“It started over the summer. I bought a green tea roll cake from a Korean bakery and I started off gently powdering my face with it. It felt so good.” This is the explanation a young East Asian woman provides for “Breadfaceblog,” her unique and fascinating Instagram account comprised of selfie videos. The woman behind Breadfaceblog – I’ll call her Bread Face from now on – perches her smartphone on a table and records herself ceremoniously presenting a piece of bread, pastry, or other gluten-based food, and smooshes (1) her entire face into the bread in question. Sometimes she tenderly rolls her cheeks over the loaf, and other times she plows into the bread with headbanger-esque ferocity. She pairs fuchsia, neon orange, and emerald green lipsticks with meticulously done nails, often holding up a lipstick-smeared loaf at the end of a video. As of this writing, Breadfaceblog offers over seventy videos.
The comments reflect a sense of confusion surrounding this phenomenon: most viewers tag their disbelieving friends, or attempt to verbalize their shock. But, as many commenters have noted, there’s also a sense of fetishistic voyeurism to the videos: a young East Asian woman, alone at home, doing something strange and gluttonous to a piece of bread, with rapturous enthusiasm. In an interview with the Vice television show Munchies, Bread Face admits, “I think this always disappoints people but there was actually very little thought that went into this. I wanted to put my face in bread, and so I did it. I thought people would really enjoy that.” And the masses have spoken: Bread Face has garnered nearly 90,000 followers since the inception of Breadfaceblog in June 2015, and her fanbase is growing daily.
The key difference between objectification and empowerment is whether the person being looked at holds the power in the situation.
I argue that Bread Face deliberately creates fetishistic content as a means for a young woman of colour to reclaim a space from the normative – white, male – centers of cultural production. I’ll focus on the 44th and 45th videos posted on Breadfaceblog: “District Social’s housemade Rosemary Sesame Roll” and “Brownstone Bagels Cinnamon Roll,” respectively. I’ll be using Theresa Senft and Nancy Baym’s collaborative paper “What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon” to explore how marginalized people use selfies to take back agency over their own representation. Senft and Baym are feminist scholars and academics whose work explores social media culture, the online performance of self, and the circulation and consumption of this performance. They conceive of the practice of digital self-portraiture as “fundamentally ambiguous, fraught and caught in a stubborn and morally loaded hype cycle.”
Women and femmes (2) taking and circulating their own selfies is often turned into a pathology. A binary division arises wherein the selfie-taker is either a narcissist or is lacking in self-esteem – but this rhetoric only reduces the selfie to either a wholly empowering phenomenon or an entirely disempowering one for women and femmes. The key difference between objectification and empowerment is whether the person being looked at holds the power in the situation. If they have control over their own representation, they are not being sexually objectified. Breadfaceblog is wresting back control by taking selfies, and while there’s no shortage of disdain for bread-facing, this essay serves to argue that there is nothing frivolous or shallow about a woman of colour practicing radical self-representation.
CLAIMING SPACE, BREAD-TO-FACE
As Senft and Baym argue, “In the history of Western art, women have had little control over the representation of their bodies and subjectivities.” Bread Face, however, exercises control throughout the entire set-up of each video, from the curating of background music to specific lighting and clothing choices. Her makeup is sometimes meticulously done and subsequently (and very satisfyingly) ruined as she faceplants directly into her pastry of choice. Immaculate makeup allows women and femmes control over their own presentation – but to publicly ruin it on one’s own terms is arguably equally as empowering. For a woman or femme to make it obvious that she’s wearing makeup by conspicuously smearing it is a “fuck you” to all the misogynists who say that women and femmes are “lying” by wearing makeup, or police them for the amount and type of makeup they wear.
