“It seems almost like a parody of a sport,” McGinn told me. “Here is a person exercising some skill—I suppose in some sense—but at the same time, doing it in the service of something that’s just drawing attention to the organic body.”

By divorcing the eating from its physiological purpose—or “by decoupling the act of eating from its most basic raison d’etre: hunger”—we create a spectacle that, in a uniquely absurdist way, has no grounding in our normal reality, Halloran, the food studies professor, argues in a 2004 article. This extreme decontextualization—something akin to seeing the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas, or even a rigged wrestling match—leaves us with a “simultaneous experience of sensual revulsion and pleasure.”

Halloran also suggests we enjoy a special type of pleasure from watching somebody else struggle to keep their body under control. Take the weightlifter who appeared to defecate in her jumpsuit in the 2000 Olympics and quickly became a YouTube phenomenon, not for her latent athletic prowess, but for the suddenness—and cringe-wreaking awkwardness—in which her bowels apparently gave out.