Mukbang, or "eating broadcasts," have been big in South Korea for years, so big in fact that you can actually make a living from streaming your meals. Broadcast jockeys, popularly referred to as "BJs," sit before sprawling feasts, slurping their ramen, smacking their lips, and talking to their fans over huge meals that often last for hours. One BJ, since retired, was reported to have made over $9,000 a month live-streaming her meals.
Now, Americans are starting to follow in their footsteps, broadcasting themselves eating elaborate meals; American mukbangers are also attracting sizeable online audiences—but of a notably different character.
If you aren't familiar with the phenomenon, check out The All American Mukbang, a YouTube video made by Erik the Electric, a 23-year-old from San Diego who has 88,000 YouTube fans. He begins by biting into a 3x3 cheeseburger from In n’ Out and quipping at the camera, “Fitness? Fittin' this burger in my mouth!” Over the next forty-five minutes, he goes on to eat an impressive menu of tacos, chow mein, hash browns, salad, donuts, potato chips, skippy peanut butter bites, and Ben and Jerry’s Peanut Butter Fudge Core ice cream. If this makes you feel like heading towards your nearest gym, Erik has you covered there too. His channel also features fitness and cycling videos.
“I like eating a large amount of food, I like lifting heavy weights, I like cycling a lot," he tells me. “I think people watch because they are alone and want to eat with somebody else through the computer.”
From most reports, that's what made these videos popular in Korea: having the sense of community around eating that we traditionally associate with binging together during holidays. In Korea, many fans watch people eat in real time: Korean BJs broadcast their meals on AfreecaTV, where live comments stream down the side of the frame and viewers can respond with balloon tokens, giving small micro payments to their hosts. Because the comments are live, hosts interact with their fans and take suggestions. With most Koreans watching on their mobile devices, the comments section feels like a chat room with all of your friends. If AfreecaTV sounds a bit like our social video gaming platform Twitch, it hasn't gone unnoticed; Twitch just added a social eating channel in July to capitalize on the mukbang trend.
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In America, however, on Twitch and on YouTube, the popularity of mukbang seems to have a different flavor. While some fans do appear to crave the company of eating with someone else, if only virtually, others seem to be using the videos as a way to change their own relationships to food. Some use the videos to stimulate their appetites, and others as a dieting tool. The hosts, after all, are effectively binge-eating on camera, and it appears to have drawn in people with eating issues who are looking for a place to talk about them.
Erik the Electric said he noticed that some of his viewers “are more restrictive with their diets and want to live vicariously through me.” Erik himself struggled with anorexia for years, and says that making the videos has helped him become more relaxed about food and gave him a forum, and a following, to talk about his passion for food.
In comments on the videos, fans confess to feeling full after watching. Mukbang, a form that seems to exalt gluttony, is instead playing a role in dieting. Food vlogger Linda, who just started making mukbang videos on her channel La Delicia de Linda, says this motivation for watching is the key difference between mukbang in South Korea versus here in the States.
“Koreans tend to see it more as entertainment,” she tells me. “I’ve noticed that the crowd in the US tends to be people with eating disorders.”
But Linda, like Erik, thinks the videos could help people beat eating disorders rather than reinforcing them. She feels that the level of scrutiny over caloric intake can take the enjoyment out of food completely, and that mukbang can maybe help change that.
“A lot of my viewers have a history with having a hard time eating,” she says, “so they watch mukbang to help them induce cravings.”
Other people, though, watch to stop cravings. This past June commenters on the YouTube channel of American mukbanger Trisha Paytas said her videos were helping them fast through Ramadan.
If there is a queen of American mukbang, it is undisputedly Trisha. She has 2.5 million followers and her stream consists of eating videos, hauls, and storytelling about that time she was a side chick, or what it’s like to have a sugar daddy.
And her experience highlights another difference between mukbang in Korea and here in the U.S. While Korean fans commenting in real time are likely to offer casual, friendly suggestions about what a BJ should do or eat next, YouTube commenters on American mukbang videos can easily veer into criticism. For example, this is a comment plucked from a California Pizza Kitchen mukbang posted by Trisha:
The women who make these videos regularly have to deal with trolls attacking their weight. Chunky, who has 40,000 followers, addresses this issue head-on; her tagline is “stay chunky because chunky is beautiful.” In her Authentic Gangster BBQ Mukbang, she puts away a plate of carne asada, rice, beans, potato salad, pickled chiles, chicken and washes it all down with a 40oz Miller High Life.
“I genuinely enjoy my food when I eat,” she says. “I don’t just do it for the camera.”
Chunky feels that honesty translates into viewership, and for the most part really enjoys interacting with her fans in the comments. But she also has a strategy for coping with negative criticism: “block and delete.”
As mukbang takes off in the U.S., it's fascinating to see how the cultural baggage around eating changes the nature of the fandom, exposing our complex attitudes toward food and body fat. Here in the States, we have a fundamental tension between the culture of excess that birthed the KFC Double Down, and a competitive dieting culture that has half of the country convinced that eating gluten is akin to an act of terrorism.
Are the millions of views on these videos a symptom of our dysfunctional relationship with food or simply an outsourcing of our gastronomical pleasure to a stranger and a screen? In an age when we have learned to get our affirmations and oxytocin hits online, maybe it isn't surprising that we would be looking for other ways virtual consumption can have physical outcomes. The recent rise in popularity of 'satisfying' videos where visceral acts like squishing slime, or mixing paint, seem to relax viewers, points to the same kind of virtual gratification. By asking these YouTubers to do what we cannot, we are effectively using them as avatars for our own desire.
Mukbang may leave us with questions as plentiful as the food in front of us, but at least now we know where to tune in when we need some company while we ponder the complications of living on the internet over a late night bowl of ramen.
Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.