The Dark Side of Food Porn

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Photo by Marshall Astor - Food Pornographer/FlickrCC


I didn't know how to react to the Fat Bitch. A friend had emailed me a link to a picture of what was, anatomically, a hoagie bun stuffed with cheesesteak, bacon, marinara sauce, French fries, tomatoes, ketchup, mayonnaise, and mozzarella sticks. I knew the link—the picture, even the sandwich itself—was a joke. I'd received and sent many such links, reveling at the daring of whoever would consume such creations. But this one, for some reason, just made me squirm.

My decidedly not-fat friend had sent it to a group of decidedly not-fat girls who frequently bonded over pretending to be fat. In college, we'd one-up each other's stress eating. If one of us had bought a meatball sub after emerging from the library at 2 a.m., another would have scarfed a tube of cookie dough on the way home from Frisbee practice, or polished off her boyfriend's birthday cake while he was at a party. These feats were points of humor and also pride, distinguishing us from the girls who piled their plates with lettuce and eschewed beer because it was "too filling." We were, and continue to be, healthy. We all love food and, for the most part, eat appropriate quantities and varieties of it. We cook kale, tofu, chicken breast, Brussels sprouts. Yet we are all obsessed with the Fat Bitch and its ilk.

What kind of man downs beer from a mug made of bacon?

Like a teenage infatuation, "gross food," as Gourmet.com termed it, or "grotesque food," as I prefer, has taken hold strongly and suddenly. When thisiswhyyourefat.com, the Tumblr blog that is home to the Fat Bitch, launched in February, it went from zero to 2 million pageviews in 48 hours. Supersizedmeals.com also took off, and today the fried butter ball or deep-fried cupcake on a stick can be found on your average food, gossip, or city blog.

In the current climate of fiscal and dietary privation, the Fat Bitch is a fantastical reprieve from our recession mindset and never-ending quest to lose weight. It is excess embodied. Gourmet.com interpreted the "gross-food movement" as "a middle finger to the Michael Pollan and Alice Waters types, an assertion of the American birthright to consume in deadly quantities." Surely thisiswhyyourefat.com is part satiric jab at self-righteous food purists and part reference to America's tendency to overconsume. But it is also a shrine to the national ideals of adventure and audacity. In this way, the new obsession with excessive food reveals a mounting insecurity surrounding the traditional tenets of American masculinity.

Consider the bacon beer mug, which is pretty much what it sounds like. For whatever reasons, beer and bacon form the core of a heavily marketed vision of the American male. This is a man who goes camping in his Ford pickup, swilling Bud by the fire and flipping bacon in the morning. His masculinity is calm, assured, innate. But what kind of man downs beer from a mug made of bacon? Surely one who is mocking this he-man image. But I would guess that beneath the satire, he lacks the carefree masculinity whose symbols he regurgitates.

A culture of one-upmanship frames the creation and consumption of revolting food. On the Travel Channel's Man v. Food, for example, host Adam Richman travels the country ingesting famous local monstrosities. In Atlanta, he takes part in the "Carnivore Challenge" (an 11-pound pizza, two people, one hour); in Denver, the "Breakfast Burrito Challenge" (a 7-pound burrito with eight eggs and a pound of ham). At the end of each episode, either "Man" or "Food" wins.

But despite Richman's iron stomach, the primary consumption of such food is not esophageal but visual. And this, I think, is at the root of my discomfort with the Fat Bitch. In many ways, the photograph reminds me of pornography. Though I generally enjoy "food porn," this picture was different. Showing a sandwich soaked with grease and stuffed to bursting, it aroused basic and pleasurable sensations—taste, smell—but in a form so alien it made me want to vomit. And calling the thing the Fat Bitch certainly didn't help.

In literary theory, "the grotesque" is a term used to describe something that does not fit, often because its disturbing or gruesome content clashes with the comic or sympathetic manner in which it's presented. The characters in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying tote around their mother's decomposing corpse for the entirety of the book, trying to reach her hometown in order to bury her. The resulting scenes are disgusting and heartbreaking, but they're also hilarious. I don't mean to compare Faulkner to The Fat Bitch, but my reaction to the sandwich was not wholly unlike my reaction to As I Lay Dying. I couldn't help but laugh, but I was also uncomfortably aware of my own fears.

Like whoever invented the bacon beer mug, I hide my insecurities with humor. Except my concern is not insufficient masculinity—it's that I like food. I like cheesesteak, and bacon, and usually mozzarella sticks. I know eating all of them together would eventually lead to obesity and even death.

But I could very easily be fat. My socioeconomic background, my education, my genes, and a daily exercise of willpower are the only factors shielding me from obesity. I get a thrill from looking at pictures of grotesque food that other people obtain from riding a roller coaster or watching a horror movie. Walking my own dangerous line confirms my existence on one side of it. Send me all the pictures of pizza-wrapped burritos and Double Coronary Burgers you can find. I'll look at them, and I'll laugh at them, but I won't eat them. That would be grotesque.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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