Pre-pandemic, it was cool for women to do stuff alone – what’s changed?

Pre-pandemic, solo living was having a moment, but it feels like the tide has changed. Following the Strong Women Trek, editor Miranda Larbi asks why it’s so uncool for women to hike alone.

When was the last time you intentionally did something alone? I don’t mean going for a stroll around your local park or working in a cafe with a coffee, but something bigger. And if it’s been recently, what were other people’s reactions to your solo escapade?

I ask this having turned up to the Strong Women Trek in Surrey solo. Sure, I’m the editor, so I kind of had to walk it, but for the first time in a long time, I was rocking up not knowing who I’d spend the day with. As it turned out, I spent most of the route walking with two people: someone I’d known for some time but hadn’t arranged to meet and a total stranger.

What struck me, however, was the fact that both of these people, upon telling their friends or partners that they were going to do the Trek alone, had been told how weird or brave that decision was. 

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“When I told people that I was going to do the Trek alone, I got quite a shocked look,” Tori, the PR I walked with, recalls. “People were like: ‘Why would you do that? Are you crazy?’ They couldn’t get their heads around the fact that I didn’t know who I was going to walk with – they wanted to know why I wouldn’t want to bring someone I knew.”

It was a similar story for a few of the women I spoke to on the day. And yet, surely, it’s perfectly normal to sign up to community activities alone? After all, none of the mates I have in London are into fitness – and the ones who would enjoy a walk are inevitably booked up until 2055 with hen dos and weddings.

Towards the end of 2019, it felt as if we were moving into a new feminist age: the era of doing stuff alone. I went travelling with a mate for a month and stayed on to explore bits of Peru on my own. When I returned to the UK, I lived a resolutely solo lifestyle for the first few months of 2020 – lunching, working and exercising alone. And I was just one of a number of women learning the importance and value of doing stuff by themselves. Nicola Slawson launched The Single Supplement, Francesca Specter created Alonement and umpteen podcasts all seemed to advocate the benefits of solo socialising. 

My theory is that the tide has turned. Pre-pandemic, solo living was having a moment. Now, after two-ish years of being kept apart, the pressure is on to spend every moment having fun with someone else.

“I wish I could say I was surprised by that attitude, but I’m not,” says Nicola Slawson.

“You’re right, there was a bit of a movement before Covid, but at the moment, there’s pressure to be seen to be doing loads of things and making the most of post-pandemic life – going to festivals or on holiday or just going out a lot with other people.”

Recently, Slawson went to a gig on her own in Manchester. “I felt kind of embarrassed, even though it was my cousin’s band that I was going to see.” Travelling up there alone, having dinner alone and going to a gig alone… it was all fine. It’s something she’s done before, and yet she still felt the pressure to go with someone else.

Is it the pandemic, the cost of living or our age to blame?

So, what’s going on? Perhaps it’s an age thing: I turned 30 in 2019, and with that big birthday came a renewed sense of confidence and independence. But I’m also convinced that the pandemic did change something about the way we socialise and how we spend our free time. Maybe the cost of living crisis has a role to play? Back when our pound went further, it wasn’t such a luxury to spend on self-care and solo activities. Now we’ve got less money in our pockets, it arguably makes more sense to spend it with other people. And all this feeds into the fact nothing about this summer feels real – the world seems to be falling apart and yet here we are, trying to make sure we’re seeing a different group of friends every weekend – uploading to Instagram Stories as we go.

Tori, for her part, disagrees that the pandemic’s to blame for the solo judgment. “I think it’s always just been a taboo,” she explains. “The dynamic from school of having set friendship groups doesn’t change. Even at university and work, you’ve got your group of friends and a lot of people are afraid or threatened by their friends making new contacts. I don’t think it’s ever been empowering to do stuff alone.”

Despite that, however, she’s set on doing more things on her own. “You can’t be judged if you’re doing your own thing, and if you’re OK with that, you don’t end up having to rely on other people to do stuff.”

Images: Getty

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