Instead of gathering around the family table at dinnertime, an increasing number of South Koreans are live-streaming other people eating huge quantities of food. The most popular of these online “eating rooms” is Park Seo-Yeon, known as The Diva. A typical online “meal” for the tiny 33-year-old? Four large pizzas.
"My fans tell me that they really love watching me eat because I do so with so much gusto and make everything look so delicious," she told CNN. "A lot of my viewers are on diets and they say they live vicariously through me, or they are hospital patients who only have access to hospital food so they also watch my broadcasts to see me eat."
Is it food worship? Obsession? Fetish? And are those things always bad?
The clinical definitions of “obsession” and “fetish” are, indeed, negative: “It is distressing. automatic, and unwanted,” said Jeff Szymanski, clinical psychologist and executive director, and of the International OCD Foundation. “If you have a disorder, it means you’re not functioning the way you need to be functioning... in the clinical definition, a fetish gets in the way of life.”
Of course, the terms “obsessed” and “fetish” are often used colloquially to invoke positive connotations: “I’m obsessed with striped shirts,” for example, or, “I have a shoe fetish,” or even, “I’m having an OCD moment.”
But no one with a clinical diagnosis would find anything positive about their condition: A true fetish gets in the way of life, Szymanski said.
“Someone with a fetish would literally say, if I'm not having sex covered with mud I’m not enjoying it,” said Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and founder of goodinbed.com. “What I’ve found with most people [who think they have fetishes] is that they are not really fetishes; they're preferences.”
The reaction to the South Korean trend seems more like rubber-necking at a car accident, similar to reality TV shows like Hoarders or The Biggest Loser.
“Someone’s doing something novel; you think, Oh my God, she just ate six pounds -- how did that happen? It’s something that gets you outside of your normal routine,” Szymanski said.
The risk of the online eating rooms may have more to do with eating disorders, said Fugen Neziroglu, clinical director of the Bio-Behavioral Institute in New York.
“I’d love to know who the people watching this are, and if they are eating disordered individuals or are they individuals obsessed with food and eating? It would be great to do a study on the audience and how it impacts them: does it promote eating disorders? Or do those tuning in already have a propensity to develop an eating disorder? How many try to imitate her (Can I eat as much as she can)?”
Park told CNN that one of her viewers “cured” her anorexia by watching the show.
“I can’t imagine how that (watching Park) would be helpful,” Neziroglu said.