How we eat is arguably as important as what we eat. Recently, there has been an increase in commentary on “eating alone.” Viral videos compare the U.S. culture of “chore-like eating” to the hours dedicated to eating in France. Newspapers laud Travis Rudolph, a Florida State University football star, for joining a middle school student who was sitting alone at a lunch table. The trending conversation around eating addresses stigmatization, self-care and social habits. Certainly, the meaning of eating alone in the U.S. or at Wellesley is more complicated than the typical Food Network Star recipe, and it is also a thought we have every day — perhaps, three times a day.
As Amy Choi writes for Ted.com, food is as much as an identity as it is pleasure, survival, status, community, or humanity. Eating has meaning; engaging with food involves culture, socialization and even physically interacting with nature. Our eating habits are environmentally dependent and culturally driven. Eating at home or in our dorm rooms is less contentious, mostly because of normalcy and privacy. However, when our eating alone becomes public, the conversation around it changes and social norms heavily factor in our decisions.
At Wellesley, oftentimes we might find ourselves wishing for company while eating. In some cases, we may take our isolation as an indication that we lack friends. Especially while transitioning to college, it can be difficult to accept that eating alone is an acceptable practice. For many of us, a seat at a crowded table in high school signified acceptance. Indeed, one of the most memorable scenes from 2004’s “Mean Girls” was when Janis Ian drew an elaborate map of the North Shore High School cafeteria, complete with a label for every friend group. She stressed the importance of choosing the right table, since it determined placement on the social food chain. Though there are definite preferences among us over which dining hall or table location is better, these dispositions are superficial.
Still, one of the most difficult stigmas to shed when arriving at Wellesley is that associated with eating alone. Upon arriving on campus, most of us can easily notice that this activity is commonplace. While during Orientation we sit with our first-year mentor group or with new and fast friends, the desiresurround ourselves with friends in an effort to display an image of gregariousness fades. Rather, some feel obligated to pull out a phone or computer. In appearing unavailable or busy, we can still appear social and mitigate our discomfort. From there, the list of reasons goes on. We may eat alone because our friends are nowhere to be found, emails need to be answered, or because we really need to re-watch that scene between Rory and Dean. We may eat alone because it’s 8:19 a.m. and we have three minutes for breakfast before our morning trek to the Science Center from Tower. We may also eat alone because we don’t want others to pass judgment on how much or how little we are eating.
As we grow older, it becomes simultaneously both easier and harder to defy social norms and our natural comforts. Surely, if you like to eat alone, do so. However, if eating alone makes you uncomfortable, seek out company, which, of course, is easier said than done. Many are often too afraid to ask another lonely diner to join us. We should be open to mealtimes as a chance to meet our classmates. So, approach an unfamiliar face at Lulu; talk to the person that you’re sharing a table with in Pomeroy.Chances are they are willing to engage with you, and if not, there is no harm in trying. Somedays are hectic, and not everyone wants a side of company.
Moreover, our meals can be more fruitful than just as a socialization experience. As we endeavor to change our dining habits and to be more welcoming to those of others, we might benefit from learning about other dining customs outside of our own. In every culture, food means something different. Take time to gather a diversity of viewpoints on the subject of eating. American dining ideals have often contrasted with those of the rest of the world in a variety of ways, from the way one holds a spoon to how to drink coffee. Learning from each other would perhaps enable us to take a new interest in our meals. We might find even a new enjoyment or appreciation in each dish. Yet, learning occurs through questions. Ask a friend what eating is like in their culture, and maybe even discover how foods served in the dining halls should actually be eaten. For example, in the Middle East, couscous is served hot and with a variety of vegetables and meat, rather than as a cold salad. Not eating alone can be as beneficial as taking time to recoup from a busy, hectic day or finding a moment for yourself amidst the academic carnival that is Wellesley.
There are many right ways to eat and few wrong ways. Eating alone has its benefits and drawbacks; in any case, it should neither be glorified or stigmatized. Challenge yourself to use meals as a time for reflection and relaxation as well as an opportunity for strengthening friendships. For an afternoon — even better, permanently — shed the connotations associated with sociable or isolated diners, and find pleasure in solitude. Plan lunches with friends, but also reserve some time for yourself. Find joy in recollection. We should take it upon ourselves to remove the stigma surrounding eating alone. Eating alone is not an indicator of loneliness, but rather, one of self-care and kindness. At the end of the day, how you eat and what you eat are your choices and society should have little jurisdiction over them.
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