Challenge Eating

LA Beast’s videos have more in common with extreme pornography than traditional athletics

A smiling man with a thick beard and the body of a college football player sits in a nondescript garage. The contours of his bearish, powerful frame are draped by a black T-shirt, and his head of curly brown hair is topped by a backwards baseball cap. Before him sit 10 potted cacti. His intention, he announces, is to trick his mind into eating all 10 of them in “record time” by first consuming four ghost peppers and immersing himself in a 96-gallon bin of ice water in order to place his body in a kind of survival mode. The title for the video includes the appended caution, “Warning: Dumb.”

Kevin Strahle — a.k.a. the LA Beast — describes himself as a “competitive eater and YouTube entertainer.” On separate occasions he has attempted to eat 11 Burger King burgers (totaling 6,370 calories), 150 sour Warheads candies, and 50 raw cloves of garlic. These attempts, successful or not, frequently end in Strahle vomiting profusely and/or uttering one of his trademark lines, “I gotta go to the hospital.” The LA Beast isn’t a niche channel — Strahle has over two million subscribers.

Even when Strahle is putting things into his body that his audience understands as food, his method of consumption is often unusual — he’ll drink dozens of raw eggs then regurgitate and cook them

While memetic challenges (the Disney challenge, the whisper challenge) are common among all stripes of vloggers, food challenges (such as the ghost pepper challenge) constitute their own sub-category. YouTube channels like Epic Meal Time and Wreckless Eating broadcast the consumption, or attempted consumption, of unusual or extreme kinds of food. Challenge eating overlaps with competitive eating, but the two are not the same. Whereas competitive eating focuses on the speed or volume of consumption of items like pies and hot dogs, challenge eating explores more bizarre territory that sometimes doesn’t involve food at all.

Strahle is accomplished in both arenas — he’s competed in professional eating contests since 2011. Competitive eating involves expanding the elasticity of the stomach, typically by drinking large quantities of water at a rapid pace, as well as increasing jaw muscle strength, sometimes by chewing gum. Strahle’s training has prepared him for the challenges he features on LA Beast, some of which involve the consumption of non-food items such as pencils and coins. Others involve deliberately eating items once classed as food that are now garbage or curiosities, like spoiled milk and decades-old juice. Even when Strahle is putting things into his body that his audience understands as food, his method of consumption is often unusual — he’ll inhale condiments through his nose, or drink dozens of raw eggs then regurgitate them and cook them into an omelet, which he also consumes.

If Strahle’s work isn’t simply classified as competitive eating, maybe it is a more expansive attempt at exploring the limits of the human body. (Many of his video titles take the format, “Can a Human…”) Indeed, his viewers seem to respond to his videos with a kind of disbelief: both that someone would attempt the things he does, and that these attempts are so compelling. One psychologist writes that “we are fascinated by human extremes,” and suggests that Strahle’s appeal can be understood through evolutionary psychology — his behavior somehow signals status. This isn’t a completely outlandish reading, considering the LA Beast’s traditionally masculine appearance — prior to his current career, he played football for Fordham University — and frequent invocations of eating “like a boss” or “a real man.” But it misses one important angle: Strahle frequently fails his challenges, and almost always demonstrates the aftermath of his efforts.

For many viewers, seeing a man who embodies white masculine norms punish his body while keeping up a jovial, friendly persona is a pleasurable experience and an unusual one outside of gay pornography

Strahle’s smiling face and powerful, bearish body always enter the scene fresh and tidy. But by the end of his challenge he is inevitably undone — his big, blue eyes framed by thick lashes matted with tears and sweat, mucus streaming from his nose, sometimes flecks of vomit clinging to his beard. In this way, a typical LA Beast video has much more in common with extreme pornography than traditional athletic performance. (One comment on an LA Beast video comes right out and says “this guy could make bank in gay porn.”) And much like unconventional pornography, the LA Beast fascinates even while he disgusts, because he troubles our definitions, in this case of eating.

“Extreme” pornography — intense BDSM, gaping, emetophilia, and so on — is perceived as such because it cannot be easily parsed by either of the dominant understandings of sexuality: as functional behavior for the purpose of reproduction; or for private, typically genital-focused pleasure. Similarly, challenge eating is at odds with both popular understandings of eating: food as fuel — as in the Soylent, Silicon Valley mode of thought — or as an experience meant to be savored.

Given these parallels, it’s unsurprising that YouTube has taken action against Strahle’s channel at least twice. In January 2018, he was banned from livestreaming for three months after eating a hissing cockroach in a video posted in 2013. The following month, YouTube applied a community guidelines strike to his account for a video posted in January 2018 in which he ate non-toxic glue.

The first strike to a YouTube account is considered a warning, but it’s still a serious occasion, applied for content that “promotes violent or dangerous acts that have an inherent risk of serious physical harm or death.” Cognizant of his position as a YouTube celebrity, Strahle implores his viewers not to imitate his actions. But contextually, it’s questionable whether he performs anything more dangerous than, say, fitness vloggers pushing their bodies to the extreme through punishing workout and supplement regimens. And unlike prank YouTubers, any potential harm he might inflict is solely on himself.

Compare Strahle’s treatment to that of Logan Paul, whose now infamous “suicide forest” video featuring the body of a recent suicide received the same single strike. Paul’s other content, including tasering a dead rat, has garnered him only age gates and lost monetization privileges. Given Paul’s outsized popularity on the platform, and his status as a huge profit engine via his ads, it’s possible that YouTube wants to have it both ways: to keep him around, while being seen as intolerant of objectionable content by punishing less popular users whose content can immediately be parsed by concerned parties, especially parents, as obscene and without value.

The value in Strahle’s videos comes precisely from that place of discomfort. When he puts himself through gastrointestinal hell, we cringe even as we can’t help but root for him. And for many viewers, seeing a man who embodies white masculine norms — he was a college football player, after all — punish his body over and over while keeping up a jovial, friendly persona is a pleasurable experience and an unusual one outside of gay pornography.

It’s significant that this kind of body is used to unsettle our expectations about consumption. When the LA Beast proclaims that he’s swallowing hot dogs “like a real man” we have to imagine he’s aware of the irony, as many of his viewers certainly are. Under the guise of masculine accomplishment, there are stranger things at work: a disruption of the body’s normal functions, a challenge to our understandings of food, and a will to dive into suffering and come up laughing.

merritt k is a writer and podcaster living in Brooklyn. She hosts the podcasts Woodland Secrets and dadfeelings and can be found on Twitter at @merrittk.