Food porn, fitspo, bonespo and epic food feats: bodies and food in digital media

 

I have just finished a book chapter for a edited collection on alternative food politics. The chapter is entitled ‘Vitalities and visceralities: alternative body/food politics in new digital media’ (the full chapter preprint is available here).

In the chapter, I focus on the ways in which human bodies and food consumption are represented in social media platforms like Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram using visual media such as selfies, videos, memes and GIFs, and organised with the use of hashtags. Once I began searching for this material online (using search terms like ‘fat memes’, ‘food porn’, ‘food GIFs’, ‘fitspo’, ‘vegetarian’ and ‘pro ana’), the strength of emotions expressed about bodies and food was particularly noticeable.

Bodies and food in digital portrayals express and circulate visceral feelings that are often dark, centring around broader ambivalences concerning human and nonhuman corporeality. For example, disgust and repulsion for food that is not ‘clean’ or is high in calories and for fat bodies that are considered to be undisciplined was a key theme. This reached its apotheosis in images and discussions relating to self-starvation practices, in which food consumption of any kind was portrayed as contaminating the ideal of the extremely thin body.

A contrasting portrayal, however, was that of the transgressive pleasures of excessive food consumption, often as resistance to body shaming and food policing. In the digital media I examined, vegetarians and vegans were often positively portrayed for their ethical and healthy food stance, but also derided as bores and moralisers. The promotion of fleshiness and excessive food consumption was found in fat activist and body positivist digital media, but also in the grotesque feats of cooking and eating dude food performed by the ‘Epic Meal Time’ men and food-related GIFs and memes.

Food consumption in these media was often sexualised. People uploading or sharing ‘fitspo’ images idealised slim, toned bodies, both male and female, displaying their physiques in tight, revealing gym or swim wear. Supporters of the pro-anorexia ‘bonespo’ meme portrayed emaciated young women as beautiful and sexually appealing. The ‘notyourgoodfatty’ approach highlighted the sensuality and erotic appeal of both fat bodies and excessive food consumption.

More disturbingly, the ‘Epic Meal Time’ YouTube videos made frequent references to the erotic appeal of meat the suggested women were meat for the consumption of men. This misogynistic approach was even more evident in memes and GIFs about meat, in which men were portrayed as aggressors and women their prey.

I conclude the chapter by arguing that expressions of alternative food politics in new digital media are underpinned by affects that display broad and deep-seated ambivalences about what kind of food is morally and ethically justifiable and what types of bodies people should seek to achieve. In some cases, the emotional power that animate the agential capacities of these types of media can impel transformation and change in the interests of alternative food politics. In others, they express and facilitate conservative and reactionary responses, serving to reproduce and magnify dominant norms, moral meanings and practices about ideal bodies, sexuality, and gender.

Edgework 2: going beyond the white, middle-class male perspective

In my previous post ‘Edgework: the fun of risk-taking’, I discussed the emotional dimension of voluntary risk-taking. Edgework research has predominantly focused on male risk-takers, the vast majority of whom are white and middle-class. These men are able to afford to engage in ‘adventure holidays’ or such ‘extreme sports’ as skydiving, BASE jumping or white-water kayaking. Other research suggests that such individuals engage in voluntary risk-taking for different reasons than do people who are less socially and economically privileged. Gender also influences why people take risks and how they feel about risk-taking.

In her study of young Scottish women imprisoned for engaging in violent behaviour and other criminal activities such as stealing and illicit drug use, Bachelor (2007) argues that these women were initially drawn to engage in this behaviour because of the shared adrenaline ‘rush’ or ‘buzz’ they felt, a desire to escape boredom and to feel as if they could foster friendships and belong to a group. Some of these young women displayed an attraction towards traditionally masculine behaviour such as violence and the feeling of power and toughness engaging in afforded them. However the women increasingly came to undertake such activities as a means of blocking out powerful emotions such as grief and rage caused by life experiences of abuse, family dysfunction and institutional care, or by eliciting more pleasurable emotions. They remarked that they often felt ‘emotionally numb’ and ‘detached’ and that risk-taking was a way of making them feel more alive.

For these young women, violent behaviour, self-harm and drug use were ways of feeling different, either by helping to avoid conscious thoughts which were distressing, evoking feelings of power and control when feeling helpless or venting feelings of anger and hurt by hurting others. These young women were not taking risks to escape the alienating world of work and to achieve a sense of authenticity and hyperreality, as do privileged white men. They were attempting to achieve a sense of control over a world in which they felt increasingly disempowered and looking for a way of feeling close to others (their peer-group) in a context in which their families had not provided intimacy and caring and a sense of belonging.

While men may experience feelings of exhilaration and omnipotence in their edgework experiences, this research showed that when reflecting on their behaviour young women were more likely to feel ambivalent about it. They viewed such risk-taking activities as irrational and expressed feelings of guilt and shame about the violent and criminal activities in which they engaged. They may have felt in control at the time of the behaviour, but when they looked back at what they had done viewed it as being ‘out-of-control’ and as ‘going too far’. In interpreting their behaviour in this way, the young women are drawing on discourses of normative femininity, which position such behaviours as abnormal and inappropriate for women.

As this research suggests, edgework has many different nuances. It is not simply about evoking and controlling intense emotion. It is not simply about engaging in risk-taking as part of legally sanctioned and expensive leisure pursuits. Edgework also incorporates criminal behaviour, perhaps one of the few avenues for members of the underclass to seek out risky pursuits. It may not represent an escape from the banality of the safety and routines of a privileged life, but may also be a way of escaping the misery of a life including experiences of abuse, poverty and family dysfunction.

Reference

Bachelor, S. (2007) ‘Getting mad wi’ it’: risk seeking by young women. In Hannah-Moffat, K. and O’Malley, P. (eds), Gendered Risks. Milton Park: Routledge-Cavendish, pp. 205—28.