Beyond Food Aesthetics: Food Blogging and the Production of Authorial and Entrepreneurial Selves

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

Tyentyen Chen

AAA/CASCA Presentation Writeup

This paper was inspired by my desire to understand the rise of trendy food aesthetics in online communities. Initial questions driving my research included: Why food? What makes it so popular that it has inspired new forms of picture taking, short-clipped instructional videos, and aesthetic trends surrounding lifestyle, body, and diet online? These initial inquiries led to my study of popular food blogs online, of which I chose five highly acclaimed blogs to focus my research on: Natasha’s Kitchen, Hemsley and Hemsley, Betty Liu, Deliciously Ella, and Hello My Dumpling (Natasha 2018; Hemsley 2017; Liu n.d.; Ella n.d.; Huang 2018). Having spent more time conducting fieldwork on these sites, however, it was made clear early on in my research that the aesthetics of these blogs and even the food these bloggers wrote about were only the tip of the ice berg in terms of what symbolic productions these food bloggers were enacting through their blogging careers. Two major categories arose out of these insights: Identity and Entrepreneurism.

Female bloggers use their blogs to formulate ideas of self and identity through their blog aesthetics, autobiographical anecdotes, and entrepreneurial enterprises. These spaces have become their main means for income and allow them to enact their entrepreneurial aspirations. Many of these bloggers started out in a small scale informal way, but upon initial success, moved away from their outside jobs to focus on blogging full-time (Ella n.d.; Natasha 2018).

They invoke neoliberal ethics and promote self as the primary instigator, motivator, and doer (Willet 2008, 55). Many of these bloggers have won several blog awards of the year by notable magazines, published their own cookbooks, designed apps, opened cafes and delis, and sell merchandise online (Huang 2018; Liu n.d.; Ella n.d.; Hemsley 2017; Natasha 2018). They emulate their success as born from self-dedication and hard work; it also is where they draw their legitimacy and sense of expertise from in all things life-style, health, and food. Many of these bloggers look the part, as well, as they are fit and put-together; which matches with the content and philosophies they promote on their blogs. This, then, not only leads to the creation of an entrepreneurial and cosmopolitan—socially mobile—self, but an authorial one as well.

The findings within this paper are based off of data I collected on these five highly acclaimed blogs because of their prolific nature and large viewership. All of these blogs are run by female authors, which initially struck me as I did not selectively choose them for my research based on their gender. Although it is not explicitly stated on each one of these blogs, the majority of them have been active for more than seven years. This time frame seems reasonable because of their demonstrated success and following.

I would like to first discuss the productions of identity and self these food bloggers initiate through their blogging careers. Bloggers use discursive anecdotes to share their ideals surrounding health and body; and autobiographical tidbits usually range from their personal experiences with cooking, eating at home, pursuance of nutrition-conscious lifestyles, physical health problems or a combination of some or all of these (Natasha 2018; Hemsley 2017; Huang 2018; Liu n.d.; Ella n.d.).

Bloggers’ portrayals of self-online include being mothers, daughters, photographers, entrepreneurs, and foodies (Natasha 2018; Hemsley 2017; Huang 2018; Liu n.d.; Ella n.d.). Trendy website aesthetics include the use of stylish fonts and vivid and alluring photographs. Through the incorporation of these, as well as the accolades and achievements displayed on their blogs, such as blog awards, featured web articles such as in the New York Times, cooking shows, and other forms of business ventures as already mentioned, bloggers exude embodiments of health, fitness, success, confidence, beauty, and nutrition (Ella n.d.; Hemsley 2017; Huang 2018; Liu n.d.; Natasha 2018). Many of these bloggers do not use conventional methods such as attaining professional culinary training, certification in design, or degrees in business management as a means to add authority to their claims. Instead, they preside over jurisdiction on what are the best ways to be “healthy, happy, and successful” through the portrayals of their own success stories, middle class lifestyles, and happy relationships. Utilizing the platforms of their blogs, they add legitimacy to their claims and expertise over the lifestyles and healthy living they promote; thus, creating a reassuring and legitimate image from which their readers can rely on.

Female bloggers also embody these characters and are actively producing their best or aspired selves for display on their blogs as a means for Social mobility (Stern 2008, 106; Abidin and Gwynne 2017, 393). What bloggers choose to present to the public demonstrates their aspirations for their lifestyle, standards, and goals; examples of these include blog posts detailing their travels abroad and lavish hotel stays, dream home construction projects, and tips for good living such as how to host and entertain guests (Willet 2008, 57; Huang 2018; Liu n.d.; Hemsley 2016; Natasha 2017; Natasha 2018; Natasha 2014; Natasha 2013). As Abidin and Gwynne so eloquently point out, “[blogs are] crucial locations for exploring self-making since online media is intrinsically performative: the act of producing a blog is not merely a passive reflection of one’s identity, but rather brings plural identities into being.” (2017, 387). Therefore, it is important to note that the “Self” bloggers portray on their blogs is intrinsically partial. They work towards their entrepreneurial and cosmopolitan goals through income generated from blogging full-time.

I would now like to discuss the entrepreneurial aspect of online food blogging for these female authors. As demonstrated, the—to quote Banet-Weiser—“online persona of the bloggers [turns] into a full-fledged business” and the entrepreneurism they display relates to their sense of empowerment and vitality; it also plays into the air of confidence they exude on their blogs (Banet-Weiser 2012, 53).

