The problem with food porn

I recently wrote about the sad demise of Lucky Peach (and perhaps related, a less than stellar review of the last series of Chef’s Table) as a sign of how “food porn” was perhaps getting a little boring, or at least bored of its own format.

Now there’s a new book out by Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford, though probably more famously known as the scientist who worked with Heston Blumenthal on dishes like “Sound of the Sea”, where you listen to sea-y sounds on an iPod sounds while nomming salty treats. It’s about what he calls Gastrophysics, or “The New Science of Eating”, and The Guardian just published an extract on the topic of “food porn” (orginally “gastroporn”, but that obviously doesn’t sound as sexy), and how we should be weary of all those seductive images of food all over the interwebs, because they apparently incentivise more “unhealthy” food choices, and may be ‘nudging us all towards unhealthier food behaviours’ (take home: Instagram is making you eat chocolate and chips rather than chia seeds and kale):

Describing desirable images of food as gastroporn, or food porn, is undoubtedly pejorative. However, I am convinced that the link with actual pornography is more appropriate than we think. So perhaps we really should be thinking about moving those food magazines bursting with images of highly calorific and unhealthy food up on to the newsagents’ top shelf? Or preventing cookery shows from being aired on TV before the watershed? While such suggestions are, of course, a little tongue in cheek, there is a very serious issue here. The explosion of mobile technologies means that we are all being exposed to more images of food than ever before, presented with foods that have been designed to look good, or photograph well, more than for their taste or balanced nutritional content.

I assume Spence thinks the term is ‘pejorative’ because he has a problem with pornography, or thinks it somehow beneath the respect the food deserves, neither of which I agree with. But I do agree that the link is more appropriate than most people think, because both food and porn carry a stigma which is rarely acknowledged in celebrations of “food porn”. As I put it some years ago in a little book I wrote,

Adorno and Horkheimer expressed it well in their early analogy between the ‘culture industry’ and erotic films: ‘To offer and deprive them [consumers] of something is one and the same’. Sombre but true. Indeed, the critical usefulness of comparing food media to pornography recognizes, as early references did, the non-reality and the (perceived) inaccessibility, rather than the eroticism, common to both. … It is beneath the open celebration of the unreal and the unattainable—the literalization of the celebrity chef as hooker or porn star; the confession of the food slut; the dehistoricized, destigmatized pandering of the term itself— that a less pleasant truth emerges, which is a profoundly ambiguous, and often deeply troubled, relationship to food. The mock substitution of food for sex, like the substitution of watching for doing ‘it’, describes an anxiety about the actual ingestion of food—a stress on what not  to eat—as much as it describes a delight in food. Commenting on the historical similarities between food literature and pornography as dwelling on ‘pleasures of the flesh’, [Stephen] Mennell rightfully reminds us that in ‘gastronomy, however, vicarious enjoyment is more definitely intended to be a prelude to, not a substitute for, direct and actual enjoyment’.

Spence’s research suggests that we may have moved from “using” images of food as substitutes for fantasising about eating to using them to dictate shopping lists – or menu choices, or Uber Eats orders, or inspiration for actual cooking (gasp!).

If that’s the case, then it seems that pictures of food have simply joined the ranks of advertising, and are maybe doing it more effectively than something that competes for eyeballs at the Superbowl. Is the solution to make Instagram less accessible, or to move Bon Appétit out of reach in the supermarket? Good luck with that.

Maybe we should rather focus on making food about food and sex about sex (unless a scenario like *that* scene from Nine and a Half Weeks). Food porn is not bad for you, children. But thinking about food as porn might be.

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