Lockdown has left many of us cooped up in close proximity to the biscuit tin, and ignoring the constant call of the fridge has become an exercise in self-control.
Add in restaurant closures and you’re left with a nation of nibblers craving the culinary variety that lockdown eliminated.
Enter the mukbangers; YouTubers and social media influencers who record and live stream themselves gorging on vast quantities of food, such as 100 spicy dumplings or 11 hot dogs.
Roughly translated as ‘eating-broadcast’, this food phenomenon began in South Korea in 2010, and has gained mass appeal over the last decade. What began as basic streaming during dinner has become a nuanced internet genre, with multiple subcategories and dedicated followings.
Mukbangs remain most prolific in East Asia, where abandoning polite eating etiquette still feels exciting. Over 5 million people watched Eat With Boki scarf down a ten pound crab, while over 8 million fans viewed Banzz (generally heralded as the mukbang godfather) eating ten hamburgers in under five minutes.
However, the mukbang’s global appeal has snowballed in recent years, with a notable rise during the pandemic.
Steven Sushi’s channel typically averaged around 45,000 views per video pre-coronavirus, which rose to a standard 100,000 during the height of lockdown. Professional eater BenDeen usually enjoyed his dinner in front of 120,000 fans, but once restaurants closed his audience rocketed to an average of 300,000. There has also been a trend of mukbangers recreating their favourite takeaways such as McDonald’s at home, with viewers putting in requests for home-made Taco Bell.
Take a look at the titles of mukbang videos from the last three months and you’ll spot a trend for lockdown-themed editions, whether in the form of videos scratching the itch for fast food options people can’t get hold of or shovelling in delivery options.
YouTubers Bloveslife sums up mukbang’s lockdown boom by explaining that ‘people want to eat what I’m eating’ during a time when people can’t access their favourite foods or reduced budgets mean they can’t afford them. Her channel offers viewers the eating out experience from the safety of their homes.
Since launching her channel in 2017, Bloveslife has amassed 2.74 million subscribers for her mammoth seafood boils.
Speaking to us from her home in Ohio, the 45-year-old explains that people enjoy watching her videos because she ‘eats unapologetically’ and they find that ‘satisfying.’
Bloveslife tells us: ‘Eating unapologetically means I may get sauce on my face, I’m gonna slurp, you may hear me belch, you may hear me smack. You’re gonna hear the “mmmms” and the “awwws” as I enjoy what I eat.’
As a former business owner, Bloveslife, real name Bethany Gaskin, has a shrewd understanding of her channel’s brand, which has made her a multi-millionaire, combined with profits from her ‘smackalicious sauce mix’. Upbeat and glamorous, the mum-of-two is keen to keep her videos light and avoid anything controversial.
The internet star believes her videos help people relax and feel positive about food, saying: ‘By showing myself having that experience with my food, I’m helping some people with eating disorders, helping some people with their anxiety and even helping some people with autism to communicate.’
Providing companionship seems a key part of the mukbangers’ appeal. Watching someone devour their dinner while they chatter about their day offers connection, something that has taken on a renewed importance thanks to the isolation brought on by life in lockdown.
Counsellor Amanda Greenlees, who specialises in eating behaviours, believes watching people eat can help us feel less lonely.
She tells us: ‘Food is our primary means of communication, it’s also our primary means of relationships. When we’re in a lockdown we’re not able to have those relationships anymore so watching someone eat gives a semblance of connection.’
This sense of intimacy is even more pronounced with mukbangers such as Veronica Wang, who shares personal details of her life with her 1.68 million subscribers.
Veronica, 28, has posted multiple emotional videos about her family and relationship issues, always combined with shovelling in her haul. Often filmed in her car, this Canadian’s mukbangs usually involve fast food, and her mukbang brand is intertwined with how she presents herself on Instagram.
As a slim woman partial to pouty selfies and bikini shots, Veronica reassures viewers that they are not alone in their over-indulging, and breaks apart the idea that weight is entirely down to what you eat – after all, if she can remain svelte despite piling in mountains of fast food, there must be more to your size than simply making the ‘right’ food choices.
The comment section is brimming with such statements, with one subscriber writing: ‘Veronica: eats so much food and doesn’t gain a single pound. Me: One French fry and I gain like 700000000 pounds’
Amanda says that easing our guilt around food may be part of the mukbang’s draw for some viewers, especially during lockdown, when many of us are eating for comfort or distraction.
She explains: ‘You get to watch someone else do something that you’re not allowed to do. There’s such a big culture of restriction around food, societally and individually. We constantly tell ourselves, “I mustn’t have this, I mustn’t have that” so to see someone completely ignore those boundaries and do whatever they want is probably part of its appeal.’
Stephanie Soo’s eating antics have earned her 2.26 million subscribers. The Korean American scoffer varies her content with different cuisines and ‘story-time’ discussions. Like many Western mukbangers, Stephanie, 24, often collabs with other YouTubers in videos that tend to attract high numbers of views. One viewer said of Stephanie’s collab with Bloveslife: ‘This was so cute and funny. Like watching two friends have lunch’.
While some fans compliment the petite star on her outfits or animated personality, many simply lambast her ability to remain slim or envy her eating foods they restrict. A common statement from a fan will read: ‘I’m on a diet but love watching Stephanie’s videos imagining it was me.’
For some viewers, watching mukbangs offers consumption without consequence as they feast vicariously through the YouTuber. Mukbangs offer the watcher a calorie-free binge, and for some struggling with disordered eating, they may even act as a virtual substitute for meals.
Amanda Greenlees suggests that by mukbanging, people may be reclaiming their power around food and rebelling against societal taboos. She tells us: ‘There is a sense of powerlessness that lots of people feel when they eat and especially when they binge-eat, so by choosing to mukbang, they’re taking some power back. Also, they’re dissipating the shame, because they’re gorging openly, they’re owning their behaviour and nobody can shame them for it.’
Another pull is the obvious oral fixation. The transference of food from plate to body via the mouth is a highly carnal, sensuous act. Bloveslife stresses that there is an art to eating, making lots of noise and handling the food with her long diamante nails.
For some mukbang fans, the physicality of eating – the sounds, the up-close visuals – is the most appealing part, which is where ASMR mukbangers come in. Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), is defined as a tingling sensation moving along the spine in response to sonorous noises.
Canadian mukbanger Lovetoeat ASMR, began her channel as solely ASMR, with lots of ice-crunching and tea gulping videos, complete with crinkling packets and fizzing sodas. With a growing channel followed by more than 5,000 subscribers, Lovetoeat, 28, said people enjoy her speechless videos as they find them ‘soothing.’
She tells us: ‘Some people like to just listen to eating sounds to fall asleep, so they don’t wanna hear me talk.’
Lovetoeat, from Toronto, explains that while she has introduced talking mukbangs, which ‘feel like I’m talking to my friends while enjoying a meal’, she has chosen to adhere to a common ASMR trope of concealing her upper face. While Lovetoeat dons sunglasses, other ASMR mukbangers only film from the nose down, making the mouth the inescapable focal point.
The localised camera work is a common style throughout the mukbang sphere. Many munchers sit behind a large, food-laden hotplate with only their face and hands showing, the resulting videos resembling a kind of puppet show. Black backgrounds and wearing grease-proof polythene gloves are also popular.
One ASMR mukbanger who raises the genre’s visual bar is Zach Choi. With a following of 9.1 million, this Korean American guzzler incorporates stop-motion filming in his intros.
Performing under the tagline ‘silence is golden’ Zach, 33, remains mute during his mukbangs but creates an audio landscape by opening containers, laying out crockery and, of course, eating.
Famous for downing 100 cocktails shrimps (with sauce) in under six minutes, Zach varies his sounds with different textured foods. Raw honeycomb is popular as it’s both crunchy and squishy, while aloe vera leaves are squelchy and mozzarella sticks are squeaky. Visually speaking, anything stretchy or gloopy is popular, with noodles being a firm favourite. An emblematic image from the mukbang phenomenon involves the YouTuber gazing wide eyed at the camera while noodles cascade from their mouth.
Adding another dimension to the mukbang craze are the edible optical illusions crew, who cram fondant shoes and cookie phones into their mouths. One such YouTuber is HunniBee ASMR, 25, who has amassed 4.33 million fans by crunching into candy champagne bottles and gummy pencils.
HunniBee, real name Naomi MacRae, plays upon the East Asian aesthetic, with lots of miniature confectionary, colour-themed mukbangs and anime motifs.
Her softly spoken videos are credited with helping viewers unwind during times of stress, which is especially important amid a pandemic, with one fan writing: ‘You literally make me relax when I’m stressed people with anxiety or stress or not feeling well! Thank you for making these videos’.
While female mukbangers dominate the Western genre, the most infamous male mukbanger remains Nikocado Avocado. This American mukbanger’s videos combine gorging with emotional diatribes, which his 1.99 million subscribers lap up.
Nik, 28, turned to mukbanging after quitting veganism three years ago. Coming from a mostly raw plant-based diet, Nik, real name Nicholas Perry, now crams in Big Macs, KFC and anything covered with cheese, including five pounds of mozzarella balls.
Nik’s channel relies upon drama, and is littered with revelations about his marriage, crying fits and manic outbursts involving head shaving and smashing things.
All those antics offer a welcome distraction from apocalyptic news headlines, plunging the viewers into his frenzied world where all outside concerns disappear for the duration of his repast. The comment section reflects this with statements like: ‘It’s like a low budget version of Real Housewives and it’s even more hilarious.’
The phenomenon of the mukbang has always relied on vicarious enjoyment and forbidden thrills, with the use of ASMR sounds and visuals allowing views to transport themselves into the eater’s shoes and escape their own reality, where meals are reasonably sized, economically conscious, and come with all the pressures of body image and physical health.
In the midst of a pandemic, when we’re restricted to our own homes and confronted by harsh realities of physical health, limited budgets, and difficulty accessing all the foodie wonders we desire, diving into the online world of mukbang becomes all the more appealing.
Mukbangers rebel against the culture of shame that surrounds eating and allows an escape from the real-world effects of eating massive amounts of unhealthy food, while concurrently pulling up a chair at a virtual dinner table for people who may be craving human connection.
While motivations for watching provide plenty of food for thought, on the other side of the camera, mukbangers are living the dream.
‘I get paid to eat,’ says Bloveslife. ‘I get paid to do and try things I never dreamed I would do. I couldn’t be more blessed.’
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