What is this?
July 1, 2012 6:58 PM   Subscribe

When I go through periods of working out a lot and eating well, I find myself overly critical of the bodies of people I see in public. What is this and how can I stop?

I've been going through a period where I'm trying to eat very clean and well and hit the gym 4-6 days a week. I notice when I ramp up on exercise and eating well, I become really critical of other people's bodies (mostly strangers). I'm not usually this way at all. Today I saw a really overweight woman when I went to buy lunch right after the gym, and almost didn't want to eat anything any more. I was totally grossed out by her. However, this has happened with much thinner people as well, and not just women ( I am a woman). I'll notice flabby stomach or thighs and just be grossed out and feel really critical towards them- having thoughts like "Why don't they take better care of themselves, etc" -- I never think these things normally!

When I've done this before, the feelings usually go away once I've got my fitness routine down and am starting to see my own results. However, these feelings bother me almost to the point that I don't want to work as hard on getting in shape.
I don't want to be feeling this way toward other people, especially to the point where I feel sick about it.

Yes, I'll talk to my therapist about it.
posted by zutalors! to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you're projecting your feelings about the things you don't like about yourself onto them.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:04 PM on July 1, 2012 [14 favorites]

I guess reminding yourself that you can't possibly know enough about these people to make a judgement about how they treat themselves could help.

You don't have to feel bad about having thoughts, they tend to just happen. And humans tend to compare themselves constantly to other humans. But if you allow the thoughts to turn into some kind of opinion about someone's personal choices or work ethic you are on the wrong side of the tracks. Thoughts like those are best dismissed, turn the volume down on them.

Being a complex person yourself, surely you can appreciate that more often than not people are not what they seem.
posted by TheRedArmy at 7:07 PM on July 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

One way that I keep myself from judging others is by reminding myself that I don't know the whole story. That woman over there who weighs 300 pounds & is eating a burger? Maybe she just lost 100 pounds, and she keeps herself motivated by eating a burger every Friday. Maybe she has an eating disorder and is super self-conscious about eating in public, and this is the first time she's eating a burger in public in years. Maybe she's a compulsive over-eater. Maybe she is healthy, eats well and exercises, and this is part of an overall-balanced meal plan. I just don't know - there is NO way to know what someone's story is or how healthy they are without a in-depth conversation.

Especially remember that a person who is overweight could be healthy - eat balanced, appropriately portioned meals, exercise, have excellent numbers (cholesterol, blood pressure, etc), while a person who is "normal" weight or thin could eat crappy food, never exercise, and and have terrible numbers. There is no way to know.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:37 PM on July 1, 2012 [19 favorites]

I would try to remember that different people have different priorities. I know I for one am not eating well right now but that's because I am in the process of interviewing for a job, getting a new apartment, and balancing a ton of freelance and regular work. At times like that my focus for exercising goes down. I wish it didn't, but it's not like I am doing nothing but shoving food into my mouth at times like these, even though that might be what it looks like to someone with your mindset.
posted by mlle valentine at 7:40 PM on July 1, 2012

Best answer: Assuming these are just occasional thoughts and you're not obsessing over them or accosting strangers to criticize them or something, I think you should try not to beat yourself up over this. Just acknowledge the thought and then let it go. No harm is being done.

There's a lot made of how terrible a sin it is to judge people, most of all their bodies. But just because something would be very mean to say out loud doesn't mean you're a bad person for thinking it. Just keep it to yourself, continue treating other people with kindness and respect, and keep doing your thing.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:42 PM on July 1, 2012 [11 favorites]

Pick something about yourself that you don't take care of and which you are completely ok with the fact that you neglect that side of yourself (eg maybe you've never bothered to learn another language because it's just not important to you to do so), then use that as a sort of talisman when you see people neglecting things that you are not neglecting.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:42 PM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I appreciate these answers, but they are definitely getting off track. These are more intrusive thoughts than "my mindset," as I note in my question this is not exclusively about overweight people, and it only happens when I personally am ramping up my own fitness routines and trying to focus on my diet. I also noted a few times that I do not usually think this way and am not happy about it.
posted by zutalors! at 7:43 PM on July 1, 2012

Best answer: Beyond just projecting your emotions/beliefs onto others, I think that consciously making changes to be healthier makes you more *conscious* of the *apparent* choices others have made. But what you see on the outside of others is not necessarily due to their own choices or habits. Some people may be couch potatoes and eat lots of junk food and still be thin, and some people may work out a lot and still be bigger.

