Eat the Document

Why the hunger for food photos is insatiable

Eating with your fingers is messy. So are the semiotics related to it. In Western culture, it is often seen as a child’s way to consume, full of abandon and, as such, sensual and seductive. It encompasses canapés and fistfuls of popcorn, the last slick of cake batter and baby food smeared onto a sticky starfish palm. The joy in direct hand-to-mouth exchange is a reminder that the pleasure from food can be tactile and ocular as well as gastronomic; it can be experienced before the act of digesting has begun. We consume with our eyes and our hands, suspended on the brink of satiety.

Looking at pictures of food is also tactile. When we feast on food media, our scrolling fingertips conduct a similar pleasure to our hungry eyes. The food we see on social media is almost always about to be eaten; we rarely see any of the chaos of consuming by ingesting. Often we don’t see human involvement at all; even food-prep videos tend to reduce chefs to a set of disembodied hands. Certainly there is no chewing, which would seem to inherently violate Instagram’s aesthetic. We’re not invited to vicariously identify with a particular eater and their gustatory satisfaction. Instead we’re offered an eroticized spectacle of unapproachability: beautiful food we can see on a screen we can touch, but we can never, ever taste it.

Food media stimulates an appetite that gives pleasure through being insatiable

In an article at Eater last November, Amanda Mull argued that Instagram’s aestheticization of food is related to the sexism that has stigmatized women’s eating: “How do you sell food to a group of people that American culture has harassed into a near-universally fraught relationship with your products? … Give them something to do with food that isn’t eating it.” Social media, Mull argues, make it seem as though the pleasure food can provide rests not in eating it but posting it and enjoying the status that can provide.

This is the attitude perpetuated by the world of social media, both its host platforms and to an extent their global communities. Food is mobilized as another genre of posts to foster aspiration and market a lifestyle. This culture is made visible by the subversion of these norms. In 2015, artist Stephanie Sarley began posting videos on Instagram of fruit being fingered. The one that garnered wide attention shows a finger stroking the crevice between segments of a blood orange, tracing the perimeter of the cleft before probing with an accelerating vigor, eventually piercing the fruit’s translucent membrane to let the ruby juices pour out.

Amid the archive of images of untouched baked perfection, Sarley’s sexually suggestive videos pointed instead to the live and porous border between different appetites and desires, and presented the interaction of the body with the food rather than preserving its immaculate distance as an accessory and status symbol. Their overt sexuality showed a winking irreverence toward the chaste food imagery elsewhere online, and the videos went viral, the act of circulating them becoming part of their subversive appeal. The looped videos allowed the food to be perpetually “consumed” by fingers, but only as an entrancing proximity to pleasure, stoking an appetite it doesn’t sate but only intensifies.

Less explicitly, BuzzFeed’s Tasty videos also partake in the sensual spectacle of food. These depictions of food preparation are at once simple and impossibly aspirational, relying on the assumption that a home cook can simultaneously flip crepes, poach eggs, sauté sausage, blend smoothies, bake and cool a quiche, and assemble two variations of avocado toast. In one video, there are more than 40 ingredients used in a brunch for two. Fruits, vegetables, and cheeses arrive pre-chopped on screen. The viewer witnesses the preparation from a bird’s-eye view that eliminates any kitchen clutter and waves away the work required beyond the frame. The clean presentation makes the recipes seem linear and easily imitable, while they are cleansed of the labor and expense that inform food as we experience it in the clutter of life.

Though the aspirational fantasies in these videos are plain, they cohabit the screen with sensual pleasures that take off from the implausibility of the feats of cookery being displayed. In “‘Dining as a Limit Experience’: Jouissance and Gastronomic Pleasure as Cinematographic and Cultural Phenomena,” Brendon Wocke notes that the spectacle of food often consist of dishes that are difficult to replicate at home, moving viewers “beyond the ordinary or accepted economy of production and consumption” and into the space characteristic of “jouissance” — the overwhelming surfeit of pleasure without climax that is laced with pain and oblivion. If food in its ordinary consumption gratifies our hunger and gives us the pleasure of an appetite being sated, food media stimulates an appetite that gives pleasure through being insatiable.

