Eating with Your Eyes

Originally published in our spring 2018 issue: See Food

By Lydia Kim
Photo by Maria Murad and Carolyn Barr

It may seem a little strange – dinner for one on the fourth floor of a mid-priced apartment in the city, a bowl of baby carrots supplemented by a glass of water set in front of a weathered Macbook Pro.

It may seem a little sad – watching someone else eat almost 10,000 calories of fried meat, burgers, and noodles all in one sitting while you chomp on a carrot, a police siren in tune with the exaggerated slurping playing through the laptop speakers. But vicarious eating is just yet another food trend that has hit the internet by storm, a Korean food phenomenon that has transformed the social constructs of eating as we know it. Dubbed “mukbangs” (a Korean play-on-words that roughly translates to “eating broadcasts” pronounced “muck-bahngs”) this trend allows us to examine the relationship between the concept of feeling full and eating to be with company versus the necessity of sustenance. After all, why eat at all when you can eat with your eyes…

…is the exact sentiment we don’t want to encourage, but perhaps it’s important to analyze why this trend even exists. In South Korea, millions tune into YouTube or other streaming sites live every evening to watch their favorite mukbang hosts make thousands of dollars per night through viewer donations, advertisements, and sponsorships. But what’s really behind the insane popularity?

For one, dining is inherently social. Eating has historically been framed as a group activity, with social norms centered around sharing a meal with good company. Eating with others is often irreplaceable in terms of conversation and companionship. Ashley Sprankles, a California-based mukbanger, mentions, “A lot of people are working and they don’t have someone to sit down with for dinner at night and it fills a void. They’re lonely, and they want to eat with someone.”

What else? Watching others partake uplifts the self. Traci Mann, Ph.D, a professor of social and health psychology at the University of Minnesota, explains, “It makes your own virtues apparent because you’re not doing that. The people in these videos are doing something worse than you would ever do, and that makes you feel better about yourself in comparison. Maybe you think ‘I ate too much today, but I didn’t eat that much.’ Maybe it’s ‘I wish I could binge that much, but I can’t, so I’m going to watch this guy binge instead.’”

Regardless of the reason, undoubtedly mukbangs and similar food trends have affected the way that we define what it traditionally means to eat. As clean eating and fitness trends continue to gain momentum, perhaps mukbangs satisfy the need to at least watch what one wants to do. Hence the vicarious lifestyle. Harnessing the power of technology to fulfill basic necessities is an underdeveloped idea, and it’s difficult to eradicate the problems that come with it. Many have criticized mukbangs for promoting binge eating (watching a stranger demolish half a dozen Big Mac meals is wild) and encouraging poor eating habits (eat 10,000 calories or don’t eat at all). Mukbangs, however, only continue to gain momentum as the accessibility of the internet and foreign content allows for a global spread. A quick look at our own doors is testament to this claim.

The real intrigue behind this trend doesn’t come from what’s occurring in East Asian countries — rather, let’s look at the effect mukbangs are having at home. In Asian-American college communities where many second-generation students still have close ties to their ethnic roots, the adoption of some cultural trends is almost inevitable. Hain Yoon, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, is quick to admit that she’s an avid fan of watching mukbangs, tuning in multiple times a week to watch Youtubers like Trisha Paytas and Hinoshita Yuka wolf down thousands of calories in one sitting.

“I tend to only watch junk food mukbangs because they help satisfy my junk food cravings … but more than anything else I think that mukbangs are essentially a double-edged sword. While they provide some entertainment, I do feel like they do help promote bad eating behavior, especially because most mukbang hosts are pretty and petite girls. The fact that they can eat so much probably promotes misconceptions of what are nutritional dos and don’ts.”

Such are the ending notes we should be left with. While eating with your eyes may seem just as effective, don’t forget—there are just some things that are irreplaceable, and actual eating is one of them.