In the spring of 2018, Kim Kardashian West surfed a travel wave that sent plenty of American tourists before her to Japan. While she was there, fashion photographer Marcus Hyde took a photo of her slurping a bowl of noodles — topless. Among the 34,000-plus comments on the photo are many by people tagging friends they want to rope into capturing a shot like this for themselves.
With one striking image, Kardashian West did what she has done so many times before — she brought a piece of a subculture she’s not really part of to her Instagram audience of over 100 million. This time, she borrowed a burgeoning trend from food-influencer culture: the noodle slurp selfie.
The noodle slurp selfie comes in many forms. It might involve chopsticks and it might involve forks. Noodles might be ramen or lo mein just as easily as spaghetti or tagliatelle. But the basic gist is a photo that includes a bowl of noodles and a woman eating them, captured mid-slurp, with strands still hanging out of her mouth. Typically, the noodle slurp selfie is not an actual selfie, as at least one of the eater’s hands is kept busy using a utensil to guide to the noodles to the lips. The overall impression is playful but controlled — she looks like she’s eating, but she’s also aware of the camera.
For food ’grammers, the noodle slurp selfie is a variant of a longtime favorite genre: the noodle pull. Noodle pulls work on a variety of levels, but at its core, the noodle pull makes for good food porn because it shows action (pulling the noodles), it creates tension (there’s an anticipation of the noodles being eaten), and it focuses on a beloved type of food. By the end of 2017, Eater senior social media manager Adam Moussa found that pasta photos had become reliably hot content for Eater’s own Instagram page, with extra-high rates of engagement. “If you want tips for getting more likes for Instagram, post pasta,” he said. “Go eat a nice plate of cacio e pepe.”
Emily Fedner has used a noodle slurp selfie as the profile image for her popular food-focused Instagram account @foodloversdiary since 2015. She stumbled onto the pose by accident. When her account was still in its infancy (she only had about 5,000 followers at the time, compared to her nearly 70,000 now), she did her first semi-professional photoshoot back home in Ohio. At the end of a day of shooting around local restaurants, she was eating pasta when her photographer friend stopped her. “My friend was like, ‘Wait, stop, that was so good.’ We snapped a couple of the photos and then ever since then that photo of me in a red dress slurping linguine has been the face of Food Lover’s Diary.”
Fedner posts noodle slurp selfies regularly — along with plenty of noodle pics that don’t include her face — and finds that they receive more engagement than her typical photos. She’s noticed other food-focused Instagrammers doing noodle slurp selfies more this year than ever before. “A lot of food influencers want to introduce themselves to their content,” she explains. “But the audience doesn’t always respond well to photos of you when they’re there for photos of pasta, you know? So I think that [noodle slurp selfies are] a good way of introducing yourself with your photos, while still keeping it food heavy.” For food influencers using their accounts as a springboard for personality-driven work — Fedner herself is hoping to get into food television after working previously as a restaurant publicist and line cook — getting their faces into the account, without losing followers as a result, is imperative.
What better way to convince your audience to like your face than to find an attractive pose? Take another look at the Kardashian West photo: Her cheekbones seem to protrude above a visibly darker hollow in the cheek, as if there’s a dark line connecting her ear to the corner of her lip. But here, that look isn’t (just) as a result of contouring, the makeup technique that she’s best known for: The act of sucking in/holding noodles still enough to shoot forces the sides of the model/eater’s face into concavity — the actual dream.
“People that take selfies of themselves on Instagram have so much experience... that they know exactly what they do with their faces that looks cute. We’re just so familiar with our face and what looks good on camera nowadays,” says Rebecca Jennings, culture reporter for the Goods. “I think [the noodle slurp selfie] emphasizes your contour but it also gets rid of those imperfections in your face, which is [true of] literally all selfie trends.”
Fedner agrees. “I don’t know that everyone that’s slurping noodles recognizes or is actively thinking about that,” she says, “but I definitely think they see that photo and think, ‘Damn, I look good in that photo.’”
The noodle slurp is simply an evolution of the O.G. duck face: It’s all about sucking in your cheeks and pursing out your lips, but with the added bonus of actually being a thing people might do in real life.
Not that noodle slurping IRL is anything like the photos we see on our feeds. “There’s a big chasm between reality and artistry or fiction on Instagram,” says self-described “meme burlesque” performer and internet satirist Aimee Davison of @davisonvideo.
After Kardashian West posted her noodle slurp selfie, Davison parodied the shot, creating a video that documents the amount of work it took to capture herself toplessly eating. “It was difficult to do,” she explains. “I was trying to mush the side of my breast in while lifting up the noodles and taking the photo simultaneously... It wasn’t comfortable. You’re letting noodles dangle out of your mouth for an artificially extended period of time so you can get the perfect shot.”
While it might take work, the overall effect of the noodle slurp selfie is playfulness. To show yourself in flagrante delicto with a bowl of noodles is to show your followers they’re right there with you at the table — and that you don’t take yourself, or your Instagram habit, too seriously. “It looks fun,” says Fedner. “It’s a carefree, ‘What, I’m just eating noodles,’ kind of thing.”
The untroubled attitude of the pose is what makes it such good #content. Where the noodle pull creates tension by capturing the moment before food is eaten, the noodle slurp selfie creates tension between the act of eating and what the person eating looks like. While the photo communicates an unfraught relationship between the subject and her noodle, such a relationship is rare of in a culture that punishes women who do not conform to beauty standards. In an egregious example of this very dichotomy, Kardashian West’s noodle slurp selfie shares space on the account she uses to sell women appetite-suppressant lollipops, making a profit off disordered eating.
Not surprisingly, the Instagrammers who most benefit by posting these selfies tend to be thin, conventionally attractive women who don’t seem to put on weight as they eat their way across our feeds. The way they do or do not eat off-camera is irrelevant to the power of the image — all that matters is how they look while doing it.
In this way, the noodle slurp selfie is just another one of the lies of Instagram food: Inherently performative, it tells us little about how the person in the image actually eats, but instead celebrates what that person looks like. Spend even a moment considering how the shot was captured and it’s easy to realize that a noodle slurp selfie is a constructed image, not a candid. And its building blocks — noodle pulls, contoured faces, and conventional beauty — aren’t likely to lose their appeal any time soon.
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor.