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The Pornography of Things: Material Desire on Pinterest

Pinterest is crowded with images of desserts (image courtesy notfrancois).

The meaning of some things is nearly beyond expression: you can try to explain chocolate, your favorite jeans, the smell of good coffee, or the Eiffel Tower, and you may capture some hints of why they are emotionally and personally meaningful, but ultimately words fail to adequately express our deep feeling for those things.  Many seemingly mundane things with these inexpressible qualities—food, shoes, books, beers, couches—can be characterized as “eroticized”: that is, we can only hope our words and pictures evoke the profoundly deep-seated, imaginative, and even bodily pleasures and desires inspired by such material things.

Many of these things that we feel so strongly about appear in myriad images on Pinterest, and while Pinterest may seem like a prosaic array of pictures of dresses, desserts, and vacation getaways it provides stunningly sensitive insight into the profound meaning invested in things.  Beyond simply “sharing” images of things or helping us plan dinners, parties, or weddings, Pinterest provides a telling illumination of our deepest material desires.

Many of the food images on Pinterest are beautiful even if it is not completely clear what the food is–in this case, foie gras and cauliflower puree (image courtesy Adrian Scottow).

Pinterest is a social networking “pinboard” on which people “pin” images to thematically organized groups of pictures referred to as “boards” (e.g., Totes & Handbags)  The site aspires to provide an online space to “discover new things and get inspiration from people who share your interests,” a mission that hardly seems amazing or even distinctive, but Pinterest claimed 11.7 million unique members in February 2012, and by July an estimated 23 million people were using the site to collect pictures of things, recipes, design inspirations, and assorted aphorisms.  In March of this year Pinterest was among the 30 most-viewed web pages on the internet.

Many observers have weighed in on why mere images of things seem to have captivated the planet, reaching accurate but often-shallow conclusions that Pinterest provides an opportunity to, for instance, swap recipes, find artistic inspiration, and helps consumers locate marketers (or vice versa).  Geoff Livingston, for example, recognizes that Pinterest’s success relies fundamentally on its visual appeal, but he risks dismissing those visuals as hollow eye-candy when he sarcastically concludes that “Pinterest is so painful to participate on. It’s hard watching the stream of puppies dancing in the grass, wedding gear, and yes, shoes.”

This fails to differentiate between various visuals or confront specifically why so many people would be strongly attracted to images.  The deeper appeal of Pinterest rests in a significant part on the visual erotics of things and the site’s brilliant aesthetic articulation of material desire that socially taps into our collective fascination with and imagination over things.

Foods inspiring Pinterest desire includes an idiosyncratic range of foods of desire like bacon (image courtesy anokarina).

The most interesting expressions of that eroticized material desire are in the vast number of Pinterest boards dubbing themselves “porn,” ranging from boards labeled “food porn” to “bike porn” to “shoe porn.”  None of these boards are truly pornographic (Pinterest has codes against nudity), but the term “porn” is in these cases being rhetorically invoked to underscore the depth of emotional sentiment invested in things and the lustful feelings they and their images can produce.  Using such a socially loaded term as irony is charitably challenging:  for instance, in 1977 music critic Robert Christgau was mortified by the use of Nazi symbols by punk bands, arguing that “irony is wasted on pinheads.”  The term “food porn” was apparently first used in the 1970s by Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest to describe foods that “are obscene, just shameful to have in the marketplace.”  In Gastronomica, food studies scholar Krishnendu Ray argues that scholars wield the “food porn” term as a pejorative to “condemn cooking-related entertainment on television and in magazines” and launch an age-old academic attack on mass culture, but this risks missing that Pinterest pinners use the term because it evokes their depth of desire.  Ray acknowledges, though, that to isolate food from broader consumer culture is misleading, because the “pornographic” desires projected onto food are cut from the broader fabric of consumer culture, and indeed Pinterest boards use the “porn” term for nearly every class of things.  There is something utterly bodily, inexpressible, and meaningful in the desires prompted by material images that we might circumspectly accept as akin to pornography’s visual conventions, and to label it as “porn” should not imply as Ray worries that the term simply dismisses food’s “visual, performative delight” or hazards dismissing the meaning of all visual culture.

A vast range of things appear in Pinterest boards described as “porn,” ranging from cupcakes to waffles to bikes (image courtesy hagbard).

