Shoogi films herself eating dinner almost every night. From a studio in South Korea, the petite young woman takes large bites from several platters of food and broadcasts her meal live for hundreds of thousands of viewers. She cheerfully interacts with her audience while she eats, responding to their instant messages and graciously accepting online monetary donations throughout the livestream.
Shoogi, whose trademark is inhaling spicy rice cakes four at a time in one big gulp, is one of many broadcast jockeys – BJs, as they’re commonly known – who stream late-night mukbangs (translated as “food broadcasts”) on Korea’s AfreecaTV.
She is one of the 20 most popular BJs, according to the country’s annual Broadcast Jockey Awards, and her colleagues have praised her ability to eat so much despite her fragile frame. BJs have been known to make more than $9,000 a month from viewer donations.
While the YouTube trend originated in Korea, mukbang creators are now chomping their way around North America, and some health-care professionals are conflicted over whether it’s harmless vicarious eating or a danger to viewers with burgeoning eating disorders.
Brae Naomhan, who is based in Ontario (she does not wish to disclose which city), began her videos at the onset of recovery from anorexia in early 2015. Having just shy of 24,000 subscribers, she broadcasts her meals (such as a plate piled high with chicken legs, deli salads and a variety of dipping sauces) from the home she shares with her mother and grandfather.
“I can’t be sure … if it helped or hurt,” Naomhan said via e-mail, her preferred form of communication. “I wanted to be recovered and normal in my food habits so badly that I would probably have done it with or without the channel. I don’t know really; it’s all been so public for me [that] I can’t quite say what would have gone down if it was private.”
Naomhan’s uncertainty is what concerns health-care professionals such as Dr. Debra Katzman, head of adolescent medicine and the eating disorders unit at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
“Is it because they’re lonely and they want someone to be with?” Katzman asked during a telephone interview. “Is it because they’re getting some kind of vicarious pleasure out of watching somebody else eat when they won’t let themselves eat and they have an eating disorder? We don’t know why the people, on the one hand, are doing this and what their motivation is, and we don’t understand why the same thing is happening on the other end with the people who are choosing to watch this.”
In South Korea, the impetus for creating and viewing mukbangs reportedly stemmed from a sense of isolation and shame. Time magazine reported in 2014 that the number of one-person households in the country is expected to jump from 25.3 per cent in 2012 to 32.7 per cent in 2030, the fastest rate among rich-world countries, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Statistics Canada reports that the proportion of one-person households in this country increased from 25.7 per cent to 27.6 per cent between 2001 and 2011, a trend it notes has existed for decades and is projected to continue when updated data is released in 2017.
“Eating alone in Korea is not encouraged and people feel judged and looked down upon if they have to do it, regardless of your living conditions,” said Martina Sazunic, who moved with her husband, Simon Stawski, from Toronto to South Korea 10 years ago and created their hugely popular YouTube channel Eat Your Kimchi.
“The same goes for seeing a movie alone or going to a coffee shop alone. People are always coupled or in groups when eating in Korea. Some restaurants won’t even let you eat alone.”
Sazunic, who also preferred to be interviewed by e-mail, and Stawski relocated to Japan eight months ago and expanded their channel to include Eat Your Sushi, visiting different restaurants and sampling menus for more than a million subscribers. “We focus a lot on education in our videos, rather than just eating and chatting,” she said.
Regardless of geographic location, longing for a dinner companion is just one of the driving forces behind mukbangs.
For the creators, the term used by YouTube for people who make videos and vlogs, there is money to be made, but it isn’t as simple as creating a channel and waiting for the cash to roll in. A channel must partner with YouTube and reach enough subscriptions – into the hundred thousands – that each video it hosts also receives hundreds of thousands of views. At that point, money can be made through sponsorship and advertising, and creators can receive donations from viewers once they are approved by YouTube.
However, many lesser-viewed channels continue uploading food videos weekly, which suggests that some mukbang creators have other motivations. A mutual desire to witness food’s effects – both the pleasure and comfort of eating, and the anxiety around gaining weight or losing control – is something creators and viewers share.
“In Korea, mukbang is not new at all,” Thien Le, who films mukbangs from his home in California, said by phone. “However, when we’re bringing it over to Western culture, it’s as if we’ve dropped a bomb. … It’s a fear. Westerners – there’s some sort of fear that they almost don’t want to tap into. But we’re usually interested in what we’re fearing.”
Moonlight Eats, who does not feel comfortable sharing her real name, left her job as a physician’s assistant in Milwaukee, Wis., to be a stay-at-home mom and now creates several eating broadcasts a week for her nearly 27,000 YouTube subscribers. She said she started her channel last autumn to alleviate a sense of isolation when her husband, a prominent oncologist, was working late.
