Mukbangs and a Culture of Gluttony

The mukbang, South Korean for “eating show” (a portmanteau of ‘eating’, meokneun, and ‘broadcast’, bangsong, that refers to online broadcasts of individuals eating food)[1] has risen in popularity since 2015, alongside ASMR content. These two worlds have now merged. American mukbangers have stacked up millions of views recording themselves eating copious amounts of food into the head of a microphone that catches every crunch, slurp, and chew. 

Samantha Gillepsie writes in her thesis “Watching Women Eat: A Critique of Magical Eating and Mukbang Videos”: “The popularity of this new method of eating as entertainment is making headlines in our news media with top outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and British Broadcasting Corporation (just to name a few) noting both the strangeness and proliferation of this new craze.”[2] People who watch others consume five times the serving size testify to living vicariously through them, even feeling a sentimental fullness. Mukbang then acts as a proxy for eating by way of visual pathway—quite literally “eating with your eyes.” Watching someone succumb to their food cravings in grotesque fashion has provoked different reactions; some are hypnotized by the concept, some are repulsed, and some are simply confused. But overall, eating shows have become more or less normalized. What does this say about a new global culture, where a trend in one part of the world can be catapulted worldwide by the strength of American content creation? What are the consequences? What does our Islamic tradition have to say about eating shows?

Vice as Entertainment

Like pornography, mukbangs are exaggerative. The average person doesn’t sit down to eat a sumo wrestler’s daily calorie count in one sitting. Yet someone on a screen can bring that fantasy to life. The more explicitly perverted side of mukbangs  has been addressed by psychologist G. Donnar. According to her, “mukbang had a sexual aspect with its facilitation of a sexualized gaze to attractive mukbangers while they were in a somewhat private and vulnerable state (i.e. eating).”[1] From the “orgasmic first bite” in the words of Donnar, to other mouth-watering pleasure cues throughout, this gives the term, “food porn,” a whole new meaning. In fact, an entire culture has stemmed from this idea: people who experience arousal by making their partners morbidly overweight to the point of immobility, indeed a sickness of its own, are known as “feeders.” “It is said that mukbangs play a role in the overfeedings as ‘feeders’ make their spouse watch mukbangs to encourage overeating.[1]

To dwell on this theme, a study by Bruno and Chung (2017) concluded that some viewers did not care about the mukbangers and saw them as prostitutes who eat/consume whatever viewers demand in exchange for money.”[1] There is something undignified about mukbangs that even fans admit to — it is, after all, a guilty pleasure. Fetish aside, the “sexual” aspect of mukbang culture is more so figurative. The connective tissue between mukbangs and pornography serves to illustrate the hedonistic foundation of the two. People on a diet are found to make up a sizable slice of mukbang audiences, as the ‘tease’ of junk food consumption apparently helps subdue the urge to actually eat it. On the contrary, Kagan Kircaburun et al. asserts that “watching mukbang videos where mukbangers eat very large portions of food might easily lead mukbang viewers to higher than normal consumption.”[1] The health detriment to the mukbanger is obvious—they are the ones eating way beyond the appropriate threshold. The detriment to the viewer, however, is much more discreet.

Some argue that mukbang videos help with loneliness and isolation — eating is, after all, a significant component of social life. The crucial difference between eating socially and watching mukbangs, however, lies in the voyeuristic (on part of the viewer) and performative (on part of the mukbanger) nature of internet eating shows. While they could hypothetically facilitate commensality, any benefit is offset by the celebration of gluttony.

The social compensation that mukbangs attempt to provide lacks real human connection. Sharing food or having a conversation over dinner is not possible in this format. According to Gillespie (2019), while mukbangs can still offer the illusion of companionship and even escapism, “magical eating fantasy (i.e., the idea of eating as much as desired without suffering the consequences) was one of the most important motivations that drove individuals to watch mukbang.”[1] Regarding the false promises of alleviating loneliness, Gillespie also notes that “some viewers went so far as to prefer dining in their bedrooms watching their favourite mukbangers”[1] than to eat with their parents. This paradox, choosing a virtual experience over human interaction, confirms the inadequacies of the mukbang’s ability to make up for an uneventful social life. In these scenarios, viewers are actually removing themselves from opportunities to bond over meals in-person. More than a potential addiction to food, this reveals an addiction to eating shows themselves. As written in “The Psychology of Mukbang Watching,” “Obtaining social gratifications and compensating unattained offline social needs using a specific online activity could promote addictive use of that activity.”[1] Therein, a vicious cycle begins.

