The human brain is hardwired to detect meaningful patterns amongst seemingly disconnected sequences of events. Our interpretation of those patterns influences the way we perceive and interact with our surroundings. On one hand, the associations we form act as shortcuts that allow us to perform tasks more efficiently. On the other hand, sometimes we can be too hasty in spotting a connection, which causes us to make sweeping generalizations or assumptions about people in a prejudiced and discriminatory way. I’ve been guilty of passing judgment in situations where I might not have the full story, and if jumping to conclusions were cardio, I know plenty of jealous girlfriends you’d think were training to become decathletes. In an effort to become less judgmental, lately I’ve been spending time reflecting upon unconscious patterns and biases I’ve formed that limit my scope of the world around me.
Whenever I set out to change one of my habits, I typically start to notice when other people exhibit the behavior as well. For example, the other day I was sitting next to a woman who was scrolling through Facebook on her phone. She scoffed at a picture someone posted of a salad and muttered, “Well from the looks of her, that’s not all she’s been eating.” Now don’t get it twisted; I’m not opposed to roasting a narcissist who can’t make a friggin’ ice cube tray without documenting every step like they just won The Next Food Network Star, but this woman’s comment made me stop to think about how quickly she made an assumption about her friend’s eating habits based on her appearance.
Before I explain why I was troubled by her comment, I have a quick question for any readers who feel so inclined to make snide remarks about overweight people at the salad bar, the gym, or any other health-conscious environment: Do you also go to the pediatrician’s office to mock sick children? Because that’s about how constructive and encouraging your statements are to someone who’s actively taking steps to improve their condition. I also think it’s worth noting that there’s no way to look at a person and immediately be able to say why they’re overweight…or even what their health status is, for that matter. Rather than defaulting to a generalization that associates all overweight people with being gluttonous, I used what I witnessed as an opportunity to consider some alternatives:
- Does this person potentially eat well and exercise regularly, but have a food allergy, metabolic disorder, or chronic pain that makes weight management especially challenging?
- Is it possible that the individual recently suffered a traumatic personal loss that’s caused their exercise regimen to take a back seat while they address their mental wellbeing?
- Despite still being overweight, could this person have already lost a significant amount of weight, lowered their risk for chronic disease, and established a plan to shed the final pounds?
- Could this person be taking any steroids or medications to treat a serious illness that have side effects of weight gain? If so, is it possible they’re just grateful to be waking up in the skin they’re in, cellulite and all?
- Does the person live in an urban food desert without access to an affordable supermarket, forcing them to buy groceries at a convenience store or gas station without healthy options?
- And lastly, is it possible that the person is genuinely just a slob who lacks the foresight, willpower, or conscientiousness to make more responsible personal choices?
My objective isn’t to ask people to second guess their intuition. For instance, if you see a windowless van with a hand-written “FREE CANDY” sign parked across the street from an elementary school, go ahead and contact local authorities before you climb into the trunk expecting a basket of banana Laffy Taffy. My objective is to bring more awareness to patterns, associations, and preconceived notions we carry in hopes that we can let go of the unfair ones and treat people we encounter with more compassion. And in the meantime…maybe keep your salad pictures to yourself.