Consuming actual food is bound up with concerns about health, cost, indulgence, the policing of appetite. Consuming food media inverts those concerns; it substitutes yearning for eating as the source of pleasure. Food videos stimulate but don’t satisfy: Their representations of food never collapse into nourishment. Instead, we can gorge on them without limit, with no recourse to physiological need. Like the flow of images down a social media feed, they refer to a desire that exceeds the self and touches on the infinite. The virality of food videos is an expression and extension of that limitlessness, of the dissolve into desire that cannot be quenched.

In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray — a novel preoccupied with visual representation — we are told that a cigarette is “the perfect type of a perfect pleasure … exquisite, and leaves one unsatisfied.” This formula for jouissance rules food media. But another way of interpreting insatiable desire is not as “perfect pleasure” but a compulsive feedback loop of obedient consumerism: shaping us as a subject who inherently always wants more. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argue that the culture industry provokes a “jovial denial,” of which the “supreme law is that its consumers shall at no price be given what they desire: and in that very deprivation they must take their laughing satisfaction … to offer them something and to withhold it is one and the same.”

Pictures of beautiful food perform the same work. They make engagement with food a matter not of hunger but of glamour, as Mull points out in Eater. Food images, like social media more generally, continually promise proximity but instill distance. For example, in her book Deliciously Ella, Instagram wellness celebrity Ella Woodward informs readers that agave syrup, medjool dates, and a “nut milk bag” are “totally essential” to her lifestyle, as is traveling abroad with “a small blender.” The gap between her casual chatty prose and the effort it would take to abide by her recommendations points to this intimate distance, which promises and withholds the pleasure of aspirational yearning. Woodward claims that the regime she recommends will make “cheat” foods will “seem kind of gross”: that is, it will achieve the impossible dream of having it both ways, making us not want what we simultaneously want.

We can consume as many images of food as we want, but with them we ingest rules for self-management

Food media collapses elaborate, perfect food into the lifestyle it is made to seem to promise. This means it turns our unfulfillable desires into a normative protocol for vigilance over one’s appetites. We can consume as many images of food as we want, but with them we ingest rules for self-management.

These rules are typically yoked especially to the disciplining of female pleasure and appetite, urging the consumer to believe herself at her best when her desires are sublimated rather than indulged in immediate and visceral pleasure. Attitudes toward food are generally divided along a gender binary: privation for women; plenitude for men. As food writer Ruby Tandoh notes in Eat Up, “the boundaries between consumption and self-denial, power and passivity often trace the crude line dividing men and women.” Likewise, in Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu argues that “the accession to manhood” is symbolized by abundance, the need for heaped sustenance to propel a boy through, while “a girl’s accession to womanhood is marked by doing without.” Instagram allows her to do without and like it too — a world of pleasure without calorie content or long-term physical effects, a glossy sanctuary in which food is divorced from anxieties around polluting or adulterating the body or risking social transgression.

Tandoh argues that “a media saturated with images of idealized bodies, and by a pervasive culture of female guilt around food” coerces women into complying with the “superhuman” injunction to transcend physical urges. Online food is an extension of this: women are associated with peripheral, sugary or light foods (salad, cupcakes, iced coffee), acceptable if “naughty” delights. The food must be lean, pretty, attractive, charming — a synecdoche of the invisible woman it champions. This contrasts with food coded male: large, messy portions of meat or the barbecue, a ritual of fire and flesh beyond the feminized kitchen space. These messages normalize the gendering of food, of male desire with primality and women’s with delicacy. Women are expected to conceal their appetites for food and sex unless they can be constructed as providing for the needs of others.

Images of food from online influencers illustrate this idea. The erotics of the patriarchal domestic ideal are played out by slender white women displaying untouched treats in pastels. But the potential for pleasure in food images — in their intimate distance, in their muddling of the accessible and the inaccessible — projects the ideology encoded in them forward. Gendered food images repackage anxiety as a kind of palpable pleasure always on the brink of satisfaction, bringing the fingers down to pull, caress, and refresh, and start the game once more.

This essay is part of a collection on the theme of PICTURES OF FOOD. Also from this week, Mila Samdub on village food-prep videos encoding fantasies of the good life, and Linda Besner on food as metaphor.

Anya Metzer studied English literature at Oxford University and the University of Chicago, with a focus on gender, pathology and Victorian social thought. She is currently based back in London and works in international development.