On Pinterest, “porn” seems to signify a self-defined excessive desire for something expressed in visual spectacle.  “Food porn” images on Pinterest, for instance, hyperbolize the everyday visuality of “real food” and evoke overblown desires.  The notion of “food porn” or “gastroporn” borrows from pornography its unreal visual spectacle, focusing on the aesthetic surface of that which we desire.  Pictures of food often manipulatively wield pornography’s sensationalistic and performative gaze to produce rapid emotional and instinctual, if not bodily responses without any redeeming social meaning:  bacon, cupcakes, and citrus coffee granita have now been placed on the same graphic level of essentialized if unattainable desire as porno.

That self-definition of excess and desire on Pinterest cannot be separated from gender.  By most measures, women account for 79% to 83% of Pinterest’s users.  Nearly one-fifth of all women online use Pinterest (19% of online women use Pinterest, as compared to 5% of men).  A significant amount of scholarship has examined the impact of mass media images of food and the body on women.  In 1984, for instance, Rosalind Coward used the term “food pornography” to refer to a “regime of pleasurable images” that create desire as well as guilt in women.  Food photography airbrushes dishes in the same way that it manipulates models’ bodies, and studies have confirmed what we already know: images of food—even consciously unattainable dishes–can make us hungry.

Pinterest includes a rich range of visually beautiful desserts (image courtesy anokarina).

Pinterest’s rapid growth has not been greeted with universal enthusiasm.  BuzzFeed’s Amy Odell worries that “the site’s popularity highlights an uncomfortable reality: Pinterest’s user-generated content, which overwhelmingly emphasizes recipes, home decor, and fitness and fashion tips, feels like a reminder that women still seek out the retrograde, materialistic content that women’s magazines have been hawking for decades—and that the internet was supposed to help overcome.”  Odell argues that the internet was a boon to feminist politics as it stepped outside normative patriarchal discourses, but she is wary of Pinterest as a narrative discourse that is reviving such ideologies in seemingly meaningless visuals.  Odell points to the enormous number of women who follow links from Pinterest to sites such as Martha Stewart Living, Self Magazine, and HGTV that she believes are cut from the same discursive fabric as Cold War-era women’s magazines.  Odell frets that it “seems like one big user-curated women’s magazine—from the pre-internet era.  Sites like Jezebel were created as an antidote to women’s print magazines, which are rife with diet, fitness and dressing tips. The internet has for many years now been thought of as a place where women can find smarter, meatier reads just for them.”  Much of her apprehension revolves around the consumer ideologies linked to the things on Pinterest, and she wields the porn metaphor when she laments that “Kitchen porn, cupcake porn, bracelet porn—any kind of eye candy you can think of is probably on Pinterest, waiting for the next Pinner to covet it enough to re-pin it.  People don’t go to Pinterest for articles, they go there to scrapbook every imaginable physical aspect of their dream lives, right down to the Mason jar candle holders you really hope to get around to DIY-ing for your next cocktail party. … The site is filled with images of Victoria’s Secret models wearing bikinis and other cellulite-free, idealistic bodies.  Images of covetable figures and body parts often get hundreds of repins.”  This frames Pinterest as a discourse fanning desire for unattainable goods, which includes everything from cheesecakes to women’s bodies.

The aesthetic dessert (image courtesy of notfrancois).

The Frisky’s Amelia McDonnell-Parry fired back that the “real problem here is that Odell thinks these interests are silly or somehow ‘bad’ because they are, in her view, ‘retrograde and materialistic.’  …   Is it somehow anti-feminist to like something visually pleasing now? Do I lose real feminist points for every throw pillow I have on my bed?”  One respondent to Odell’s post seemed to more clearly capture the imaginative visual attractions of Pinterest, arguing that “I see it as the right-brainers dream come true, a world full of beautiful or interesting images that hit our pleasure centers like brain-porn. It’s a place to cultivate and fantasize, and I love to escape into Pinterest to decompress.” Tish Grier sounds a similar note on the appeal of Pinterest to its overwhelmingly female demographic when she admits that “Pinterest is a diversion from the workaday adult world into a world of fantasy and inspiration.  Depictions of the possible and the impossible that fuel our daydreams and night dreams too.  Pictures of stuff that we want to remember, for whatever reasons.  It isn’t about winning, or losing, or gathering important information for our professional enrichment (maybe that’s why infographics don’t get repinned as much as shirtless hunks.) It’s just plain fun.”

An astounding number of waffles appear on Pinterest (image courtesy of Shockingly Tasty).