In “Brownstone Bagels Cinnamon Roll,” Bread Face wears a bra over her clothes and adds a quip to her caption, writing, “This is for all of you who requested I wear a bra,” after having been previously criticized for her nipples being visible in another video. She is thus performing a kind of deviant femininity: wearing a bra, but purposely making it visible. Images of women and queer people tend to be more socially policed than those of heterosexual men, and Patricia Hill Collins, the African American feminist writer, famously noted that people of color are subject to surveillance by white people, who then assess the legitimacy of their actions. Senft and Baym similarly say that “young people have fewer claims to privacy than older people.” Since voyeurism depends on violating one’s privacy – something that women, femmes, and people of colour have to constantly contend with – Bread Face is reclaiming that objectifying lens by deliberately making her underwear public. In her words, she’s “giving the people something they didn’t ask for,” as she writes in her Instagram bio, this statement sandwiched between two bread emojis.
Immaculate makeup allows women and femmes control over their own presentation – but to publicly ruin it on one’s own terms is arguably equally as empowering.
While Bread Face exerts a remarkable amount of control over her videos, selfies are not stagnant artifacts. Rather, Senft argues that selfies are “created, displayed, distributed, tracked, and monetized” through a kind of gestural, tactile practice that grabs or can be grabbed by consumers, in this case Instagram users. Selfies – posted to Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook – exist to be liked, scrolled past, pinched to enlarge, and screenshotted. But some bodies are grabbed, pinched, and violated more than others: those of women and femmes of colour. Men feel they are entitled to own and use the bodies of women and femmes, while white people feel entitled to control and violate the bodies of people of colour. Oppressions based on race and gender intersect such that women of colour are constantly – in media and in real life – being reduced to objects.
Bread Face is an East Asian woman, part of a group of people who, in media and pop culture, have been explicitly exoticized as submissive, docile, and petite. East Asian women are the subject of constant fetishization: a survey by dating site AYI.com found that Asian women users were the group that was most likely to recieve messages from non-Asian male users. East Asian women are denied the ability to have desires of their own, whether they are sexual or not, because they are seen as submissive, and are only given space if it serves to fulfill the desires of others – namely white men. Bread Face thus embodies a radical feminist spirit: she is a woman of colour reclaiming a space for her own desire.
Instagram is the land of the “personal brand” where people can amass millions of followers by posting photos of their daily outfits, food, and friends. So where does Breadfaceblog fit into the capitalist landscape of promotionalism and self-branding? Bread Face is what social media researcher Alice Marwick terms a “microcelebrity” – she holds considerable traction in a niche Instagram community, locating herself in the “attention economy,” which assigns value to a piece of content based on its ability to capture and sustain attention. According to Marwick, to be a microcelebrity is to engage in “a mind-set and a collection of self-presentation practices endemic in social media, in which users strategically formulate a profile, reach out to followers, and reveal personal information to increase attention and thus improve their online status.” Bread Face interacts and communicates with her audience through the content of her videos; she adds captions with information on her bread choice and sometimes her clothing, and occasionally responds to comments left by viewers. However, Bread Face remains an elusive subject. She remains anonymous in the few online interviews that exist, using the pseudonym “Breadfaceblog” or “Bread Face Girl.”
But some bodies are grabbed, pinched, and violated more than others: those of women and femmes of colour.
Instagram as a platform allows Bread Face to exert control over her self-image by curating content, using a pseudonym, and countering user comments whenever she pleases. In video 35, featuring a rosemary sesame roll, user @bridgets.ink tags another user, @chrispatin0, and leaves the following comment: “When you have no clue how to be Instagram famous so you do this.” This comment directly speaks to the necessity of self-branding and feverish promotionalism in order to achieve any kind of cultural or monetary capital on social media sites. Bread Face retains her autonomy and agency through her unaffectedness: though her selfie is constantly grabbed and transmitted through various channels, she does not respond directly to these kinds of comments. Watching her slowly, gracefully land into a sesame roll, one cannot help but think that the ritualistic, mesmerizing gesture of face-planting is a metaphorical finger to the proverbial haters.
