Last weekend, a friend from New York came down to visit me in DC for a night. Before stopping to eat at one of my favorite local spots, a fantastic Ethiopian place a quick walk from my apartment, we strolled around the neighborhood, perpetually bustling with crowds and bars and restaurants and a major university (and all its irritating collegiate minions).
Walking past the restaurant we'd be eating at later, I spotted a woman there, seated at one of the outdoor sidewalk tables, enjoying a hearty plate o' goodness accompanied by a glass of red wine and a Diet Coke (a woman after my own heart!). Without really thinking about it, I insta-assumed that her date or her friend or whoever she was with must have been inside, in the bathroom or wherever.
An hour later, we headed back to the restaurant and asked to sit outside; it was a nice night. Lo and behold, the woman was still there, and still accompanied by her wine and Diet Coke. Now she had a magazine, too. I felt a little flush of something like pride; she must have been on a Saturday-night date with herself.
Initial assumptions proven wrong, I was inspired by her boldness. I also felt a tiny twinge of sympathy for her. Sure, I'll go to movies alone or eat solo at a cafe for lunch, but I'll confess: I've never gone out to dinner, all on my own, at a nice restaurant. Would I ever muster the nerve to do what she was doing at a popular spot, during prime-time on a Saturday night? It might sound like a relatively minor thing, but in this culture, it's kind-of ... not.
Going out to dinner as a solitary lady is actually somewhat ballsy -- a little act of everyday rebellion, especially in a society that places such an intense emphasis on couplehood and family over singledom and autonomy. We women are encouraged to be social and to always want to be social, to crave companionship and buddies and fam time, to please and fawn and chatter and do nearly anything possible in our power to avoid being, yes, ALONE.
We're nudged into feeling "less than" if we're single, especially in if we're in our thirties, and our romantic status is treated as fair game for "helpful" advice from both people we know and randoms on the street. It gets really, really old to feel constantly pitied for being alone. And I'd imagine it'd feel pretty lame to be pitied for eating alone, too.
Though I haven't made a habit of going out to dinner by myself, I eat alone at home on the regular. It makes sense -- I live alone, as I have for almost 10 years. It's not just me: An industry research firm recently found that we Americans actually make up a broad nation of solo munchers.
Whether out of habit, necessity, or something else, lots and lots of us regularly stuff our faces in private. In fact, "Americans eat breakfast solo 60 percent of the time, and lunch 55 percent of the time. The only meal we are still enjoying with company is dinner, eating alone around 32 percent of the time."
Which, again, makes sense; per the U.S. Census Bureau, today more people are living (and, hence, eating) alone than at any other time in history. Nearly one third of all current U.S. households are made up of a single person; only 20 percent of modern households are comprised of married couples with children.
What this means? If you're eating alone -- whether out in public or at home -- you're, well, not alone. (Har, har.)
I can't lie and say I always love eating by myself (though certain foods actually do kind of taste better like that -- you know, giving myself the unobstructed time and space to savor something like one of the caramel blondies I'm obsessed with from my local bakery). But other times, it can feel lonely; sometimes I'd rather be out chowing with friends, and sometimes, still feeling new in my re-adopted home base of DC, I don't feel like I have as many friends to call on as I'd like.
So yeah. Living -- and eating -- alone is a mixed bag, like almost everything else. But it's also helpful to remember that, as those studies confirmed, there are countless other women out there just like me. Including ones like the lady I saw last weekend, bravely counteracting that lame cultural myth that being a woman, out and eating alone on a Saturday night, is necessarily a sad or embarrassing thing.
How do you feel about eating alone -- in public, at home, wherever?
I'm on Twitter here.