Like most consumption, Pinterest does not express who we are as much as it expresses who we wish we could be.  Pinterest is in some ways a reflection of everyday life, but in many ways it really is an imagination of lives we dream about and the way things are centrally located in those dreams.  Consumer life is profoundly shaped by our individual and often-inexpressible imaginations of materiality, desires that routinely create some personal anxieties.  Pinterest provides a socially affirming space to visually assemble those imagined things, displaying in an unexpressed form our material desires shared with so many others.  It is worth keeping in mind, though, that such desires have genuine political and material implications that complicate—though certainly do not un-do—some of Pinterest’s genuinely self-affirming qualities, and an online community overwhelmingly composed of women provides marketers an exceptionally illuminating glimpse into women’s distinctive consumer desires.

Like many of the goods that appear on Pinterest “porn” boards, food is intimately corporeal, a thing that is part of our body much like fashion porn, shoe porn, purse porn, Lingerie Lust, and even bike porn.  What actually defines desire is complicated:  It seems in most iterations to invoke our deepest needs and wants and seeks consent from others, is based on pleasure, and is perpetually stimulated to be, in Rosalind Coward’s words, “sought, bought, packaged, and consumed.”  This warily views the sorts of material desires fabricated on Pinterest and in broader consumer culture.  By nearly every measure, Pinterest truly shares things socially between users, because over 80% of all pinned items are re-pins, and this dimension of Pinterest pins is socially meaningful.  However, for marketers this means items are simply distributed in these social networks as extensions of their advertising reach, so marketers have devoted a considerable amount of attention to Pinterest.  The actual degree to which Pinterest links prompt genuine purchases of specific items is difficult to measure, with one study arguing that less than 1% of purchases can be attributed to such sites, but the embrace of desire certainly is not working against consumption.

One of the most clever—and perhaps unsettling–Pinterest advertising campaigns came from Kotex, which sent packages of gifts tailored to the interests of 50 of the most prolific female pinners.  Kotex concluded that Pinterest was the “ultimate social platform for self expression,” so their care packages were designed to create thousands of interactions from the original 50 gift box recipients.  Pinterest allows marketers to gauge a constellation of consumer desires with potentially powerful clarity, and through Pinterest marketers reach into women’s dreams with significant power.

Food can be beautiful if it is not entirely clear what it might be (image courtesy anokarina).

Pinterest food images are overwhelmingly of dishes in isolation–rather than in relation with people–which has a significant impact on the politics of Pinterest “food porn” (Tastespotting, Foodgawker, and Photograzing are similarly visual celebrations of food rather than eating; the absurdly titled tumblr page Food That Will Make You Jizz is the most overdone rhetorical example of such a page, though it is also a mute catalog of gorgeous dishes).  The focus on the thing itself distinguishes Pinterest food images from the aesthetics of food shows like Nigella Lawson’s shows and books that embrace the sensuality of food, if not the label of “food porn” (compare Richard Magee’s prescient reading of Nigella Lawson).   Many food advertisements in broader popular culture likewise pose people in transparently alluring relationships with food, which Roland Barthes recognized in a 1957 analysis of Elle magazine.  Barthes argued that Elle’s pages of food images were“an openly dream-like cookery, as proved in fact by the photographs in Elle, which never show the dishes except from a high angle, as objects at once near and inaccessible, whose consumption can perfectly well be accomplished simply by looking.  It is, in the fullest meaning of the word, a cuisine of advertisement, totally magical.”

Food and drink is the most popular category for Pinterest pins, accounting for 12.3% of all pins.  Pinterest images typically depict a completed dish, fixing a moment in time at which the un-consumed food is its most enticing, aesthetic, sensual, and anticipatory.   Nevertheless, Pinterest “food porn” depicts a vast breadth of absolutely idealized dishes so far removed from everyday life that they cannot possibly pose real models for consumption.  Indeed, most of the “food porn” on Pinterest is consciously outside the aesthetics of culinary normality and intentionally excessive.

The aesthetic haddock dish (image courtesy Brian U).

An array of similarly eroticized terms are grouped on Pinterest with similarly charged terms as “porn,” including lust (e.g., s’mores lust) and fetish (e.g., pancake fetish).  Some cupcake lovers have even embraced calling themselves “frostitutes,” invoking a complicated ironic notion of sexual service and the consumption of bakery treats.  Ironically, we often demonize genuine sexual desires in America, but we leave the door wide open to material desires.  The projection of desire onto things could be interpreted as a statement of the 20th century’s enormous lack of sexual creativity.  Sexual boredom might be interpreted, in Adam Phillips’ words, as “a defense against waiting, which is, at one remove, an acknowledgement of the possibility of desire” (cited in Scott Herring’s Erotic Uncreativity).  Much of the projection of erotic desire onto commodities may reflect a persistent monotony awaiting the possibility of addressing sexual desire.  But at the same time material desire and imagination is not simply a subconscious outlet for a sexually repressed nation, and eroticization invokes deeply held and inexpressible emotional feelings about things: imagination and escape often have no other goal than pure imagination and retreat from everyday monotony.

