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Oct 09 2017
by Lillian Zhang

Why You Should Stop Feeling Self-Conscious About Eating Alone in the Dining Hall

By Lillian Zhang - Oct 09 2017
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You’ve probably heard of the interesting paradox of social media. As an innovative form of technology, it allows millions of people from all over the world to connect and exchange personal details captured in small moments of time: a few seconds of video, a three second Snapchat picture or a status update with multiple hashtags. However, it also breeds a fear that humans, who are naturally inclined to pursue social interaction, fear most: the fear of missing out. In attempts to bring people together to share their experiences with the world, it also sets up walls on its own, constructing barriers that feed on our need to be immersed with all social lives. Every time one goes on one of their social media apps there’s the inescapable realization of feeling left out of all the fun that’s illuminated on the four inch screen. We live in a fast-paced world, no matter where we are geographically, because social media keeps us updated 24/7. At the same time, it reveals how fearful we are of being alone, especially in college.

I remember my first day of college: I woke up, attended class and ate my three meals alone in my campus dining hall. There was no pressure on my first day to eat with someone, but as the week progressed, I found myself asking tables of four if I could sit with them and be the fifth wheel for a half hour or so. It was liberating to break the personal bubbles to chat with other freshmen while we ate, but a month later, I’ve realized how reliant and needy I was then, to be unable to eat until I had sat with another person. Something that was construed as a simple task in a day of responsibilities had become a deeply maddening and agitating experience.

Similarly to the paradox of social media, eating in campus dining halls has revealed how persistent we have become in being involved as much as possible with our surroundings. We strive to eat with a companion or friend because we are afraid that in the perspective of an onlooker, they’ll come to an embarrassing conclusion that we have no friends. We’re staring at our plates of foods, shying away from any eye contact because we’ll accidentally telepathically say to that onlooker “oh, I’m not a loner, I’m just eating alone. Please, oh please, don’t judge!” 

Oh, the horror when people find you lurking alone at a corner table, facing cafeteria walls while shamefully shoving delicious food into your mouth! It’s like high school all over again! But the real questions are: why are we so self-conscious of the way we eat? Why can't we appreciate the small comforting moments of personal time? Seriously, can’t I enjoy my plate of pesto pasta and vegetables alone?

It’s already especially difficult for a college freshman to navigate his or her way around campus, academics and extracurricular activities. There shouldn’t be an additional burden in trying to eat without fear of feeling out of place. Like social media, we choose our facades for each day, because our personal spheres that were once concealed and fortified in our homes have become our public spheres. Each action we choose seems to be motivated by our forceful desire to connect with others, because each second alone in your dorm room feels like an eternity of infinite friendships that could have developed. Our social media reveals our best impressions of ourselves but they are subtly false in that we only highlight our best moments; at times we feel our public selves are scripted. Likewise, the facades we dress up in every day contribute to the false insecurity we have about ourselves that affect the least meaningful events in the entire span of our existence, such as eating in a campus dining hall.

Of course, dining hall conversations are better when you’re sitting with multiple people rather than yourself. But occasionally, there are days where we should ignore our inclination that eating with someone is the be all, end all. As college students we are learning to become more mature adults and one of the pillars of becoming an adult is learning to survive on one’s own. In a true sense, we are all individuals, learning to find our home away from home. Eating alone once in a while should feel blissful because you are in your natural primitive state that’s not influenced by others and their impressions. It gives you more time to think about your day and more time to recharge your batteries. It also provides you with optimal opportunity for people watching. 

In a sense you are writing your own little Walden, scouring the sea of tables of opportunity, finding your own seat at your own table to eat in peace as a self-reliant individual. Maybe you’ll have a chance encounter with a student who shares the same interests as you and a friendship will blossom, but other times you’ll learn more and be more aware about yourself than you’ve initially thought.

Lead Image Credit: Pexels


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Lillian Zhang - Barnard College

Lillian Zhang is a freshman at Barnard College who is undecided about her major and future. At her high school, she was the Features section editor for the school paper and was involved in leading and documenting "Give A Spit", a project that adds donors to the bone marrow registry. If she's not looking in the empty fridge waiting for food to suddenly materialize, you can find her taking serene walks in nature or listening to her Spotify playlists. Follow her on Instagram: @lillianzhanggg or (politically-charged) Twitter: @zhangliahs17

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