On Judging People Based on What They Eat

September 25, 2014

Writing is a constant balance of being honest and authentic and hiding some things (“cultivating mystery,” as a wise friend advised) as to not, you know, make me seem totally unlikable. So here’s something that makes the “real me” quite obnoxious: judging people based on what they eat.

For example, this very morning as I was working at my cafe (in NYC, back at last!), a couple sat down next to me with two lattes, two chocolate croissants dusted with powdered sugar, and two bagels thickly spread with cream cheese. Immediately I wondered whether they had more people joining them. (No). I glanced at them devour the bagels and pastries out of the corner of my eyes. Then ten minutes later I raised my head to discover that they had finished everything. This prompted a flood of judgmental thoughts in my head–at the very end of which appeared a small voice of reason saying, “this is none of your business, why do you judge?”

On Judging People Based On What They Eat

Should I really care if someone else can’t choose just one pastry for breakfast?

I could justify my reaction through the prism of vegan literacy. It’s true that I have become far more aware of how people eat as a result of my veganism. As an ethically-motivated vegan, my own eating style is irrevocably tied to my personal sense of integrity. In our post-food-literacy world, even non-vegans freely acknowledge that our food choices have a direct impact on the environment. If vegan-local-organic (etc) choices signal an informed and conscientious person, then is it so wrong to make inferences in the opposite direction?

But all of that is rationalizing an irrational, petty, emotional reaction. 1. I recognize that even if the couple were eating completely vegan versions of the same foods, I would have judged them only a little less harshly. 2. Some thoughts that occur in my head has nothing to do with someone’s moral character. For instance, when I see a woman eat a steak, I don’t think “wow, she’s really contributing to global warming,” it’s “that looks so unfeminine.” What right do I have to judge someone’s femininity or attractiveness based on what’s on her plate?

When I catch myself veering in this direction, this is how I try to right the wrong.

1. Any kind of superficial judgment of others is based on our need to feel superior. On a deeper level, my reaction to other people’s food choices reflects my need for validation, to try to compare myself against others and come out on top. I know this because I also feel a sense of insecurity when faced with crystal-pure eaters, who take it several steps further than “fairly healthy but not health-obsessed vegans” like myself. Instead of using food choices to affirm one’s place in the world, it would be infinitely more mature to use other ways, such as putting effort into passion projects, helping others, experiencing true love, or what have you.

2. “Ethical” eater doesn’t equal to an ethical person–and an ethical person doesn’t equal an ethical eater. Food is of course a huge part of our lives–but it’s not the only part of our lives, and at least for me, not even close to the biggest part of my life. I would be loath to call myself an “ethical person” simply because I make ethics-based food choices.

The truth is, abstaining from animal-based foods posed no great difficulty for me even from the very beginning. In my journey of self-discovery and fulfillment, becoming vegan was the lowest hanging fruit. For me personally, overcoming more powerful demons would be a far greater marker of my integrity. And this battle isn’t over just because I automatically reach for vegan foods.

The reverse is also true. One of my mentors, who is the most conscientious person I know, is not an “ethical eater” or anyone who thinks of eating that way. But although he eats a traditional American diet, he is still the first person I think of when I need a moral role model.

3. No one likes to be judged…and some days, it will be you. I recoil so much from being judged by my food that there is a secret list in my head of the most hurtful comments. My college ex-boyfriend has contributed at least a few barbed comments about my sweet tooth–which bothered me so much that I can even remember the brand of vegan chocolate pudding I was eating at the time. I also have a designated place in my heart for my sister’s off-hand remarks about how much more I eat than her. Feeling crappy when on the receiving end of judgment reminds me to slip off the judgmental glasses and see people for who they are, not what they eat.

Have you ever judged someone based on what’s on their plate? Or have you felt judged? 

Also see: Think Yourself Toward Compassion

Orthorexia: The Dangers and Compassion

The Raw Food Question

Beauty of Living Life in the Grey

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Photo: Valerie Hinojosa via Flickr

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Originally from Portland, Oregon, Juhea now lives in NYC with her Oreo cookie cat, Zeus. When she is not writing, she enjoys running in Central Park, yoga, and teaching Barre classes. Follow Juhea on Instagram @peacefuldumpling, Google+ and Pinterest.

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