Moonlight and Naomhan are part of a growing community of mukbang creators who incorporate autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) into their videos. The therapeutic technique – wherein whispering or speaking in hushed tones, and focusing on the sound of slicing, chopping, chewing and swallowing their food – is said to trigger euphoric, calming sensations for some viewers.
“Everyone has a different reason for making the videos and everyone has a different reason for watching,” Moonlight said by phone. “Some people watch just for the company. Some experience true ASMR with certain sounds. Some people are weirdos and this is their way of subscribing to underage porn. For some, it’s vicarious eating. There are people on certain diets – for weight loss, or health reasons or religious reasons – and they can’t eat certain food. The other day a girl told me she’d just had all her wisdom teeth out. I had just done a candy video, and she said, ‘Thank you so much. I am so satisfied.’”
There are two prominent types of BJs: attractive, slim people who take clean bites and less conventionally attractive people who sometimes label themselves “chunky” and eat freely or messily.
Mukbangs vary in presentation as well. Some BJs simply sit behind a table and carry on a topical conversation while their platters are laid out in full view of the camera. Others show their food but only show parts of their faces or bodies.
Viewers can make requests in the comments section or via direct message for particular meals. Fast food and spicy ramen receive the most views. Subscribers often ask mukbang creators to take bigger bites and chew with exaggerated sounds.
Moonlight believes that the desire to be surrounded by food and all its sounds stems from fetal memory. “Absolutely, it brings us back to when we were babies,” she said.
Victoria Pollock, a psychoanalyst with a private practice in downtown Toronto, supports this idea within a broader picture of nourishment.
“Something about the disowned appetite – I’m imagining this into the viewer,” Pollock said by phone. “I’m imagining people have disowned their longing. They're able to see this avatar as something claiming their desire. There is a fantasy involved that [Shoogi] can eat a table full of food every night and not be sick. That, I can imagine, is incredibly comforting.”
BJs are badgered about their weight. Comments tend to question how they stay thin while eating so much, or taunt them with how much they have gained since they began their channel.
In a documentary for AfreecaTV, Shoogi said her daily regimen involved two hours of actual eating, followed by several hours of swimming and running on the treadmill. She has also been known to post photos of herself receiving intravenous treatments for electrolyte irregularities on her blog.
Because of the volume of questions they receive on the topic, most BJs in North America devote a video to detailing their own workout regimes and what they eat in a day when they are off camera.
This is where the interactive part of mukbang and ASMR food videos becomes a concern for Katzman. In a chapter she wrote as a contributing editor to Neinstein’s Adolescent and Young Adult Health Care, which collected world data on the health of adolescents and young adults, she indicates that there is an estimated incidence rate of eight cases of anorexia per 100,000 population, and that up to 15 per cent of individuals report binge eating or purging behaviours. She worries that mukbangs may exacerbate eating disorders in some viewers.
“I’m not saying any of these are right, but you could make a list of reasons why [BJs] do it. One would be money; it’s a job. One could be she has an eating disorder and this is her way of either healing or relating to people because she doesn’t want to go out. … The problem, as I see it, because I’m advocating for the vulnerable patient on the other side of the camera, is how do they understand it, and why are they resorting to it?”
A catharsis of sorts is exchanged between creator and viewer during broadcasts. In all cases, these virtual meals facilitate heartfelt confessions on the part of the creator, which in turn elicit personal responses from the audience.
Ben Deen’s channel saw a spike in subscribers when he talked about relocating from small-town Illinois to South Korea to find his birth parents and a brother he didn’t know he had (“I’m not really making that much money from it,” he said by e-mail, “but connecting with the people who watch my videos is extremely rewarding”). Thien Le’s ever-growing viewership was deeply touched by his childhood story of how a lunch lady had mercy on him one day when he went to school without food and offered him a free plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Brae Naomhan’s subscribers comment frequently on the appeal of her honest, ongoing confessions of recovery from anorexia.
“I don’t think it has affected me therapeutically the same way it has affected others,” Naomhan said. “I get messages and comments from people that blow me away sometimes, [saying] that they felt this or changed something in their lives due to something I said.”
For Moonlight, the goal is to untangle a natural desire for pleasure from an inevitable wave of guilt. “There has to be a sense of accessibility,” she said. “There is a sense of shame for a lot of people. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I could never allow myself to have that.’ But you deserve it, dammit. You live life once. I’m not saying go out and eat crap every single day, but make yourself happy. Indulge a little bit. There’s no shame in that.”
Whatever the psychological nuances, an obsession with food combined with a need for instant gratification through technology is connecting creators and viewers alike all over the world.
“We watch Yuka Kinoshita [now that we’re] in Japan,” Simon Stawski said by e-mail, “simply because she’s so small and cute and can eat 6 kg of food in one sitting.”