating by reinforcing the idea that there is something inherently gross about eating done “wrong.” These rules of etiquette vary according to one’s culture, context, and, crucially, one’s class. In France, for instance, one is expected to wipe their plate with a piece of bread after each course. Meanwhile, in Japan, it’s considered good manners to empty your bowl of the last grain of rice, to show the host that you enjoyed the meal. Similarly, while it was once expected that men in Western countries would stand whenever a woman left or returned to the table, this gendered rule is now antiquated. In spite of these differences, most cultures today share the values of eating at a measured pace, in moderation (i.e. until satiated), and in the company of others. Competitive eating and muk bang pride themselves on the exact opposite: shoveling down high fat foods with no regard for one’s recommended daily intake of calories and one’s hunger levels. As such, competitive eating doesn’t merely break a culturally specific social contract, but a biological one. That is, it “decoupl[es] the act of eating from its most basic raison d’être: hunger,” explains Halloran in her article “Biting Reality,” published in the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies. Once removed from its biological roles of satiation and nourishment, eating serves only to demonstrate a competitor’s “stomach capacity, willpower, and determination.” One could argue that this contract is broken everyday in fast-food joints across the country—and they’d be right. But, with it’s framing as a competition and its adoption of the fast, play-by-play framing of sport, competitive eating breaks this contract with even greater gusto.
Excessive consumption is particularly taboo in today’s health-conscious Western world, where we’re constantly bombarded with competing messages about healthy eating and weight loss. One day, fat is the enemy, the next fat is fine but sugar is the devil; one moment meat products must be cut out, then suddenly the Paleo diet is all the rage and grains must be excised. Cultural food fads imbue competitive eating with new meaning. For instance, although Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest has always fascinated viewers who know that eating that hot dogs would make them feel horrible, Halloran argues that this event holds even more “danger and thrill” in our gluten-free age because of the new meaning lent to the buns. “A lot of people see that now and think: ‘oh my god, that would hurt my stomach so much,’ in a way they wouldn’t have thought before.”
In short, competitive eating excites us because it throws etiquette and social norms out the window. “People who don’t feel comfortable breaking that taboo nevertheless want to see what happens to the person that does,” explains Halloran. And so, when people eat excessively, we watch—and we wait for them to be punished.
“I try to look pretty, eat pretty, and eat a lot of delicious food,” The Diva told The Times, as she brushed and straightened her hair in preparation for her broadcast.
When women eat to excess, we expect the most severe punishment. This can be traced to a long history of expecting women to eat in moderation. In “Reading the Slender Body,” Susan Bordo describes how women eat small candies while men eat hearty meals, how women eat in private rather than in company. Women, she writes, are expected to repress hunger to show their self-management and moral superiority.
This history explains why the caricature of the pretty, petite woman with the bottomless stomach exists across a number of different eating displays. In muk bang, there’s The Diva and the equally waifish female broadcast jockeys BJ Termin and BJ Shoogi. In competitive eating, there’s Sonya Thomas, a 98-pound Korean-born eater known within the field as “The Black Widow,” “because like the female black widow spider, it is [her] desire to eliminate the males,” she explains on her website’s FAQ. Her dexterity and everexpanding stomach have seen her consume 11 pounds of cheesecake in nine minutes, 206 gyoza in 10 minutes, and an overwhelming 46 dozen oysters in 10 minutes (followed by another 6 dozen oysters, 15 minutes later, to break an existing endurance record). Thomas currently holds over 25 competitive eating records and boasts that she has usually digested everything and is “good to go” within eight to 12 hours after competing. She promises fans that she never purges after competitions and does not have an eating disorder. She’s an alluring paradox: a dainty woman with an immense appetite, gluttonous but thin. There’s something mesmerizing about a woman whose body never betrays her, even as she eats with gusto. Not only does she not become sick from overeating, but she also maintains a low body weight in spite of frequent binge eating.
For some, such spectacles serve as a form of vicarious eating. Certainly, fans of The Diva have directly told her that “they live vicariously through [me], or they are hospital patients who only have access to hospital food so they also watch my broadcasts to see me eat,” as she told CNN. Others told her that her programs had helped them stick to their diets. Much like sufferers of anorexia who peruse the pages of cookbooks and prepare elaborate banquets with no intention of eating, viewers can watch eating displays without having to face the consequences of consumption.
