Ladies! Take This Dinner-Date Challenge!

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By Rita Banerji

This probably is the greatest phobia that I’ve observed in women across all cultures:  it’s the absolute dread of dining out in a restaurant alone

And I don’t mean coffee and sandwich at a homely cafe, while you work or read.  I mean, a full meal in a proper restaurant — where you do nothing else but enjoy the meal at leisure.” 

  In the middle of a jam-packed weekend, I have often been the subject of persistent begging by one or another female friend who is “dying” to try out a certain new restaurant, and can’t find any one to go with her.  “But if you are so keen, why not go yourself?” I’ve often asked.  After all there is no law against it, and men don’t seem to share the same nail-biting anxiety about walking into a restaurant alone.

My American friends would say, “No way! I’ll look a loser. The waiters will be saying…ah there comes the woman who doesn’t have a boyfriend!”  On the other side of the globe, in India, friends say, “I can’t bear to think of the way the waiters and customers will look at me! They’ll be thinking — What a slutty woman! Maybe she’s a call-girl looking for customers.”  It’s incredible how these different excuses from different cultures ultimately feed the same, big, universal hang-up in women!

In ‘The Diary of An Ordinary Woman,’ 22-year-old Millicent King, an English woman, who is visiting Paris, makes this rather painful admission to her diary.

I was exhausted when I got back to the hotel, and hungry and thirsty. I thought about stopping at a café and dining but did not quite have the courage. It is a bother being a young woman on her own, I should feel self-conscious.  So I bought bread and cheese…[and] had a picnic in my room, with the window open, looking out onto the courtyard…

For a few days Millicent continues this way, eating bread and cheese in her room, till she finally picks up the courage to walk into a café for a decent meal.  However this appears to be the outcome of a long and complicated maneuver! This is what she writes in her diary a few days later.

I ate in a café today and managed well. I chose it with care. It was one I had passed and repassed and had noted the clientele included quite a few women, some with children, and I felt I would be comfortable if I sat at a table beside such a group. I also bought a copy of Le Figaro so that if necessary I could hide behind it…

Millicent eventually does not need to use the newspaper for cover, and not only seems to enjoy her meal of fish soup and onion tart, which she has with some salad and white wine, but  ends her meal on a triumphant note! She writes, “…altogether I felt sophisticated and confident.”

In India where I run The 50 Million Missing Campaign, this phobia can often have some serious implications.  Time and again, we hear of cases of extreme domestic violence against women, who are from the middle-class, who are educated and working.  They will complain, that not only do their husbands and in-laws beat them, but as another form of torture, also starve them.  So after a long work day when these women come home in the evening tired and hungry, they will find the kitchen or ladder locked, or the food they had cooked before they left for work eaten by the others, who left nothing for them to eat.  People from outside India often ask, about how it’s possible for these women to go hungry.  After all, they work and earn.  They could just go out and eat at a restaurant!  And that’s exactly the problem.  The cultural and social inhibitions inculcated in India women, keeps them from doing so!  And with their education and earnings, if they can’t walk into a restaurant to stave off hunger, what are the chances they’ll walk out of their violent marriages?

Where does this irrational phobia in women about walking into restaurants alone come from?  Some wise man (and it was a man) told me that this was because since early times, men hunted and women stayed in the caves tending to the children and the fires.  So according to him it is a primordial fear, since women expect men to bring the food home.  Going out for the food was perhaps dangerous for women.  As cute as it sounds, I’m still not buying the Flintstones explanation!  Because there are women who have jobs and careers outside the house for which they walk out of the house, and into alien, difficult and hostile territories every day.

On the contrary I think the reasons are more complex.  And they pertain to how the gender hierarchy of social structures exist and function.  Food is ultimately nourishment.  And I find it interesting, that social norms tend to encourage – even eulogize women in the role of food providers.  So for example, everyone has a story about a certain dish their mother or grandmother makes that no one else can make the same way.  When women are described as warm and caring, there will be descriptions of how they made large meals for their family or guests, and how they’d spend weeks, laboring night and day preparing for the grand family feasts of certain festivals every year.

However, the personal relationship between food and women is always warped, restrictive, and often guilt ridden.   It is awash with tales of bulimia and anorexia.  I have often cringed when I’ve heard my female friends describe a certain dessert they’ve had as “sinful” or “decadent,” followed by an outpouring of guilt about the cream or butter it had.  How come I’ve never heard any male friends do that?  A woman is happy feeding others, but guilty feeding herself.  It seems that built into feminine language and thought there is almost an outright rejection of food as nourishment and energy.  This perhaps is a more insidious form of gender bias in the social control of food distribution and consumption.

Food is not just survival, but to partake of food and to enjoy it is also to experience life in the fullest sense.  Other than sex, eating is the only activity humans indulge in where we open up and take in the experience with all our senses – touch, taste, smell, feel, sound and intuition!