Marketers have long sought to entice consumers with visual appeals, many of which were eroticized, targeted at stereotypes of women, and had sexually charged symbolism projected onto the most mundane goods.  One of the most clever analyses of such practice is Adam Mack’s analysis of 1930s-early 1960s supermarket marketers who consciously aspired to appeal to women’s senses, casting “the desires of women’s noses, skin and tongues (that is, desires of the `lower’ or proximate senses) as ones with a strong erotic charge.”  The supermarket industry targeted “women’s base physical desires, contending that female consumption derived not from rational calculations, but rather from irrational `impulses’ encouraged by sellers who knew how to manipulate the female sensory apparatus.”  Mack argues that these marketers hoped that “female consumers might fill the erotic and sexual voids of their lives through supermarket shopping,” a point that underscores the eroticization if not sexualization of something as prosaic as grocery shopping.  Ideologically, consumption would “strengthen the family … by serving as an outlet for female sexual energy.”

The small but aesthetic dessert (image courtesy firepile).

It is charitably short-sighted to suggest that Pinterest boards are simply self-affirming embraces of gorgeous shoes, delicious cakes, and fabulous dresses or yet more evidence of our irrepressible online sociability.  But at the same time Pinterest reveals the very real and consequential way many people find meaning in material things, and we might soberly ask why so many of us may seem more invested in cupcakes and footwear than global inequalities.  If we look at Pinterest itself in isolation, this simply fetishizes this particular material discussion from broader discourses, and to understand Pinterest’s political, social, and material impacts we need to assess it alongside all the ways Pinterest users experience the world: If we want to understand why people are on Pinterest, facebook, or jezebel or why they project their imaginations onto things or online communities, we need to understand them away from their keyboards and respect their experiences.  Divorcing things from the marketplace is reactionary, but assessing Pinterest alone without genuine ethnography of all the countless men and women who are on Pinterest and find something meaningful and important in it is equally short-sighted.

References

Roland Barthes

1972 Mythologies.  Originally published 1957.  Annette Lavers, transl. Hill and Wang, New York.
Andrew Chan

2003 “La grande bouffe”: Cooking Shows as Pornography.  Gastronomica 3(4): 47–53.

Robert Christgau

1977 A Cult Explodes—and a Movement is BornThe Village Voice 22(43):68-70, 72.

Alexander Cockburn

1977 Gastro-PornNew York Review of Books December 8.

Rosalind Coward

1984  Female Desire: Women’s Sexuality Today.  Paladin Grafton Books, London.

1985 Female Desire and Sexual Identity.  In Women, Feminist Identity, and Society in the 1980’s, edited by Myriam Diaz-Diocaretz and Iris M. Zavala, pp.25-36.  John Benjamins Publishing, Amsterdam.

Scott Herring

2010 Erotic Uncreativity: A Response to Steven F. Kruger.  American Literary History 22(4):945-950. (subscription access)

Jenny Lawson

2011 Good Enough to Eat: Resisting the “Hunger Gaze” through Performative PracticeDouble Dialogues 15.

Adam Mack

2010 “Speaking of Tomatoes”: Supermarkets, the Senses, and Sexual Fantasy in Modern America.  Journal of Social History 43(4): 815-842.  (subscription access)

Richard M. Magee

2007 Food Puritanism and Food Pornography: The Gourmet Semiotics of Martha and NigellaAmericana 6(2).

Ann E. McBride

2010 Food PornGastronomica 10(1):38-46.

Pew Internet and American Life Project

2012 Photos and Videos as Social Currency Online.  Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.

Adam Phillips

1993 On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Krishnendu Ray

2007 Domesticating Cuisine: Food and Aesthetics on American TelevisionGastronomica 7(1):50-63. (subscription access)

Images

Bike image courtesy hagbard

Crumble image and Berry dessert image courtesy notfrancois

Foie Gras and Cauliflower Puree image courtesy Adrian Scottow

Roasted Dish image  and Strawberry Dessert image  and Bacon image courtesy anokarina

Sparkling Dinner image courtesy Brian U

Strawberry Waffles image  courtesy of Shockingly Tasty

Tart at the Empress image courtesy firepile

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