Gender Gap

Table for One

Eating alone is rewarding and liberating — why is it so stigmatized for women?

Last year I wrote a book about turning 40, being single and not having children. These are loaded topics, to say the least. After publication, and then when I ventured out on the book tour, I was prepared for a lot of questions: Wasn’t I worried I’d eventually regret my decisions?, Didn’t I get lonely?, etc. And while these did pop up from time to time, the question I got the most frequently shocked me: How did I eat alone?

The first time this came up, I recall repeating the question aloud, wondering if I’d heard it wrong. How do I eat alone? I chalked it up to the individual insecurity of the interviewer. The next time it came from Irish radio program host, and it was posed less as a question than an assumption: as we all know, eating alone as a woman is hard. I chalked this up to cultural differences. I hadn’t been in Ireland since I was a teenager; maybe it was hard to eat alone there as a woman? This was a country, after all, that as recently as the 1970s had separate pub entrances and rooms (snugs) for women.

I recall repeating the question aloud, wondering if I’d heard it wrong. How do I eat alone?

Then at an event on the West Coast for professional women, a woman around my age raised her hand and asked me again. She had gone to a hair appointment the other day, she said, and stopped for a bite to eat on the way home. In walked her hairdresser (a man) who’d paused and said, “you’re here alone?!”  She’d felt so ashamed, she said, and was unsure how to answer. To my continued amazement, many other women in the audience nodded their assent.

I’d included a chapter in the book, where I take myself out to dinner at a restaurant down the street from my Brooklyn apartment, and treat myself to a martini and oysters and a steak. I’d included it as a way to illustrate a turning point in the book; it seemed the easiest way to capture the fact that I was enjoying my life as it was.

This was nothing new. I’ve been eating alone for as long as I can remember, not because I had to, but because it is how I reward myself for a good day’s work, or how I pick myself up after a bad one. It had never occurred to me to think of it otherwise.

As I slowly realized this wasn’t the case for everyone, I began attributing this routine to the fact I’d lived in New York City for most of my adult life where, I joked, “eating alone” was basically a Constitutional right. I’d waited tables for a long time there, too, and had never thought twice about the women who arrived solo. Mostly I was glad to see them, and on busy nights, envious of their lifestyle.

But when the question remained a persistent one, I began to think more seriously about it, and as a result I became more sympathetic to the women who struggled with this.

It’s useful to remember that women doing things on their own outside the household is a relatively new phenomenon, and there is a long history of shame (not to mention fear) attached to women existing in the world on their own terms.

There is a long history of shame (not to mention fear) attached to women existing in the world on their own terms.

A number of years ago, I was fortunate enough to catch the “Prostitution” show at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. The show’s aim was to capture French artists’ depiction of the profession, which was extensive. Prostitutes held a deep fascination for male artists, in large part because they were one of the few groups of women accessible to them (insert your favorite “draw me like one of your French girls, Jack” meme here).

Without the show’s framing, however, the most obvious unifying element of many of these works was simply that they depicted women alone. Sometimes walking by themselves on streets, but more often at cafes having a coffee or a drink. At the time, this fact alone established their line of work. From one of the show’s cards, which I copied into a notebook because I was so struck by it: Street prostitution was largely organized around cafes — establishments never frequented by respectable women without a chaperone.

Respectable woman without a chaperone currently feels like an unintentionally flattering description of my own life, and the lives of so many others I knew. And yet, I need not have gone back a century to find evidence to the contrary. Two of the most famous movies about women on their own are Psycho and Thelma & Louise. The heroine of the former ends up stabbed to death in a shower (has any woman since ever taken a shower at home alone and not thought of this?), and in the latter, they drive themselves off a cliff. Arguably the most famous film about a woman eating alone, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, is about a woman, played by Diane Keaton, who goes to a bar on her own, seeking to free herself from her restrictive life with her parents, a decision which eventually leads to her grisly rape and murder.  

For so long, “respectable” women were always attached in some way, whether by choice or social and economic demands. This was the measure of our value. The idea persists. So much of traditional women’s media and advertisements, after all, encourages women to prime themselves for attachment: as wives or mothers. For some, to be seen alone, is to signal to the world that they are unwanted. Like the woman who felt ashamed when caught out (literally) by her hairdresser.

For so long, “respectable” women were always attached in some way, whether by choice or social and economic demands.

Even New York wasn’t as progressive on this front as I’d long assumed. Earlier this year, a women at a fancy Upper East Side restaurant was required to sit at a table instead of the bar, for fear she was soliciting.

We are still not comfortable with the idea of women on their own. I was reminded of this daily last year simply by turning on the news and listening to the President encourage his followers to chant “lock her up” — two years after the election in which it was clear “her” was referencing a far larger group than one woman.

So, how do I eat alone? Eventually my answer shifted, and I responded with another question. Who benefits from women feeling ashamed? Who is making money off that shame? There is a long list, but “Not women” is really the only answer that matters. I also became far more appreciative of something I’d taken for granted for so long. Eating alone has become not just a small reward to myself after long days, but something that makes me feel exceedingly powerful. It’s the ability to choose where I want to be and with whom (or without, as the case may be). And the freedom to pay my own way and do exactly what I please. What’s more respectable than that?

Glynnis MacNicol is a writer and author of the memoir No One Tells You This.