As an unrelated example, if you made an effort to wear blue more often, and believed wearing blue was good for your health and even maybe morally better than other colors, or if you were part of a society where blue was perceived as better than other colors, you would probably notice other people wearing blue more often. (stick with me here.)

You decide to wear blue more often, and you feel good when you do. You start paying more attention to the colors you wear, so naturally you start watching the colors other people wear. Sometimes you think postively about others (what a lovely shade she has on!), and sometimes negatively about others (That' the fourth day she's worn red!) You might also wonder about why other people weren't wearing blue. What you wouldn't know is the reason why others chose or were unable to wear blue. Maybe someone's coloring doesn't look good with blue. Maybe some people have a preference for wearing other colors. Maybe some people's environment doesn't make it easy for them to wear blue (they only have hand-me-down clothes, none of which are blue, and can't afford to buy blue clothes). Maybe some people have blue available but have made the choice not to wear it.

/end metaphor. Basically, your relatively-new emphasis on your health may make you more sensitive/conscious of other's health as well. What you don't know is if others' choices are actually reflected in their physical bodies in a fair or even way. Try to remind yourself of that when you have these thoughts. (I do that too sometimes when I'm too obsessive about exercise/diet, and I realize it's just a way for my brain to be self-hating covertly. Not saying you do that, but if you notice this a lot, your brain may be trying to play this trick on you too.)
posted by shortyJBot at 7:45 PM on July 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

The very fact that you identify times when you are eating well and working out indicates that there are times when you aren't eating well and working out. How do you feel about being the target of others' judgment when these activities can't be a first priority for you?
posted by Miko at 7:48 PM on July 1, 2012

Best answer: If you have the kind of body that responds well to dietary/physical changes, it can be really really easy to begin thinking that it is the same for everyone. Your framework for these thoughts is that if they did what you're doing, they would have the results you have. Which makes it easy to judge as well.

I get like this with cooking. Because *I* find it easy to look at a fridge and cook a number of meals with next to nothing, it's something I simultaneously devalue (anyone can do it) and judge people on (since anyone can do it, they're obviously choosing not to). It's not the case.

I 'stop' by acknowledging that not only do I have this skill or attribute (cooking/reactive metabolism/whatever) it's okay to value that as a skill AND the effort that I put in. Losing weight is hard work, cooking well is hard work, and it's okay to value that. The flipside is acknowledging that other people make different choices (my house is very messy compared to some) and have different needs (cooking is difficult for a lot of people due to disabilities).

Short answer: acknowledge the work you do, accept others may make different choices, and that in the grand scheme of things you have NO CLUE what another person goes through.
posted by geek anachronism at 7:54 PM on July 1, 2012 [11 favorites]

One thing that might help is to learn about and understand how exercise actually has very little to do with how fat someone is or isn't. And actually, how much someone eats also has very little to do with how fat they are. The number one factor in how fat a person is WHAT they consume, specifically carbohydrates.

So, don't look down on people for being fat, because chances are they're like that due to decades of bad health advice from their doctors and the government health agencies. It's not a matter of mental willpower, either. Fat people aren't fat because they eat a lot -- they eat a lot because they're fat. Their bodies are literally starving internally because their insulin levels are always high, which forces fatty tissue to keep fat stored and not use it as energy -- so they must eat more to make up for the energy that is getting stored as fat and not being released when they need it because of chronically high insulin.

[and to anyone who reads this and thinks "but *I* lost a lot of weight by dieting and getting exercise!" you must consider 2 things: 1) exercise is still great for you in tons of other ways and everyone should get plenty, but it is simply not effective for burning fat or losing weight and 2) every person is different -- if you lost weight by dieting it's because your healthy diet probably replaced refined grains for whole grains, and you have a natural, genetic ability to handle a moderate amount of carbohydrates that others do not posses]
posted by imagineerit at 7:54 PM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't necessarily get these thoughts about overweight people, but I do have these kinds of thoughts about other things, and like you, I don't like them either. What I try to do when I have intrusive thoughts like this is I try to think of a counterexample.