UNDER CAPITALISM WE WILL NEVER BE FREE
Bread Face navigates a capitalistic landscape by monetizing her acts of bread-facing through the use of online payments. Her Instagram bio sometimes includes a link to her PayPal account, sometimes to items she’s selling on eBay, and in individual captions that accompany certain videos she directs the viewer towards making a cash contribution. In video 35, she writes, “link in bio in case you wanna donate $1 to…my #breadfacing.” The practice of “tipping” content creators via PayPal is relatively new, and echoes notions of the sharing economy and alternative, cooperativist models for exchange that have become popular with young people. In order to gain not only followers, but also a profit, Bread Face must turn the act of bread-facing into content that people are willing to exchange money for. In the words of Alison Hearn, a scholar whose work examines the intersections of media and culture, the branded self as a commodity “must generate its own rhetorically persuasive packaging, its own promotional skin” that fits in with a landscape of corporate imagery. Hearn notes that the labour of turning oneself into a brand is a “highly self-conscious process of self-exploitation, performed in the interests of material gain or cultural status.” Insofar as a selfie is a representation of one’s self, by monetizing her selfies, Bread Face turns herself – or at least her bread-facing – into a commodity. Under Hearn’s framework, Bread Face is complicit in the collapse of “any meaningful distinction between notions of the self and capitalist processes of production and consumption.”
While you can find microcelebrities everywhere on Instagram, Marwick says the most successful ones often “reproduce conventional status hierarchies of luxury, celebrity, and popularity that depend on the ability to emulate the visual iconography of mainstream celebrity culture.” For Canadian and American media, this means that the most popular microcelebrities create content based on white supremacy and patriarchy. And since Bread Face is neither white nor male, she is immediately identifiable as an outsider in the realm of content creation. For her to find success as a microcelebrity and monetize her popularity despite this, is subversive.
As Hearn argues, “self-branding illustrates how flexible corporate capital has subsumed all areas of human life, including the very concept of a private self, so conveniently celebrated as sacrosanct by the ideologies of neoliberalism.” Bread Face “tags” the brands that produce the clothing and makeup she wears in two videos (@unif and @sephora are but a few), coupled with gentle yet cheeky reminders that donations are always accepted. Thus, Bread Face makes explicit that nothing – not even supposedly “free” social media platforms – are safe from the influences of capitalism.
Bread Face is complicit in the collapse of “any meaningful distinction between notions of the self and capitalist processes of production and consumption.”
However, this practice does not invalidate the potentially radical space she occupies on Instagram. Self-branding involves the careful construction of the self, through filters, posing, and interacting with commenters. As such, self-branding is an obstruction of the labour involved in the creation of content which “recalls the way that women’s labor, typically performed in domestic settings, has long been obscured by cultural, ideological, and legal means,” as articulated by Tamara Shepherd, whose research focuses on digital culture and its many manifestations. Work traditionally done by women, like cooking, cleaning, and housework has long been dismissed and made invisible, even though this work is essential to capitalist accumulation. She draws a parallel between the so-called “shadow labour” of women and the way social media sites like Facebook invisibilize the labour of its users. Senft and Baym note that social media use, and particularly selfie practices, has been feminized in mass culture, evoking images of young women performing the archetypal duck face. The fact that Bread Face capitalizes on a practice that obscures the labour inherent in its creation and dissemination, in a manner similar to the delegitimization of feminized labour, characterizes her blog as a feminist pursuit that is disruptive to the capitalist landscape of Instagram.
Breadfaceblog is many things. It is a visually and conceptually shocking, sensual, and oddly mesmerizing spectacle. It’s also a vivid representation of postmodern aesthetics, and a feminist shout into the social media void. Bread Face capitalizes on niche content without shame. Her Instagram account reflects a contemporary struggle, observable through social media, of an East Asian woman surviving within a capitalist system that thrives off of aggressive promotionalism that often delimits a user’s creative potential, and conditions social media users to exist within normative standards of expression and identification. Bread Face remains an elusive subject: she is inscrutable as a whole as she continues to hide behind a gluten-infused veil, yet her work is an unapologetic challenge to the singular and universalizing narrative painted of women and femmes of colour on social media. In the process, she has captured the hearts of thousands. Bread Face will have her cake, and eat it, too.
(1) I have chosen to employ the term smoosh to explain the act of planting one’s face in bread, as it was used to describe Bread Face’s habit in an online interview with Maxim.
(2) A working definition of the word “femme” is “a person who expresses and/or identifies with femininity.”