In recent months, as I scrolled my way through countless recordings of other people’s breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snack breaks on TikTok, I began to notice a recurring thread in many of the food or mukbang videos that I like to waste so much of my time watching. It wasn’t the format of the videos, or the background music, or the voiceovers, or even the kind of food that TikTokers were eating onscreen. It was the way that they were chewing: pursed lips pushed forward, full cheeks, up-and-down mouth movements so vigorous it could have counted as exercise. One could perhaps describe this as an animated pout, or a duckface in motion. Here’s what I mean (NYC Mayor Eric Adams partakes, too):
I had never really thought about the mechanics of chewing before; it is one of those actions, like breathing or swallowing, that you only really notice when it goes wrong. I found this TikTok mode of eating fascinating. Did these creators always eat like this, even when the camera was off? Was it a conscious or learned behavior? How did they make their mouths do that? What if, actually, their mastication was normal and I — with feeble, low-effort teeth gnashing — was the weird one?
I decided to ask some TikTokers directly, pushing aside all feelings of embarrassment about how rude it is to inquire aggressively about strangers’ mouths. As expected, the TikTok users with whom I managed to connect seemed a little baffled by the topic, but also like they kind of got it.
“When I started doing my own videos, I had never really thought about how you have to eat, but you do have to eat differently,” Karissa Dumbacher (a.k.a. @karissaeats) — an American musical theater performer who posts TikToks about everything she eats in China, where she currently lives and works — agreed. When she first started sharing her videos nearly a year ago, she said she routinely received comments telling her to stop chewing with her mouth open — a habit that she’s had since childhood. So she started closing her mouth when filming, and from there, it was “a natural progression” to adjust her on-screen style of consumption to what it is now: lips pursed, with food concentrated in the center of her mouth, and lots of movement and facial expressions.
It’s almost like a form of acting, she explained — or, if not pure performance, then at least a concerted effort to physically express how a bite tastes. “I have to show it on my face, if I like the food or if I don’t like it,” she said. On TikTok, where the typical video is under a minute, there is only so much you can cram into a single clip. “You really have to show what it tastes like in a few seconds,” said Dumbacher. That, she theorized, could be a reason why food TikTokers presenting their daily food diaries pucker their lips and chew in a more exaggerated fashion: as a kind of recognizable shorthand for good or bad, like a thumbs up or thumbs down with your lips.
Meanwhile, Irene Kim (@ireneykim), a college student and professed “foodie” who makes TikToks of herself trying different foods and flavor combinations, told me that she makes sure that she looks presentable — no food in her teeth, and definitely no chewing with her mouth open — when filming, but otherwise, what viewers see is all her. “I try to be as authentic as possible, so this is just how I eat when I’m with friends or eating alone,” she said. In her experience, it’s no use trying to eat a certain way or obsessing over every detail; that will just make the entire endeavor feel tense and forced, which viewers may pick up on.
“When you’re relaxed and just being yourself, it shows to the camera and makes it more personable, and then your audience likes it better,” Kim said, adding that when video creators are “authentically themselves,” people engage more with their content.
So what if I actually had it backwards? Could it be that TikTok users weren’t necessarily chewing that way on purpose, but rather, the foodies who were doing it from a place of authenticity consequently got more engagement and views, which pushed them to the top of my algorithmically arranged “For You” page on the platform?
No closer to finding a conclusive answer, I turned to my friend James Park, who holds the distinction of being the only person I know who you could call a real food influencer. I consider James an expert in the field of “eating on camera to post on social media later,” so I asked him what he thought of this chewing that I was seeing.
From a practical standpoint, he suggested, eating through puckered lips could be a sloppiness preventative measure: a more concentrated bite reduces the amount of available surface area for food to slip-slop-splatter against — or, if I were to hazard another guess, the amount of contact that food might have with lipstick.
But more broadly, Park proposed, the mouth thing was probably just one part of a larger whole to try to convey a sense of pleasure, along with other indicators like widening one’s eyes and making different facial expressions. “It’s a preview, like: ‘I’m showing you because I want you to know that I’m actually eating this, I’m enjoying it,” he said. From the content creator’s side, he said, the question to always ask yourself is: How can I communicate my enjoyment in the most effective and efficient way?
So which reasoning best explains why people Chew Like That: Is it just a form of mukbang table manners, or a visual cue for pleasure, or just part of having fun and being yourself? Maybe some foodies, somewhere, really did start out naturally eating that way on camera, and — as these things do — the behavior spread, with others beginning to consciously or unconsciously mimic this shorthand for gustatory relish. An exclamation here, a nod there; gesture builds upon gesture to create the impression of sentiment. It may be part performance, but perhaps that act is ultimately in pursuit of something authentic.