The Curtain Drop

Eating shows are not a replacement for theater. They were never intended to be a feature of high culture. Mukbangs are not about healthy portions and tableside rules of conduct either. The psychological effects of mukbangs translate into poor eating habits and table manners, promoting disordered eating, addiction, and disregard for etiquette. Even in traditional food entertainment, which has more to do with cooking competitions, rating restaurants, and expert opinion on culinary arts, mukbangs form an entirely new ice sculpture. They are, for the most part, concerned with consuming an absurd quantity of food and very quickly at that. But just because it isn’t a pinky-up business, doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly privileged.

There is major dissonance between world hunger [see: the famine crisis in Yemen] and mukbang content. Eating an immodest amount of food on camera lacks humility when we consider those who go days without finding anything to fill their stomachs. While millions starve around the world, mukbangers flaunt and abuse their privilege.

Societally, the situation has gotten so dire that “South Korea’s government was planning a crackdown on mukbang videos in order to inhibit rising obesity rates.”[1] Unsurprisingly, “Mukbangers opposed this plan because they believed these measures would destroy individuals’ happiness while making little difference to individuals’ health.”[1] It is easy for mukbangers to employ this narrative when they are making thousands of dollars on monetized videos. Capitalizing off of something as simple as eating drives their reluctance to oblige to the anti-obesity program.

This kind of food entertainment is also decentralized, unlike food networks on television. Just as this trend has traveled from South Korea to the United States through YouTube, the United States in turn exports its ideas of enjoyment. While Americans watch documentaries on forced-feeding in Mauritania with great horror, a toxic food culture defines life in the States and uses the media to secretly propagate itself. Cultural means of influencing food habits aren’t new: “The Victorian era also used mediated communication to indoctrinate women into ideologies of restrictive eating with messages equating femininity with controlled portions and the dangers of overindulgence.”[2] Mukbangs in America, rather than generating gendered beauty standards, support and condone existing principles of excess, greed, and gluttony.

The fat positivity movement has also helped reinforce these societal ills. Food reviews in magazines have been shown “to shape and influence our collective taste, how we identify, and even position us politically.”[2] Mukbangs have a similar capacity to promote binge eating. The shift to user-generated content has created an opportunity for more people to guide the cultural narrative “that used to be relegated only for the distinguished few.”[2] Through a feminist cultural lens, mukbangs are seen as empowering, at least for women, since they challenge expectations of how women ought to eat, “careful, dainty, neatly and never too much.”[2] However, there is no intrinsic problem with these standards, only with their expectations upon women alone.

Mukbangers, regardless of intention, urge viewers to enjoy instant meals, frozen food, and anything else low in nutritional value. With young children having access to YouTube and are avid users of it, they are even more vulnerable to the normalization of gluttony. “After witnessing their children challenging themselves to eat as much as the mukbang broadcaster, some parents who have young children have defended government’s plan because they believed mukbang could negatively influence teenagers.”[1] Research shows that children who have poor eating habits can have trouble concentrating, become easily irritable and “are likely to face difficulties in learning, which can lead to behavioral and social problems.”[3]

Mukbang videos are also not the best place for children to learn about table manners, considering mukbangers are often seen “snatching or scooping food, and eating it up carelessly while conversing with their viewers with their mouths full.”[1] Never mind excessive portions and lack of etiquette, there is also the sensationalist side of eating shows where mukbangers indulge in repulsive things like centipedes, geckos, and even live octopuses, to gain more traffic on their channels.

The Virtue of Balance

Food is necessary for human development. Beyond basic survival, it also nourishes intellect, akhlaq (ethics), and morale. If one chooses an unhealthy lifestyle, the difficulties that follow result in both physical and spiritual exhaustion. “For an ideal performance and optimum state of mind,” which we all would agree is important for worship, “we need first and foremost to balance our blood sugar level.”[3]

The conclusions drawn from a critique on mukbang culture can be down-sized to a critique of poor eating habits in general. Too many of our communities are struggling with diabetes, high cholesterol, and other health issues. “Modern scientists have done extensive research and have concluded that the roots of many diseases lie in excess food not being absorbed and remaining in the body.”[3] Allah warns us against gluttony in the Quran:

Eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess. (Al-Araf :31)

Most of us are also familiar with this saying from Prophet Muhammad , narrated by al-Tirmidhi:

“The son of Adam does not fill any vessel worse than his stomach. It is sufficient for the son of Adam to eat a few mouthfuls, to keep him going. If he must do that (fill his stomach), then let him fill one third with food, one third with drink and one third with air.”