So if I were you and I saw a person who was overweight and I felt grossed out about it I would try to think of other areas where they might be strong and I am weak. Like, a woman is overweight but maybe she's fostered dozens of kids over the years and changed their lives in a positive way. Or an overweight man who has maybe dedicated hundreds of hours of his time to a volunteer cause like helping the homeless and downtrodden or manning a suicide line.

Sometimes I might think of the people in their life, like maybe they have children or grandchildren who think they're the greatest thing ever. Maybe they're the primary caretaker for an aging parent because they refuse to put them in a nursing home. Maybe this is a person - like the lady in the youtube video who was being bullied by all the kids on the bus - who has dealt with a lot of pain in their life and has been picked on by others for how they looked. Maybe if I were ever in a bad or difficult situation, this might be the person who comes to my rescue, or provides a ray of hope for me. Because I can tell you for certain, there are a lot of people who have impacted my life in ways that have made a huge difference and none of them have been beauty queens.

I mean, these are just random thoughts, but the point is I try to go beyond my initial knee-jerk reaction and remind myself of the complexity of that person and in doing so remind myself that it is never about how they look, or how they're acting, or whatever it is that has me riled up at that moment. A person is never all about just that one thing.

Then I try to remind myself of all the ways that I maybe fall short and disappoint other people. Sometimes I drive like an idiot. I don't mean to - I generally think I'm a careful and thoughtful driver, but lord knows I've made stupid mistakes. Sometimes I've maybe done any number of things in public that will have upset other people (whether they were justified or not). The point is I am not perfect either and I know this seems basic, but there are times when I am impatient or upset with someone (for whatever stupid reason) and I need to remind myself of this. My entire life history is an illustration of people being tolerant of me and accepting me despite my shortcomings and for me to do anything less for others is a horrible thing to do. So not to get all down on myself (and don't get too down on yourself), but I do need to stop and remind myself of these things. And when I am able to do that I can honestly realize that there is only one thing that is truly ugly about this situation and it is not the other person.
posted by triggerfinger at 7:59 PM on July 1, 2012 [10 favorites]

Your post made me think of a study that was in the news a month and a half ago about people who eat organic foods being more judgmental in general. Maybe something similar is happening with you as you are feeling your choices in food and exercise are more "morally virtuous" (quote from article) than others and therefore are feeling more judgmental of others? Sounds like human nature to me. Consciously practicing empathy may help.
posted by cecic at 8:05 PM on July 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Putting a rubber band around your wrist and snapping it when you notice yourself having intrusive judgmental thoughts might help train yourself out of them.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:14 PM on July 1, 2012

Also, the book Feeling Good has a lot of useful suggestions about rewriting your self-talk scripts.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:15 PM on July 1, 2012

Best answer: How do you motivate yourself to eat well and cleanly, and to work out? Is it with the same sort of harsh terms that you're finding yourself using to judge others? If so, you might break down your own motivation process and rework it so it's not so much about criticism.

(IANA shrink of any sort) People who have intrusive thoughts as part of a mental illness process like an anxiety disorder or a phobia have two components to deal with: the thought's contents are distressing, and the thought's persistence is distressing. So one part of managing is to accept the thought's contents and keep them in perspective, accepting that everyone has a shocking or unpleasant thought occasionally and it doesn't require extreme scrutiny. The other part is to try not to suppress the thoughts, a la pink elephants. When it happens, let it float away.
posted by gingerest at 9:05 PM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster:
How do you motivate yourself to eat well and cleanly, and to work out? Is it with the same sort of harsh terms that you're finding yourself using to judge others? If so, you might break down your own motivation process and rework it so it's not so much about criticism.

I think you're really on to something. It seems like it's possible I motivate myself using negative criticism ( I definitely do) and then just keep that going so it extends to others. Definitely something to think about.

Also want to say how much I appreciate the comments explicitly about the intrusive thoughts (as well as the memail notes I have gotten) because my not understanding different body types is really not the issue.
posted by zutalors! at 9:10 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

To take this in another direction, are you sure you are eating enough? I know when I get hungry, my anxiety goes through the ROOF. Like, sitting on my bed crying thinking about Jason Varitek as a little kid and how someone might have been mean to him once through the roof. If you went from eating whatever whenever you felt hungry to really trying to limit your food intake, you might be struggling with the transition and need to add more calories or eat at a different time.