As much as I love going out to eat with friends, I am also an old hand at eating out alone! Sometimes I want to just enjoy the food, and ruminate in my own space without the compulsion of having to speak to someone across the table. And it’s true, what women say, waiters and sometimes other customers, do look, do stare – and can make things a little uncomfortable, if you let them.  I always think it is so strange, how the waiter emphatically repeats “Just one?” and looks over my shoulder, as if expecting someone else, before leading me to the table.  They wouldn’t do that to a man.  In fact, in movies it seems the waiter always behaves like faithful Old Yeller with the solo male customer, very accommodating of his needs, and without being told knows already where the customer prefers to sit, how he likes his meals etc.  Earlier, I’d try to ward off those stares by carrying a book or some work.  Apparently as long as I was working and consuming food on the side, it was o.k. and I didn’t get stared at so much!! And that’s when I thought – well, I’m here for the food, and I will bloody-well enjoy it!   I dress up like I would for a date, I don’t carry a book (like I wouldn’t on a date!) and enjoy the food and my thoughts like I would with a date!

So sisters, wherever in the world you are, if you are reading this, I hope you will consider joining me in this revolution.  Go out on a date with your SELF!  Plan it, just as you would a date – time, place, restaurant – everything.  Dress as you would for a date.  Don’t carry a book or your work with you.  And if the waiter looks surprised when you ask for a table for one, don’t blink.  Just firmly repeat, “Yes, One please.”  If people stare, stare right back, briefly – like you are saying I see you and I don’t care.  But don’t smile, or they will take it as an invitation from a single woman to join her table.  Remember the date is with your SELF! Yes, the first time might be a bit uncomfortable.  But then again – maybe not! It does get easier and more enjoyable each time.  And as Millicent wrote in her diary, it does make you feel “sophisticated and confident!” Bon Appétit!

 

More about Rita

Rita Banerji is an author, photographer and a gender activist from India.

Her book  Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies was released by Penguin Books in 2008 (Penguin Global, 2009).  She is also the founder and chief administrator of The 50 Million Missing, an online, global campaign working to stop the ongoing female genocide in India.

Her works have been published in magazines and newspapers in the USA, U.K., India, Nepal, Hong Kong and Australia.  The publications include The London Magazine, New Orleans Review, and India Today.  She blogs at Rita’s Blog.


Comments

  1. Rita Banerji, more strength to you. Atta girl!! It’s about time too….thank you for writing this piece. I have had dates with myself and enjoyed them thoroughly. There are women who do it but yes it needs to become a revolution too…..

  2. How fantastic is this article! I am inspired already to go out more often and face the waiter and the people around me all together. I used to go to the movies alone all the time when I was single. After I got married never did it again. When I think about it now it is just ridiculous in so any ways because it has NOTHING to do with my husband. He is the most wonderful and feminist man I ever met (lol). It is me… something took me back to the caves. I will make sure I am out there celebrating women´s day in a cafe and a library somewhere. Thank you Rita!

    • No, Nicole — Make a reservation in a favorite restaurant, order your favorite dish — and remember if you get stared at, laugh and look away. You are on a date with yourself and you don’t care :-)

  3. Rita, what a terrific suggestion to recall us to our relationships with ourselves! It’s also a great way to assert our independence as people who make up more than half the human race. But I will offer a small warning: real courage might be required. When I trekked solo around the world, I was kicked out of restaurants in Spain, Greece, and elsewhere for taking up space when I was done with my food or drink, although I was about to order more, and although other groups, couples, and men had been sitting longer than I had without ordering much. I think my solo state made proprietors uncomfortable, as if it might give their place a bad reputation. I do still go out alone now and then, even though I’m married.

    For me, the dining-out experience is social, and being social with myself tends to include a journal or book to commune with, before and after I eat. People-watching is fun, but can feel intrusive in a restaurant, and staring at my thoughts – well, I do that a lot. So I hope you don’t mind if I bring a journal. In any case, that’s the item that seemed to disturb those restaurateurs who made me leave. Writing my private thoughts in public?! How subversive. ;)

    • thx so much for your comments Cara, we agree, dining out does take courage and confidence. A great piece by Rita Banerji and we’re happy to have you here!

    • Dear Cara — That’s just the point. It’s the fight to occupy public space. And you are right — in many cultures that kind of bullying works on a woman but they wouldn’t do it to a man. So carry a note book — why not! But not to use as a shield — more a weapon ;-)

  4. Rita,
    I absolutely loved reading this article. I have been going out for dinner or to the movies alone since around age 25. I’ve even turned down invitations from friends so that I could go out by myself. It really is a dinner date with yourself!
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience about this and showing others how empowering and fun it can be to do something with me, myself and I!
    Sheba

    • You got it Sheba! This really is about claiming, asserting and celebrating individual identity in public space — something women are not socialized to do.

