In this sector of the internet, we don’t take the body for granted. Instead, we give thousands of hours of attention to the unavoidable weirdness of having one
I love to watch preteens eat oatmeal. I love to watch Midwestern women do dishes, then fix midnight snacks. Every night before bed, I cruise YouTube for these types of things.
I subscribe to vegan high schoolers, beauty bloggers, bodybuilders, paleo gurus, stay at home moms, recovering anorexics, big Christian families, yogis, ballerinas, basic girls whose fairy-lit bedrooms (potted fern, white duvet) all look the same. I subscribe to a suspiciously large number of hot Australian moms. My favorite genres of video include: Morning/Night Routine, Day in the Life, and perhaps most of all, What I Eat in a Day (aka Full Day of Eating or FDOE). After an hour or so, I drift off to sleep, acai on my mind. Sometimes it’s like I’m dreaming other people’s dreams.
As a result of this nightly habit, I’ve gathered a huge amount of seemingly meaningless data. I know that birthday cake is a popular protein powder flavour. I know that nacho-flavored Doritos are vegan in the UK. I know about eyelash extensions, intuitive eating, zoodles, ketosis, the terrible two’s, RawTil4, the Whole 30, 14:10. I find myself intrigued by the diversity of things people put in their coffee: hazelnut CoffeeMate, cashew milk, butter. A lot of people use Keurigs, lopsided bowls made from coconuts, paper plates. An oddly high percentage of people never use cutting boards. I followed Freelee’s rise and fall. I’ve formed an opinion on nightshades (bad). If I had a dollar for every time I’ve watched an under-aged Aussie smear avocado on Ezekiel bread, I’d be rich.
“I’ve gathered a huge amount of seemingly meaningless data. I know that birthday cake is a popular protein powder flavour. I know that nacho-flavored Doritos are vegan in the UK. I know about eyelash extensions, intuitive eating, zoodles, ketosis”
So what’s the lure? Why am I, and countless others, obsessed with watching strangers eat? The vloggers themselves seem to be stumped, and pleased, by the interest. In the comments section subscribers leave clues: they say they watch FDOE vids for recipe ideas, fitness goals, voyeuristic kicks. As someone with chronic stomach pain, I find it soothing to watch others eat, in bright and clean kitchens, with untroubled midriffs. They remind me that food is not always the enemy. I get ASMR from the sounds of oats being stirred. These videos can be trance-like, in a food porn sort of way.
But I think there’s a deeper reason for my addiction to these videos: it has to do with data. I’m curious as to how other members of the melted Western world conduct the business of being embodied. According to a million theorists, modernity is hazy, uncertain, liquidy, blurred, so I guess what I’m seeking from YouTube is tips: not on how to make gluten-free bagels, but on how to have a body in 2017, how to feel real, how to hoist and hone my flesh as everything else goes wireless. I spy on strangers’ stylistics of existence, to borrow Foucault’s term. Their daily bricolage of spotty bananas, breakfast patties, 100-calorie snacks, sassy mugs (NOT GUILTY BEFORE COFFEE), gummy vitamins and Costco hauls centre me. All that is solid may melt into air, but Mama still needs her caffeine.
When I’m deep in scroll-mode every night, the different worlds of YouTube feel intensely real to me. I’m able to watch people’s weights fluctuate, their bloats rise and fall, their so-called peaches grow. I watch them chew in high def. I watch them measure out their egg whites with slow, tender gestures. I like to see how people handle their objects: tapping their French tips on a Mason jar, spanking a package of sandwich thins. Videos of babies being bathed feel real; videos of teens popping pimples feels real. Despite the fact that I’m flying through cyberspace, I feel grounded by these visions of the gastric and mundane.
My favorite vloggers and I are united, not by class or age or race or politics or diet or taste (death to the white duvet), but by a frank concern with the body. In this sector of YouTube, we don’t take the body for granted. Instead, we give thousands of hours of attention to the unavoidable weirdness of having one: how to style it, what to feed it, what to do when it goes haywire. This preoccupation with embodiment is what links me, incapacitated after a handful of nuts, to personal trainers with formidable buns and surfer babes stockpiling stone fruit in Maui. Vegan or not, we’re obsessed with the flesh.