Aside from that, I really like the other suggestions to imagine things about the other people you see- after you think something critical, you try to come up with as many reasons as you can that your criticism might not be valid. Maybe the person you saw is actually an athlete- did you see the FPP on Sarah Robles?
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:26 PM on July 1, 2012

I've found negative instruction is sometimes better than positive instruction.

When you see someone doing something well (like a body builder or something) sometimes they're so at the top of the game it seems insurmountable. "I want to be like them....but they do so much!"

When you see someone doing something poorly (like not eating healthily, with the body to support that) you can say, "this is something easy I can do."

I honestly don't think it's a big deal, as long as you don't suit your thoughts with actions (yelling at people or treating them poorly) or prolonged disgust. In theater I am acutely aware of who's doing poorly and why, and what I can do to avoid that - when people are good it's harder to pinpoint. I assume someone involved in fashion looks at "normal" people's wardrobes and goes, "oh, that's not good!" more that, "yes, that's working"

When your focus is health and fitness, people who are not leading "healthy" lives (and regardless of personal circumstances, many people don't lead healthy lives) become your focus.

Honestly, I do the same thing. I have a lot of unhealthy friends. Sometimes I find myself noting what they eat or how they exercise and comparing that to what I do. I would say don't beat yourself up over these feelings, but it is coming from someone else that does it.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 9:46 PM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Could it be resentment over how hard you are working? As in when you are on a clean eating track you feel angry and disgusted that you are the only one following 'the rules' and by god if you are following them its not fair that others aren't?
posted by TestamentToGrace at 3:31 AM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I do this too to motivate myself, that I do not want to look like or be like that person any more.
I was quite overweight and had health problems because of it, am now working out and watching what I eat and getting great results. It is hard but worth it, and I never would have thought I could do anything like this.

Negative thoughts about those out of shape help me stick with my diet and workout routine. I don't ever say anything unkind to a heavy person, nor treat them badly, but thinking it can't hurt and it helps me without hurting them. Here is an example, out to eat with a group of women at a buffet. The largest woman in the group, over 300 lbs, heads over the ice cream dispenser after a many course meal. I suddenly lose my appetite for desert and leave.
posted by mermayd at 5:07 AM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I sometimes go through phases of having intrusive thoughts. What's helped me in the past is when I think the Bad Thought I then immediately make myself think some other not-very-interesting thing that's totally unrelated. So if I were having your thoughts, it might go like this:

INTRUSIVE THOUGHT: That woman is really fat!
DELIBERATE THOUGHT: Am I loading my dishwasher properly?

INTRUSIVE THOUGHT: Wow, that man has an enormous belly and is unattractive and should look after himself better!
DELIBERATE THOUGHT: Am I loading my dishwasher properly?

I do it every time I catch myself getting caught up in intrusive thoughts anxiety, and it seems to annoy the questions out of myself.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:36 AM on July 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

One thing I learned in therapy is that the reason thoughts like this become intrusive for me is because of projecting and boundaries - I'm imagining how horrible I'd feel if that were me, and it feels directly painful. I remind myself that I am doing what I can for Myself, and those other people have struggles of their own. I definitely find that it helps to look for something Great about that person (Gorgeous hair! Pretty shirt!) to help myself get back to more positive thoughts, or the intrusive thoughts get worse.

I also find it helpful to turn it back to my own choices, again - those people are strangers with their own struggles, but this week I plan to train in These ways and grocery shop for Those things. It keeps me focused on the things I can do for myself, rather than imagining pain that I'm not actually currently experiencing.
posted by ldthomps at 9:11 AM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

A trick from cognitive therapy: ask yourself how much you in fact believe and agree with Intrusive Thought. Quantify your answer: 40%? 60%? 80% 20%?

This trick helps me stop identifying myself with my intrusive thought, and instead lets it be some weird cultural virus that happens to be floating through my particular brain at the moment, perhaps because recent activities left me especially susceptible.
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:26 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another trick, from mindfulness practice: it's really hard to be non-judgmental if you're blaming yourself for being judgmental -- seriously, it's not just some logical paradox; it's like trying to relax your arm muscles while making a fist. So for the sake of all those other people you don't want to judge, kindly stop beating up on yourself.
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:32 AM on July 3, 2012

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