But such food spectacles serve an even more insidious purpose. Watching men and women shudder and heave as they stuff their mouths with greasy food, one can’t help but think of the fact that there are many people in the world who can’t afford or access enough food to satisfy their hunger. Even if we’re talking about something as disgusting as mounds of soggy hot dogs, eating spectacles are displays of culinary bling. In this way, competitive eating and muk bang represent a reversal of the rigorous self-denial that became de rigeur in the late Victorian era as people pursued the aesthetic ideal of slimness. Just as intentionally denying oneself food was a privilege reserved for the wealthy, the ability to eat well past the point of satiation flaunts the abundance of food at one’s disposal. This captures a crucial paradox of our society that Susan Bordo sums up succinctly: “as consumers we must display a boundless capacity to capitulate to desire and indulge in impulse,” yet as producers we must “repress desires for immediate gratification, we must cultivate work ethic.” It’s the economic equivalent of a binge-purge cycle. We are “constantly besieged by temptation, while socially condemned for overindulgence.” So we settle on watching others eat.
“It requires very little effort and gives an enormous amount of pleasure,” Nigella Lawson tells her viewers, with an alluring eyebrow raise. “Any minute now, it’s going to be covered in these luxurious juices,” she continues, referring to the marinated chicken thighs she’s just popped in the oven. From her mannerisms to her decidedly sexual descriptions of the food, Nigella Lawson makes cooking a sensual experience. Take out the nouns in one of her programs and you have a porn script—a sentiment that certainly isn’t lost on her viewers. A number of YouTubers have compiled snippets of her programs to create overtly sexual videos with titles like “Naughty Nigella” and “Nigella’s Sexy Kitchen.” “I think men like the spectacle of watching a beautiful woman get her hands dirty,” Halloran told The Indy. Nigella’s manicured fingernails and freshly lipsticked mouth might seem worlds away from the unglamorous realm of competitive eating, but the majority of her shows feature a coda where she sneaks down to the kitchen in her silk bathrobe (ostensibly in the middle of the night), opens the fridge, and consumes mounds of the food she prepared earlier. She’s basically The Diva with a refined British accent and bigger hips.
Nigella’s programs acknowledge a key factor of eating that competitive events ignore: it’s inherently pleasurable. The taste, textures, and aromas of food excite us. Yet, Nigella’s programs push this connection further, conflating eating with sex. This connection is hardly a new one: the Romans were known for engaging in sex and eating in equally excessive measures, with their infamous orgies and vomitoriums (rooms they would visit in between courses at a banquet to purge and make room for another course). The tradition of aphrodisiacs is entirely based on the idea that food and drink can enhance sexual pleasure. The connection between food and sexuality is also seen (or rather, decidedly not seen) in the anorexic, whose undernourished body loses many of its secondary sexual characteristics. It’s further affirmed in the number of food fetishes out there, ranging from sploshing (arousal caused by wet and messy substances being applied to the skin, like cream or fruit juices), to stuffing (being aroused by feeding and fattening up others) to Nyotaimori (the Japanese practice of serving sushi on the naked body of a woman). Although not immediately apparent, there’s also an arguably sexual element to competitive eating. One New York Times reviewer situated competitive eating between the genres of food documentary and porn documentary when he described the Crazy Legs Conti documentary as fitting “somewhere alongside Supersize Me and Inside Deep Throat.” Watching others eat excessively satisfies our desires and our curiosity, without causing us to be socially or physically condemned for our overindulgence.
When it comes to the success of Korean eating broadcasts, connection is a central idea. The 2010 Census revealed that almost 25 percent of South Koreans live alone, with this number expected to rise to one-third by the 2015 Census. This statistic becomes particularly troubling when dinnertime arrives as eating is a highly social activity in Korea, evidenced by the fact that the Korean word for “family” means “those who eat together.” For South Koreans in single households, eating with The Diva means not eating alone.
Still, when I think about gluttony, I think about Raymond Carver’s short story “Fat.” An unnamed narrator describes an obese man eating at her diner—eating and eating and eating. “I think we will begin with the Caesar salad,” he tells the waitress. We, like a pregnant woman ordering for her unnamed child. Her orders soup lamb chops, a baked potato with sour cream, and “we’ll see about dessert.” He and his fictitious fellow diners consume three baskets of bread, each slice slathered with butter, before the main course. The narrator returns repeatedly to his fingers, his “long, thick, creamy fingers,” and later describes her friends “dainty fingers.” That evening, she imagines herself becoming terrifically fat, “so fat that [her partner] is a tiny thing and hardly there at all.” “Fat” is about gluttony, but it’s also about control, change, choice, and, most importantly, connection.