On eating alone

Once or twice a week, I walk into Sharples for dinner with a weird feeling in my stomach. I walk down the stairs, look around, and my suspicions are confirmed: I’m eating alone tonight. I swear under my breath, wonder how I’ve managed to lose track of time again, and come after my friends have left the dining hall again. It’s too late to get a to-go container, plus I often eat more than I can fit in one of those trays. I stare down the long sweeping tables, trying to decide where to sit. Are there any tables empty at one end? I don’t particularly enjoy eating alone at Sharples, but eating alone right next to a group of friends or a sports team is incredibly uncomfortable. Why do I feel like I’m the only one whom this ever happens to? That cannot possibly be the case. Am I the only one here who feels judged when eating alone? I know I’m not. In the midst of these questions, what I really wonder is exactly why eating alone bothers me. Outside of the dining hall, I love eating alone. Eating snacks in my dorm room is generally relaxing, and I’ve never minded eating dinner by myself, on the rare occasions before coming to college that at least one member of my family wasn’t home for dinner. The problem isn’t eating alone; it’s eating alone surrounded by other people who aren’t eating alone.
Almost every meal presents a series of social expectations. From arriving and meeting friends to constantly shifting seating arrangements, eating in the dining hall is inherently social. I’ve come to realize that eating alone in Sharples feels weird only because it seems as though no one else is by themselves, and thus, I am on the outside of a widely followed set of dining hall norms. I often open my computer and pull up a reading because I’m worried that my fellow diners will feel bad for me. The sense of being judged by others for being by myself consumes my thoughts any time I eat by myself, even though I know that no one cares or likely even notices that I’m eating by myself. Getting over my own self-doubt about eating alone requires both the confidence in myself to face the internalized pressure to be amongst friends at mealtimes and my own personal stigma that surrounds eating alone. I know that this will come with time, and Eddie Jones ‘19 confirmed this, saying, “I don’t prioritize eating with people. There are time constraints that make it hard to schedule meals with people, and eating isn’t inherently a communal activity, especially since clubs and other activities create other social situations.” The confirmation that eating alone doesn’t mean I’ve failed to fulfill some vaguely defined social obligation was uplifting, and I realized the contradictions of my social paranoia: I’ve never seen someone studying at the library by themselves and thought that they must not have any friends, but any time I’m alone at Sharples, I am convinced that everyone there thinks I don’t have friends. Eating alone doesn’t make me the epitome of all things awkward, and even if it did, that doesn’t need to be a bad thing.
I’ve recently tried harder to avoid eating alone. I’ve stopped setting arbitrary homework goals to reach before going to dinner, and I more often make plans for dinner and lunch in advance. However, by actively trying to eat with others, I wonder if I’ve lost something important. By avoiding being by myself, I am inevitably perpetuating my own stigma surrounding being by myself at mealtimes. I love eating with my friends, but our schedules will not always match up, and eating with them will not be possible every single day. The ability to sit in Sharples and eat a meal by myself—to exist in the room without feeling incredibly lonely—is something that I will have to learn over time, because it will inevitably happen again. It could happen next week, next month, or tomorrow, and when it does, I hope I can convince myself that no one is judging me, and that I certainly shouldn’t judge myself. Instead of mitigating the negative effects of eating by myself, I’d like to learn to enjoy it.
There is value in having a meal by oneself. Taking the time to reflect and relax after a stressful event is essential, and mealtimes are a convenient time to do that. The white noise of the dining hall can aid some in focusing on their reading. Sometimes, it’s just nice to not talk to anyone for an hour. Eating alone can be a positive experience, but only if it is framed that way. I know that I’m not the only one who has ever eaten a meal alone, and I can’t be the only one who feels an unnecessary sense of loneliness when it happens. The atmosphere at Swarthmore is inclusive and non-judgemental, and that does not need to stop at the door of Sharples. The dining hall is for the benefit of students, and both as individuals and a group, we have the opportunity to decide that it’s not just for students in a group but for the individual diner as well.

Laura Wagner

Laura '20 is from Dover, Delaware. She is in the honors program studying political science and economics. Outside of the classroom and the newsroom, her interests include running, politics, and really good books.

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