These efforts and demonstrations of aspired class living, and constructed presentations of self, contribute to bloggers’ cultivation of a neoliberal identity (Abidin and Gwynne 2017, 397). This is demonstrated by the values promoted by these bloggers of self-sufficiency, agency, empowerment, health, and well-being; the emphasis on the self plays into neoliberal narratives of self-responsibility and a “you earn what you make” type of mentality and discourse. Through self-initiation, dedication, and effort, success can be attained, and the lifestyles emulated by these bloggers, achieved. Many of these women write about the change they themselves brought to their lives and as reasons for their economic and prolific success. The aesthetics of these blogs and their emphasis on economic accomplishment suggests to viewers an aspired middle-class self and lifestyle—exemplified by expanding business enterprises such as launching their own food brands, product lines, and being featured in major media platforms; this also reinforces the authorial voice of the bloggers and their jurisdiction over healthy living.

I will now like to briefly discuss online blogs as unique mediums for the productions these bloggers engage in. As I mentioned before, the “Selves” presented on these blogs are inherently partial and manicured. Bloggers publish what they want the public to see. This is a specific feature of digital space as blemishes and other unwanted details can be hidden away or left out; it is therefore both a convenience and adverse effect of using online spaces as this selection process obscures the image presented to viewers (Stern 2008, 106). Online space is also free, easily accessible, and easily made aesthetically pleasing; which in turn can reduce production costs, travel or geographical constraints, and foster the sense of their legitimacy and expertise (Lahm 2011, 26). Online spaces also allow readers to interact and offer feedback to the bloggers directly in the form of comments, this enables a two-way interactional relationship between the authors of the sites and their audience (Lahm 2011, 32).

However, a troubling implication in the formation of these selves online is the degree to which these lifestyles and aspirations are accessible to other people. The overwhelming emphasis on self-cultivation and the stylish living standards promoted on these blogs discounts and falsifies the sense that external structures such as the social and economic factors of the bloggers and their readers, their geopolitical situations, or their cultural accessibility to the ingredients, ideas, and values advocated on these sites are inconsequential (Willett 2008, 61).

Those who can emulate these lifestyles, therefore, will most likely be people who—to quote Bourdieu—“[have] similar dispositions and interests, and thus [are capable] of producing similar practices and adopting similar stances” because of their common background and starting place (Bourdieu 1991, 231). The bloggers’ use of blogging as means for social mobility contributes to the sense of naturalization that an aspired and ideal lifestyle must match that which the bloggers promote (Allen and Anderson 1994, 71). Additionally, the inherent partiality of the blogs and the author’s lives masks those same factors in the case of the bloggers themselves. We need to question what kind of obstacles the bloggers faced in order to reach this point of accomplishment and to evoke their present lifestyles. Gaining an understanding of the context in which these bloggers operate under is imperative to understanding the social forces which shape and affect their livelihoods, ideals, and presentations (Willett 2008, 54).

As the rise of the internet and the digital mediate our perceptions of each other and people who live in the world, it is crucial to not take this time in human experience and information for granted. It is imperative for anthropologists to venture further into this new arena of digital life and think about the multiple actors and structures, involved or influencing shaping the lived realities of people in these spaces.

The concerns regarding the “loss of authentic sociality” in digital spaces and that the digital is any less legitimate as a space for anthropological inquiry needs to be addressed (Horst and Miller 2013, 12). Online “virtual” spaces and those who reside on them cannot be seen as separate from those offline and the digital should not be delineated as a new frontier (Cuppitt 2018). The new technologies our generation are encountering simply offer a different platform— similar to a new field site—to explore the experiences of those who reside within them. To exoticize this online space as fundamentally different from life as we know it is problematic and disagrees with anthropology’s mission to critically analyze and better understand lived experiences in order to complicate the assumptions of supposed differences between people.

As I discussed earlier, the much-needed contextualization of the structural and social forces affecting the food bloggers signals this need for anthropological research on online spaces. What is created in the digital world cannot be separated from the “offline” lives of these netizen actors; as Cupitt argues, “there [is] no end to the digital... [it is] simply there, entangled with people and their everyday lives” (2018). People’s realities exist regardless of whether their computers are turned on or off – to separate their lives online from offline would be to actively ignore a core part of their day-to-day living, leaving us with a partial image of these people’s lived experiences.

In the context of these food bloggers, who utilize their blogs and its content as methods for legitimizing their authorial voice, the naturalization of food blogging sites as credible sources or the “go-to-place” for up-to-date healthy living and well-being information, as well as a form of entrepreneurial activity and viable source of income, will become more apparent (Horst and Miller 2013, 29). Information which was previously consulted from online databases, encyclopedias, professional dieticians, nutritionists, managerial courses and training programs are now being transferred and accessed from these informal platforms of food bloggers-turned- entrepreneurial-role-models.

The troubling implications I mentioned earlier relating to the accessibility of these aspired lifestyles and the partiality of the structural contexts in which these blogging selves are produced demand further exploration as these spaces can offer anthropologists many insights into the factors which go into producing a manicured, “presentable,” and authorial self, as well as the impacts of neoliberal discourse on gendered personhoods.

Anthropology’s primary concern is to investigate what it means to be human. The rise of the digital does not signal an end to these efforts but simply an expanded medium through which we can explore it (Horst and Miller 2013, 3&15). Social, political, economic macro forces which shape and implicate micro realities are just as important to the creation of digital spaces and those who reside on them as they are to people in any other situation. Food blogs are important sites for fieldwork because they inform us on how online personalities shape meanings and deliver prescriptions for diet, self, and the body for their readers in an attempt to be simultaneously legitimizing and innovative. This allows us to understand conceptions about these important human issues through the perspectives of the bloggers themselves. These perspectives are invaluable in anthropology, as the foundational principles of ethnographic research and anthropological inquiry implores us to conduct field work in such a way as to explore the particularities of those whom we study online, as we strive to understand them through their lived experiences.

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