Food for the eyes

Eating on camera before an audience of thousands may sound like a nightmare to some but for others it has become their career, their passion and in some cases their primary source of income.

The commercialisation of eating through the trend known as “mukbang” began in Korea more than a decade ago. It traditionally involved a person eating copious amounts of food while live streaming and interacting with viewers.

Mukbang directly translates to “eating-broadcast” and in recent studies it has been referred to as an “online binge-eating performance.”

This phenomenon has gained global popularity, and whether it’s for comfort, gratification or “the tingles” has prompted an ongoing debate among researchers since its emergence.

So how could this trend be affecting peoples’ relationships with food? Especially the creators and more vulnerable audiences that may be drawn to this phenomenon for concerning reasons?

Mukbang commonly features a person eating and talking with viewers – some encourage viewers to eat with them.
Photo: Elliahn Blenkinsop.

In 2009, the Korean online streaming channel AfreecaTV featured the first mukbang which quickly became popular in Korean society.

Since then, it has seen many mutations overtime from mukbang challenges to mukbang ASMR.

ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response which in mukbang involves focused and intensified audio of the sounds created while eating.

Crunching, munching and slurping have attracted millions of views on Tik Tok and YouTube. More than half of Tik Tok’s viewers are under the age of 30.

*TRIGGER WARNING* Misophonia (ASMR audio of someone eating may be triggering to some)

Mukbang content made its way onto many popular Korean dramas, or K-dramas, which then made its way onto American streaming providers such as Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime in 2011.

K-dramas have taken the world by storm with “Squid Game” being the most-watched series ever on Netflix.

Last year a survey of 9000 people worldwide revealed that 49 per cent of respondents believed K-dramas were popular in their countries.

Mukbang has seen celebrities, actors and musicians jumping on the bandwagon, sparking further popularity and supporting its shift from a Korean niche to mainstream media.

At first glance the online mukbang community is open and welcoming, with the entry requirements being anyone who eats or has any sort of relationship with food.

These simple entry rules have encouraged many to join the eat streaming community, including 26-year-old Perth retail worker, Prakriti Rayamajhi.

Prakriti Rayamajhi explains how K-dramas introduced her to mukbang and influenced her to create them herself.
Video: Elliahn Blenkinsop.

Rayamajhi says the connection between eat streamers and viewers can provide a sense of companionship and comfort to those who might struggle with social interaction.

“So many people are introverts and they don’t like to go out and socialise, and be social with people, and eat food,” she says.

“There’s a connection between two people, like people watch it in their lazy time or they are just feeding their children and they are watching that while eating.”

Teaching associate and post doctorate research fellow at Monash University Sijun Shen says some researchers have found this online connection to be the driving force for the creation of mukbang in Korea.

“A lot of researchers have found that people especially in Korea like to watch it because nowadays a lot of people in Korean culture are single and they eat alone – they want to have a sense of companionship while they eat,” she says.

A student of Journalism and Korean studies at Curtin University Paige Reid says mukbang reflects the significance of food in Korean culture, and that the act of eating holds much more meaning to Korean people.

“Koreans are very food-orientated as a nation. You go over to their house and the first thing they want to do is cook you loads of food. Food is a very special time for Koreans; it’s about memories, it’s about bonding, it’s about family and friend time,” she says.

However, Reid says there is a double standard in Korean culture as the customs around food contradict the ideologies pushed by the media.

“The double-edged sword that can be Korean culture is if you are over 45 kilos sometimes you’re thought of as fat. But at the same time if you decline food in South Korea it’s thought of as rude and weird, so what the heck are you supposed to do?” she says.

“And this comes down to how powerful the media, the tabloids and their journalists are over there. They will slam people online for anything, and over-eating is definitely one of them.”

Clinical Psychologist Amy O’Brien says the risks around abnormal eating content are not limited to creators alone. Income creates an “additional incentive” for creators to continue “unhealthy behaviours” and these behaviours can translate some damaging messages to viewers as well.

“Like anything to do with food, exercise or nutrition, certain people are going to have more risk when they’re engaging with that content or those behaviours, to triggering or contributing to disordered eating, or unhealthy thoughts or views around food,” she says.

“We know that some people with anorexia nervosa, which is characterised by very low weights and very low nutritional intake are very obsessed with food. They like to make it for other people, they like to watch other people eating it, they like to watch cooking TV shows.”

“So certainly people with those sorts of unhealthy thoughts and behaviours could be really drawn to this phenomena.”

Graphic: Elliahn Blenkinsop.

O’Brien says food content is not limited to any particular eating disorder or strictly to people diagnosed with disordered eating.

“At the same time, people on that opposite end who over eat or binge-eat, I think this could really contribute to some unhealthy perspectives of what normal amounts of food are,” she says.

“I don’t think it’s limited to one or two of the disorders, obviously disordered eating is on a spectrum, people don’t need to have an eating disorder diagnosis to have an unhealthy relationship with food.”

She says the younger generation could be particularly vulnerable to content surrounding food and eating.

“We know that a lot of eating disorders tend to first present when young people are around 14 years of age,” she says.

“And that’s your Tik Tok demographic: young impressionable children, teenagers, pre-teens and even young adults. For a demographic already at a heightened risk, this content probably doubles the risk.”

Mukbang can warp viewers’ interpretations of healthy amounts of food, which O’Brien says is “going to look different for everyone.” Photo: Elliahn Blenkinsop.

The mukbang community has been built on an attitude that food can and should be enjoyed, but Shen explains that once some mukbang creators got a taste of fame and fortune, their agenda to accumulate more views led to unhealthy, and in some cases, dangerous eating.

“Mukbang really became this performance where everyone just wanted to show that I can eat anything,” she says.

Shen has observed mukbangs involving copious amounts of spice, raw meat and even “alive animals.”

O’Brien says income influences creators into partaking in unhealthy eating habits and the facade mukbang creators have to uphold online to get more views only adds fuel to the flame.

“I think there’s probably a lot of pressure for people to look a certain way particularly if they’re wanting good content and they are wanting people to follow, you know, being young and attractive and healthy looking is going to get more views,” she says.

“Can you eat large amounts of food and maintain a healthy weight at the same time, in a healthy manner? I haven’t found the secret yet.”

Sijun Shen explains the consequences eating copious amounts of food over long periods of time can have on eat streamers. Video: Elliahn Blenkinsop.

A recent development of mukbang on Tik Tok is the new trend “eat with me’s.”

“Eat with me’s” attempt to create safe spaces online for people with eating disorders by encouraging viewers to sit down and eat with them if they have forgotten to eat, need motivation to eat, or need a distraction while they eat.

O’Brien says the connection that can be felt through a screen could give some legitimacy to this attempt at online meal support.

“Meal support is essentially sitting around in a group eating a meal together and encouraging each other in healthy ways and trying to distract each other from focusing too much on the food. In other groups it’s about being very mindful about how and what you’re eating,” she says.

“So there is certainly potential if done well, if done right, if done in healthy ways that it could be a form of online meal support.”

O’Brien says the current mukbang spectrum relies too heavily on unhealthy behaviours and would need some progressive guidelines to move towards a more positive horizon.

“I think, like exercise, it’s got really positive impacts if it’s done in a healthy way. If it’s done compulsively or if it’s done in extremes it’s not going to be healthy. From what I understand, the general way that mukbangs happen, there would need to be a lot of changes around that,” she says.

“You would need to be eating healthy amounts of food and that’s going to look different for everyone. So it would take a lot of work for someone to develop some healthy guidelines of what that would look like.”