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!
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.