More and more people around the world stumble upon people broadcasting themselves while eating. This new cultural phenomenon is called Mukbang, which seems to be at odds with contemporary 'healthy food' trends, but it's not. It is merely a different culture.
Mukbangers are actually making money
The girl on the picture above is doing mukbang: eating (a lot) and broadcasting it away on the internet! In certain niches it is not exceptional anymore to find shared posts of videos showing a stranger eating big portions of food on Facebook or Instagram. Somehow the internet and social media have provided a space for people to share what we consider very normal in life - with a bit of creativity added of course.
It is interesting to see how mukbang, as a form of internet culture, is socially accepted in certain cultural niches. As a cultural practice, one may assume, it is a challenge of the 'old' healthy eating norm. With just one click the globally connected world exposes us to literally everything: primary and tertiary needs, normal and crazy things, tolerable and intolerable phenomena. It is therefore normal that one trend may show completely different values than another, such as the trend of eating healthy as opposed to mukbang. However, mukbang doesn't really challenge healthy eating culture; it is merely a different onee.
Mukbang doesn't really challenge healthy eating culture; it is merely a different one.
Mukbang culture was initiated by South Koreans and the word ‘mukbang’ itself is a Korean word, which means 'eat and broadcast'. While eating is an activity that humans do every day to stay alive, these mukbangers on the internet have taken eating to a higher level. With a camera, good lighting, a high-quality microphone, and a table full of food, mukbangers are ready to eat together with their audiences. They need to make sure that their audiences are involved in this activity by talking to them, making jokes or funny expressions and making sure that the sounds of chewing, crunching, or enjoying the food in general can be heard clearly.
Mukbang as digital culture
South Korean mukbangers use Afreeca.tv to livestream, which enables them to interact with their audiences, who post comments on the right side of the screen. However, mukbang is not only famous in SouthKorea, but also in the United States. Due to this trend, twitch.tv, a livestream medium that is popular among gamers, also opened up a social eating channel in July 2016. The Mukbang trend opens up more possibilities for people to livestream a normal part of life and get paid for it. One of SouthKorea's famous mukbangers, Park Seo-yeon, admitted that she quitted her job and decided to do mukbang livestreams for a living. It was not a bad idea after all, since she earns £5,600 per month from eating and talking in front of the camera.
“I think people watch because they are alone and want to eat with somebody else through the computer.” – Erik the Electric
Mukbangers state that their livestreams can help people with eating disorders. People who've lost their appetite find these videos or livestreans helpful to make them crave food again, while those who are on a diet admit that watching mukbang videos can make them feel full, since they feel like someone on screen is eating for them. Many people admitted that they really enjoy the show and even get addicted to it. An American mukbanger, Erik the Electric, said that mukbang videos help audiences in a way that they can have virtual company during their meal.
Food product advertisements have been using the technique of showing someone eating to attract customers. In that sense, watching mukbang videos is like watching a McDonald’s advertisement, but what makes the difference? As mentioned earlier, mukbangers have brought eating to a higher level; they therefore will not eat normally, otherwise it would not be that attractive anymore. The ludic elements in mukbang culture can be seen in its contents as well. More and more people expect something a little bit more extreme on the internet.
Mukbangers use this opportunity to insert ludic elements into the eating experience, by having a super big bowl of ramen or pasta, or a huge portion of fried chicken, which is normally eaten by ten people. And all of this food is consumed alone and live on camera. It's not only about huge portions of food, mukbang videos are also famous for showing people eating extremely spicy food. It has somehow become attractive to see how mukbangers react after their mouths got burned. Some mukbangers opt for recording their activity and then edit the material, to make the video shorter and avoid audiences getting bored.
Is Mukbang a challenge for the healthy eating culture?
Internet contributes to organizing human life into mini-systems that are called ‘micro-hegemonies’ (Blommaert & Varis, 2011). It has been an old tradition on the internet to promote living a healthy life, eating healthy food, having an ideal weight, participating in sports and so forth. As a micro-hegemony, healthy eating culture has been successful in influencing many individuals to pay more attention to what goes into their mouth, which will also influence the way they spend money on food, and even makes the popular sportswear brand Nike’s products look more attractive.
For some people, being overweight is not acceptable, which makes them want to change the situation. The internet can provide lots of sources that state that eating healthy food or decreasing the portion of the meal may be of advantage for those who want to reduce weight or maintain their ideal weight. Therefore, such solutions become more and more accepted in society and they help construct the idea of a healthy life. In the past few years, mukbangers seem to reverse the situation and deconstruct such social norms related to healthy eating. In that sense, mukbangers may have formed a new norm, namely that a healthy life can also be achieved by eating any food that you want to eat, be happy, and worry less about being overweight. The two different micro-hegemonies related to having a healthy life become subject of social evaluation (Blommaert & Varis, 2012). People who are overweight are constantly judged, and so are mukbangers. Those who are against the mukbang culture will send rude comments or even spread rumors that mukbangers do not really swallow what they eat but spit it out and cover it up with some video editing technique.
Mukbangers claim that their livestreams can help people with eating disorders.
The ludic elements in mukbang culture have attracted many people on the internet; from making eating big portions of unhealthy food more acceptable, until implicitly encouraging people to follow their desires when it comes to having a meal. What about the mukbangers who appear on the screen? When we see mukbang videos, there are mukbangers with pretty faces, makeup, and slim bodies, but there are also mukbangers who are overweight. No matter what their appearance is like, eating a lot is the main ludic element which spices up the trend. So which one is better; eating healthily and having a socially acceptable body or eating what we want in order to be mentally healthy? The questions ‘what society wants’ and ‘what we want’ are never-ending ones; however, their answer depends on which part of culture we dive into. In healthy eating culture, it is unacceptable to eat too much food, but in mukbang culture, it is attractive. Therefore, we cannot say that mukbang poses a challenge to healthy eating culture, it is a different culture or micro-hegemony with different sets of norms and values altogether.
Blommaert, J. & Varis, P. (2011) Enough is enough: the heuristics of authenticity in superdiversity. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 2.
Blommaert, J. & Varis, P. (2012). Culture as accent. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 18.
DeFabio, C. R. (2016, August 25). Why millions of people watch videos of strangers eating huge amounts of food. Splinternews.com.
Vincent, J. (2014, January 28). Gastronomic Voyeurism: The South Korean Trend that Means You’ll Never Eat Alone. Independent.co.uk.