TW: Discussion of eating disorders and disordered eating.
Mukbangs, the eating shows on YouTube that have gained massive popularity in the last few years, draw the ire of much of the mainstream media attention they receive. The videos are often written off as grotesque, sickening, weird, or sexual. This is as fair of an assessment as any when confronted with a man dipping mountains of microwaved corn dogs into a bowl of neon colored cheese sauce—seemingly with the intent of eating each corndog in one bite, letting the violently yellow sauce drip down his chin.
Even the tame eating shows are visceral. The sheer amount of food that mukbangers eat awakens some primal impulse and the feeling of expansion in one’s own body; YouTuber Bonggil unhinges his jaw and eats chicken thigh after chicken thigh in smooth succession. If the mukbanger is thin or generally considered attractive, commenters often speculate on their body, wondering how they are able to consume so much yet impose so little on the space around them. Some theorize that the mukbangers frequently skip meals, workout for several hours a day, or purge. No matter the answer, the motivation behind the questions is usually the same: a desire from viewers to replicate these videos, to feel the inside expand while the body remains small.
Though mukbangs are not about sex, they exist, quite literally, in a space adjacent to it in the brain. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Professor of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine David Linden explains the region of the brain which registers pleasure:
“It turns out that this very anatomically and biochemically defined section of the brain, which we call the medial forebrain pleasure circuit, […] this region of the brain, which is crucially dependent upon the neurotransmitter dopamine, is absolutely essential to our evolutionary survival. Not surprisingly, it’s an evolutionarily ancient region, and it exists originally because we want eating food and drinking water and having sex to be pleasurable in order to have children and propagate our genes in the next generation.”
The mirror neuron theory may explain why we feel this vicarious pleasure from watching others eat or simply looking at attractive food. The idea is derived from a study in the 90’s which examined the brains of two monkeys, one who ate and the other who watched. The same parts of the brain light up in both. The same phenomenon may be true for humans; when we watch others eat our brains flood with the pleasure hormones as though we ourselves are consuming the food.
If this sounds a bit mechanical of an explanation for why we like to sit in front of a screen and watch others eat, it is. Pleasure, vicarious pleasure, and feel-good hormones are an accessible explanation for why I like to unwind in the evening by watching videos of women downing excessive quantities of Korean fire noodles. It is an easy way to dismiss the behavior too. Like when my partner, tongue in cheek, suggests that this is some kind of weird kink. The real explanation is much simpler: I’m hungry and I want to eat. If mukbangs are a distorted version of fulfilling that desire toward food, it only reveals some attitude we mukbang-viewers hold about food: that consumption is itself a guilt, a pleasure, a perversion.
I began watching mukbangs around the time that I decided to toy with disordered eating. Desperate to lose weight, I cut down my intake to about 800 calories for a few days. I remember vividly my parents bringing home a family sized meal of Cane’s and eyeing it with disgust. Each strip contained far too many calories, not enough volume for the amount that it cost. I picked apart each piece of chicken, carefully peeling off the fried outer layer and dabbing the white insides with a napkin to absorb the oil. Chicken comes apart in strips, and I ate it that way to make it last longer. After eating I went to the bathroom, looked at the toilet for a long while and then laughed at myself. It all felt very dramatic and self-flagellating. That night, and in that period of time, I watched mukbang after mukbang, huddled under my blanket alone in the dark. The type and kind of video depended upon the mood, the desire or disgust I wished to elicit in myself, sometimes both in equal measure.
Mukbangs most generally come in two varieties, without crossing too far into sub-communities like ASMR and “Feederism,” each of which is worth its own exploration. The first of the two main types—which are often placed against one another in my most favorite type of compilation, “expectation versus reality”—consists of a group of mukbangers who are generally thin and conventionally attractive, eating their food neatly and presenting their food as though in a commercial studio. The second type of mukbangers usually look more amateur, smack loudly, and make an initial disgusting display of the food. The fantasy of the first type is that of consumption without imposition, the idea that there might be a void inside of me through which all food can fall, leaving me full and satisfied but just as slight. The other delivers an explicit disgust response. The food looks low quality, off. The consumption of it lacks control. While the second type of video is disgusting and doesn’t make me as hungry as the first type, they are still a fantasy, a desire toward a relationship with food which has no boundaries or hard lines drawn around it, which is purely hedonistic. Other viewers often use these videos as a means of disidentification with eating. Comments are full of people berating the mukbangers, shaming them for their lack of control, and perhaps reassuring themselves that they have more control than this. It is not uncommon to find comments saying that they use these videos to put them off food and to become disgusted toward it.
I stopped my extreme restriction almost as soon as I started it, frightening myself a little with the behavior and deciding that it wasn’t worth explaining to people why I was picking my chicken apart—or perhaps I was assured that the behavior was within my power. But the mukbangs have stayed. While I tell myself that they are now simply a form of relaxation, others use them in just the way that I have: to eat, to not eat, to purge, to restrict, to become disgusted or enamored with food, with one hand pushing away the body’s desire and need toward food, and with the other hand stuffing it down the throat.
Katie Livingston can be reached at email@example.com.