It’s interesting to see how brand loyalty works in these videos. In a way, YouTubers are a literalisation of the platitude “you are what you eat.” To me, Taira literally is what she eats: that’s the very basis for my knowing she exists, for my staring at her face. Sometimes vloggers get paid to advertise a product. More often than not, though, the vlogger is just free associating, throwing out products like personality traits, until a semi-coherent individual is plotted. YouTube presents a late capitalist zodiac, a way of grouping people based on symbols dense with meanings: Dave’s Killer Bread, PG tea tips, olive oil vs. PAM, full-fat vs. 2 per cent, Coke vs. Pepsi, ghee vs. Earth Balance, dinosaur chicken nuggets, Miracle Whip, kale.
YouTubers tend to take the matter of favourites seriously. Sampling a new HaloTop flavor, they might nod and say solemnly, “I like this one. But cookie dough is still my favourite.” They know there’s a world of difference between the person who favours cookie dough and the person who favours black cherry. Lifestyle vloggers are canaries in the supermarket, braving the overload, then making lists. They are hypermodern aggregates of the things they use and buy — we all are. They’re just up-front about this fact, giving strangers a tour of the beauty products, kitchen gadgets, life hacks and alternative grains that constitute a life. If we literally are what we eat, then a FDOE video is a staggeringly intimate document. A food diary is literally that.
“Lifestyle vloggers are canaries in the supermarket, braving the overload, then making lists. They are hypermodern aggregates of the things they use and buy — we all are”
I want to linger on this notion of intimacy. As a YouTube junkie I’m interested in what others do to, put in and on, their bodies. With other forms of intimacy in which the goal is deep access to another person’s body (i.e. sex of all flavours), you are the thing done unto the other. You are put on and in your partner, be the sex vanilla, cyber, or hardcore. Like it or not, your body is implicated; your view of the other is tainted by your own breathy presence. A vlog sidesteps this corporeal responsibility. Most FDOE videos are shot from the vlogger’s point of view, with a voiceover or subtitles narrating their actions. It’s not like I’m next to the vlogger, watching them make breakfast; it’s like I’m inside them. Their body isn’t 3D; it’s a virtual reality.
The YouTube junkie is a cross between an anthropologist and a sub. I don’t want to influence or even be noticed by the person onscreen. I want to be totally passive, absorbed into their body. I want to forfeit my own body; I want their body to become my whole entire world. I want to be their kitchen table, so quiet as to not exist, an object around which their private lives flow — you could call this urge kinky or scholarly. In exchange for a glimpse of their body’s secret life, its digestive patterns and dislikes, I offer my attention.
My mom’s YouTube addiction is Dateline murder mysteries. She’s a connoisseur of gristly ends and sepia reenactments. “It’s interesting,” she shrugs. “I like to get inside the killers’ heads.” She too craves information (about murderers, not male models). She too seeks the inside scoop on the bodies that mystify her. The main difference is that she’s mystified by paedophiles and arsonists; I’m mystified by everyone.
On one level, it’s obvious why a writer/voyeur/all-around perv like myself would be hooked on lifestyle vlogging. These televisual bodies are far better objects of study than the IRL bodies of lovers and friends. They are more thorough and obliging. Things get weird when I try to monitor what my partner eats in a day. “Stop shaming me!” she cries. I put away my notebook, where I’ve tallied her third fig. “I’m not shaming,” I say quickly. “Just keeping track.”
Meanwhile, I have (seemingly) total access to what Nick Palladino eats in a 24-hour period; he neatly breaks down his macros for my viewing pleasure. He tracks every snack. He, and thousands of others, volunteer to be studied.
Not to push my stoner logic too far, but I wonder if the addictive quality of YouTube lies in the cultivation of a distinctly hypermodern kind of intimacy. This is an intimacy based not on touch but on information — what you know and what you see as a special form of closeness. Touch is an old-school form of intimacy, harking back to when our bodies were solid, fixed in time/space. Now, as my transhumanist acquaintances like to say, the flesh has been made data. YouTubers hint at this with their cheery recitation of brand names, calorie counts, medical diagnoses, waist-to-hip ratios: they offer an algorithm of habits and tastes, a dense code to be read in their favorite sodas/soaps/scents.