It is important to remember that the body man has been blessed with is an amanah (trust) from Allah.[3] Good health is long-term happiness, yet mukbangers downplay the psychological effects (which produce physical results) of their content, for the sake of temporary pleasures.

We should be concerned not only for the physical consequences of gluttony, but the cognitive ones as well. An article entitled “Evidence Based Review on the Effect of Islamic Dietary Law Towards Human Development” states, “Scholars have agreed that the benefits of moderation in consuming food includes the purification of heart, mental alertness and deep insight.”[3]

While “eat to live, don’t live to eat” is a cliché, it is perhaps urgent to remind ourselves of this during a time when phenomena such as 10,000 calorie challenges exist. While some mukbangers somehow manage to finish an overflowing platter of food, many do not. Thumbnails of open displays of a feast, certainly unfit for a single person to consume, are also often a click-bait tactic, meaning much of the food goes to waste at the end.

A strong dislike for gluttony and waste is not limited to Islamic principles. Paul Freedman writes in Food: The History of Taste, “While Chinese beliefs lacked an equivalent of the Christian-inspired seven deadly sins, which included gluttony, excessive eating clearly ran counter to Chinese ideals of frugality.”[4] A disgust for an overzealous appetite has been shared among different societies for years.

The gluttonous are designated the third circle of Hell in the allegorical work of literature Dante’s Inferno.[5] Like Islam and Judaism, Christianity has reserved anxieties over gluttony. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great identified several kinds of gluttony, such as eating too much (nimis), eating with unbecoming eagerness (ardenter), or not waiting until normal decent mealtimes (praepropere).”[4] Even enjoying food that was too expensive (laute) was considered sinfully gluttonous. Aristotle believed happiness lied in embodying virtues that were balanced, or a mean between excess and deficiency.

Indeed, this age-old mantra seems to be universal: “A number of seminal thinkers, including Confucius and his follower Mencius, enunciated these principles in their teachings and practice, asserting their authority of the ancient sage-kings for the rule that one should eat only when hungry and then only to satisfy one’s needs, as those paragons had done.”[4] It was even said that rulers could be brought to ruin through gluttony. “Some such tales involved luxury-loving rulers and their ministers, such as the stereotypically bad last minister of the Song dynasty, said to have hoarded vast quantities of sugar and pepper, and one Wang Fu, who was accused of possessing three larders full of pickled orioles.”[4] In many folktales, expanding waistlines are associated with moral turpitude. While gluttony used to be a vice of the elites who felt entitled to bountiful banquets in their palaces, in total contrast with common society, today it is a sin that transcends social class.

In modern America, modelling boastful behavior is rewarded with money and accolades, as made evident by mukbang success. The glorification of binge eating is akin to that of any other drug, yet there has been little effort to address this new phenomenon. While numerous studies list the negative consequences of mukbangs, such as increased food consumption through mimicry, “there was only one newspaper article that argued that mukbang watching could turn into a problematic (i.e. addictive) behaviour for some of its users due to its social facilitation features.”[1] Unlike mental transgressions like envy or pride, gluttony is a quintessentially physical sin. One would assume that it would, for that same reason, raise eyebrows. Instead, we see a new kind of reaction, one that calls for celebrating food addictions.

Gluttony is about not only the excess of food, but the excess of pleasure in general. It represents the unfiltered animal propensities of man which, if left unchecked, can be disastrous for civilization. Today, medieval admonitions against gluttony would only provoke anger and disapproval.

Understanding the damage a culture of gluttony inflicts on us all allows a deeper appreciation for such practices as fasting, itself an embodiment of a special virtue (emptying the stomach to feed the soul). The roadmap provided by Islam leads to a life rooted in the pursuit of God alone—not food, or any aspect of the material world.

Works Cited:

  1. Kircaburun, Kagan, et al. “The Psychology of Mukbang Watching: A Scoping Review of the Academic and Non-Academic Literature.” International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 2020.
  2. Gillespie, Samantha. “Watching Women Eat: A Critique of Magical Eating and Mukbang Videos.” University of Nevada, 2019.
  3. Sawari, Siti, et al. “Evidence Based Review on the Effect of Islamic Dietary Law Towards Human Development.” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 2015.
  4. https://amzn.to/34UfGME
  5. There are a number of people who suggest Dante may have actually plagiarized Islamic philosopher ibn Arabi.

Photo by Jisun Han

About the Author: Sabrina Amrane is a journalism and political sciences student. Her interests include Maghribi history, literature, and philosophy. You can follow her on Twitter here

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