Unravelling South Korea's dinner porn

Why are thousands of Koreans tuning in to watch people eat? Spoiler: it's not a sex thing

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It’s dinnertime in South Korea. Thousands of people are tuned into the Diva, a petite doe-eyed woman wearing a baggy t-shirt. In front of her is an enormous spread of food: salad, chicken wings and chunks of lobster bobbing in a vat of red stew. She could be entertaining guests at a dinner party, except for the fact that her guests are tuning in online, via the video streaming platform AfreecaTV. As she takes a bite of chicken, she answers questions about the taste and cost of the food, sampling each dish and proclaiming them all delicious.

This is a “mok-bang”, or “eating room”, the voyeuristic trend of watching people eat online.

Since mok-bangs appeared they have made celebrities out of people like the Diva (her real name being Park Seo-Yeon). It’s also (once again) put South Korea on the map for peculiar trends that arise from being the most wired nation on earth (Starcraft as a professional sport, internet addiction, to name a few).

Seo-Yeon began broadcasting because she was “bored and wanted a hobby.” She vehemently denies having an eating an eating disorder and sticks around for four hour long broadcasts, as proof that she isn’t purging. Seo-Yeon works in an office but a successful BJ (short for Broadcast DJ) can earn enough to forego their day job. And indeed she may. As the Diva, Seo-Yeon earns around $9,000 a month, mainly from viewers who purchase “star balloons”, tokens of appreciation that are exchanged for cash.

So why has this trend taken off? This actually isn’t a food fetish, nor does it have sexual undertones of any sort.

The prevailing theory seems to be that Koreans are lonely. They log 12-hour days, followed by socialising with coworkers during Hoesik (mandatory drinking with coworkers at the end of the day). More young adults are living alone, or at least separate from their parents. To Koreans, eating is a highly social act that creates ties between people. To eat alone, especially in a restaurant, is taboo. Mok-bangs provide the comfort of eating together and lessens isolation. Fans of the Diva feel like they are eating with her.

Others seem to think that given the prevalence of plastic surgery in Korea, excessive dieting is commonplace. Some fans claim that they lose weight by eating vicariously through the BJs. This is a theory that might sit well with Westerners, who are all too familiar with cooking shows, blogs and #foodporn.      

Another theory according to the blog Kotaku: Koreans aspire to eat beautifully, like actors on TV dramas. Jung Woo Ha was recently singled out by fans who noticed his on-screen eating skills (see below video).

As we continue to be a work driven, diet-obsessed society, will “eating rooms” take off in the West as well? Not sure, but an hour into the Diva’s mok-bang, in which she gracefully polished off a bucket of chicken while entertaining guests, I started to feel full and less lonely myself.

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