I’m reminded of my friends who go on Grindr or Tinder every night, barely looking as they swipe. They have no real intention of meeting up with anyone. “I just like to know what’s out there,” one friend says. “It’s relaxing.”
That’s exactly how I feel when cruising the infinite bodies/worlds of YouTube: I’m taking stock of my options. I’m slutting around on my homepage, entering as many different bodies as I can: pregnant Kiwis, stylish preteens, Type 1 diabetics. I’m not looking for anything lasting. I have no plans to go vegan — though the propaganda is convincing — nor do I plan to grow my peach. Rather, I’m driven by the promiscuous acquisition of data. I’m not cruising utopia; I’m cruising kitchens and dorm rooms and condos and flats. I cruise with a speed and ease available only to those who have checked out of their bodies.
I’m not saying the vlogs I watch are 100 per cent candid. They’re often highly stylised, with swirly music and blurred-out baby butts. Their parfaits are works of art. “My life isn’t perfect,” some vloggers admit. But how they choose to style their videos is one more type of data, imparting information about fantasy and privilege. The homogenising forces of Good Taste and Clean Eating are laid bare in sunshiney videos featuring identical smoothie bowls on identical marble countertops. Stripped-down hippie vibes are trending. Teens worldwide are concerned with gut flora and factory farms. They wear hemp chokers and gray nail polish, yoga pants and plum lipstain. They meditate and/or do squats for the camera. They talk about “minimalism” and getting your greens in. They have little moon tattoos.
My own sense of what’s attractive has been altered by YouTube. I used to find pregnancy creepy, until the vegan mums I follow, with their sun-kissed bellies, convinced me otherwise. I probably wouldn’t wear a hemp choker, but I find myself drawn to the people who do. Isn’t that how advertising is supposed to work? One absorbs subliminal messages; days later, they crave Chipotle or papaya without knowing why. I gather the data, but I also submit to it. I slip into the consumerist flow without trying. My partner often has to intervene.
“Pumpkin pie spice?” she says, inspecting the grocery cart. “Really?”
Days later, she looks nervous. “Why are your sweater sleeves pulled over your hands?” she asks. “You look like an anime heroine.”
“It’s sweater weather,” I mumble. “Namaste.”
Real is a powerful signifier on YouTube. To put the word “real” in the title of your video (REALISTIC DAY OF EATING FOR STAY AT HOME MOM! NON-VEGAN!) is to suggest the deepest level of intimacy between vlogger and viewer. It implies a caloric or aesthetic maximalism, a documentarian look at the body and its unholy urges. As a seasoned YouTube junkie, these have come to be my favorite type of FDOE videos. The vloggers are usually moms, usually American. They poke fun at themselves and wear baggy clothing. “Just trying to keep it real,” one might say, reheating a Cinnabon to have with her third coffee. “Excuse my face.” A baby screams in the background.
These videos are so vulnerable, rebelling against the white duvet and generally sunny aesthetic of wellness. Of all FDOE videos, these feel the most fleshly, in that they acknowledge the unfun aspects of having a body. They acknowledge the bad decisions and cheap thrills, the limits and temptations, the heaviness of flesh. The body may be information, weightless zinging data, but it’s also material. It has mass, it has hair. It looks weird in certain lighting. These “real” videos underscore why I would seek tips on how to have a body in the first place. Embodiment is an ongoing project; no one can master it, but we all do our best. The sleepy mom rolls her eyes as the baby keeps crying. She lifts her mug in ironic salute: it says TGIF.
Am I trying to encourage other YouTube addictions? Not really. I’m just trying to answer the question posed by so many YouTubers, i.e. why are we obsessed with FDOE vids. Cruising YouTube is a sensual and scholarly experience, erotic to the extent that it seeks to demystify, then further mystify, the body. It is not standard escapism. If I want to tune out the world, I watch Top Chef. If I want to tune in to the world, I watch YouTube. I watch Monami Frost or Ella Weed or Tammy Hembrow. I watch Taira in the UK, one chill vegan in Fresno, Sensational Finds in an undisclosed suburb. I feel like I know them. They feel like my friends. I want them to be happy. We’re in this together, whatever it is.