  5. shazaffatima says:

    hi.
    this is an interesting article; yes, eating out alone has been a trial for may women including me. But the real detriment is not always the men or the looks. It’s the desire for company – women are ‘sharers’ and I’ve never not seen a play or eaten at a restaurant because i can’t bear to go alone; the point is, for me, the experience is worth it only if shared with another human being. i’m lucky to always have people at hand to share experiences with. But what I’m guilty for is not being able to go paragliding alone:that made me panic – that’s my challenge for this year – to go it alone, because that’s an experience of one, for one and you don’t really need a companion. so different areas for different women! food for thought!

    • Fatima — I think that is the gender based social conditioning for women. In a way it is to keep us as a collective entity — and not have individual identities and assertions. That’s why we need to take these little, safe steps to break that conditioning till we learn to assert ourselves individually in bigger public spaces.

  6. Vatsala says:

    A great Article!!! there were days when I used to go out eating alone in restaurants often, initially it felt painful as it reminded me of not having any one to go out with but eventually it was empowering. yes of course food has always been one thing I have loved to enjoy and never stopped enjoying it even if it meant to go out all alone. I know people feel pity for you but who cares. and they stares are uncomfortable but then you develop a sense of nonchalance to them. I did manage to have courage to enjoy a movie alone too and I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the experience. Now also I sometimes dine out alone (of course because my husband can not be with me all the time!) but those are mostly lunches. This experience of going solo if the need be has always given me an empowering feeling and always gives me courage that if I could do it then, then I can do it now too if the need be. I know a lot of girls successful in their career and highly educated still prefer to eat bread at home than stepping out to indulge in their favourite food alone. Way to Go Ladies!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. Huh. I have eaten in many many restaurants alone. I go everywhere alone. I do everything alone. I cook for myself – everyday, and I cook good food. You can read about that on my blog: http://www.alisonamazed.wordpress.com
    When I first started cooking good food for myself, and telling people about it, I’d get (from other women): “You did all that just for yourself?” My answer: “Well no one else is doing it for me.”
    When I lived in Budapest, one day I was talking with some young women who knew me, but who I didn’t know, one day and one of them said to me: “I know you. You are that really cool older woman from Canada who rides a bicycle and goes everywhere alone.”
    In all my years of doing things alone, I’ve been more disturbed by the attitude of people who feel sorry for me that I am alone than I have been by being alone. My advice: Get over it. If you find yourself alone, enjoy your own company. …and for heaven’s sake, make yourself a decent meal!

    • great advice alison! here’s to international women’s day!

    • Bonnie Bonis says:

      Hi, Alison. I too sometimes cook elaborately for myself. Having to cook for a family put me off cooking in general. No matter how much I liked what I made, someone else always had something to complain about.

      I also do lots of things on my own. I travel a lot by myself, go to the opera, art exhibitions, cinema, etc., alone if there doesn’t happen to be someone else interested and free and with whom I would be willing to share the experience. I’m never so desperate for company as to put up with the presence of someone who gets on my nerves, and don’t give up doing things I want to do just because there’s nobody else to do them with me. I also find it relaxing to be free to just do what I like, go where I please, make mistakes even, without someone else tagging along behind.

      That said, I must admit I don’t enjoy eating out alone in a restaurant. I do it sometimes when I’m travelling, though I prefer to just pick up a sandwich or a slice of pizza somewhere. Eating out is something I particularly enjoy doing in company. On my own, I tend to avoid crowded restaurants and I simply don’t take the same pleasure in eating if there’s no conversation and no one with whom to comment on the food. Above all, I think my discomfort in restaurants stems from my younger days when going anywhere alone in Italy I would attract the attention and advances of undesirable men. Nowadays I no longer attract anything, but I still feel oddly conspicuous when sitting alone in a restaurant.

      Anyway, all these comments from others are very inspiring and I will think of them next time I decide to have a proper meal even when I’m away from home on my own.

  8. Stephanie says:

    Rita — I just returned from a business trip to Bangalore and it was eye-opening – the wealth of the high-tech boom has not trickled down enough. But everyone I encountered was warm and friendly. Coupled with having seen a documentary a few months ago about activist Sampat Devi Pal and her “pink sari gang”, which had me in tears,your blog strikes a universal chord about how food seems to be the joy and bane of our expeistence!In my business travels, I used to always bring a book or notepad to dinner when alone in a restaurant, but later found that to be cumbersome especially when served multiple courses. Now I tend to approach it as a meditation on the day and a way to really enjoy the taste ans olifactory experience of good food. I wish you well in your campaign for women of India, and may we all one day enjoy a bon appetit!

  9. Swati Bhatt says:

    wow…I am a reserved person and don’t have many friends.I don’t mind eating out alone.But there is always this feeling in my mind that I might be judged as a loser by others present there that she does not have any social circle.But after reading your article,I have gained total confidence that there is nothing wrong in eating out alone.Many friends and colleagues wonder(and sometimes pity me) that how can I dine alone.Some one even said to me that eating out alone daily is not a very good thing.Nevertheless I do it all the time.I don’t mind keeping a company but I am not unhappy in my own company also.

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