Home It's All Mental It’s Not About YOU: Dealing With “Implied Judgment”

It’s Not About YOU: Dealing With “Implied Judgment”

by Erika Nicole Kendall

...those blasted office cookies!!!

One of the strangest things I’ve learned about people along the way… is the fact that people feel judged simply because you do things differently from them.

No, really.

You don’t have to say “Oh, I’d never order that.” in order to make someone feel judged about the decisions they’re making with their food. You don’t have to say “Oh, I’d never eat the office cookies” in order to make someone feel some kinda way about the fact that they did, in fact, eat more office cookies than they’d care to admit. All you have to do… is do something they didn’t.

I know that I’ve always noticed when someone chose to turn down the cupcake or the cookies. I’d always wonder “Who, on Earth, would do something like that?” (Of course, the answer is “Someone who has a sugar addiction, someone who doesn’t want the sugar, someone who isn’t turned on by cupcakes, someone who is watching their figure…” but I didn’t know that, then.)

But the interesting thing, then, is what I’d think next… which is “Is there something wrong with me for eating the cupcakes or cookies? Is there something wrong with the cupcakes?” And this line of questioning always brought me some kind of guilt and shame… causing me to feel bad for wanting the cupcakes, and compelling me to feel like my choice was wrong… thereby making me want to go hide in the corner and binge on ’em by my damn self.

What can I say? I was young, I was weak, and I was emotionally vulnerable in ways I was unwilling to acknowledge. It happens.

I’ve written about food guilt and food shame before, but maybe we should revisit:

Let’s talk about guilt and shame here, for a minute – specifically “food guilt” and “food shame.” I am not a fan of either. Why? Because, quite frankly, they’re ideologies that come from a dieter’s lifestyle. Not the lifestyle of a human being, which makes allowances for error/slip-ups/occasional indulgences. (Note: this is also why I don’t believe in “moderation.” It’s dieter’s mentality. I’m not a dieter. I don’t “moderate” my intake of food. I use common sense.)

Guilt, defined by Merriam-Webster: “a : the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously b : feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy”

Shame, defined by Merriam-Webster: “(1) a : a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety b : the susceptibility to such emotion <have you no shame?>; (2) a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute <the shame of being arrested>”

I brought up these two different situations for a reason. Did I feel a little shame? Of course! No one likes to be wrong. No one likes to feel like they have a “shortcoming,” and no one like to feel like their knowledge of anything is subordinate to someone else.

Someone else who does not know me from a can of paint, however, trying to check me – in, almost, a mocking sense – about “what’s good for my diet?” Monumental fail.

Excerpted from Food Guilt and Food Shaming Are Not Your Friend | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

This new third scenario, however, is different. It’s an implied judgment. It’s assumed that you’re trying to passive-aggressively imply that someone else shouldn’t be doing something simply by the virtue of you choosing to not do it. It’s a strange way for someone to put your choices on a pedestal and measure themselves up to you… but that’s exactly what it is.

I mean, think about it – when we hear a woman talk about how she doesn’t want “big thighs,” how many of us have looked at our own thighs and asked ourselves “What, is something wrong with big thighs? Do I have big thighs? She doesn’t like my thighs?” and it causes us to feel some kind of way about ourselves and the decisions we’ve made for ourselves.

It’s also a way to shoot down common wisdom about wellness and weight, to protect the idea that you caneat what you want in moderation” and that you also can, in fact, “lose weight effortlessly… without all that ‘deprivation‘ and working out” There’s nothing effortless about what I’ve gone through, that’s for sure. But to see you making the hard decisions and, essentially, benefiting from them would serve as proof that people keep talking about the hard way because the hard way works. No one wants to hear (or see) all that, and it’s easier to question you than themselves… or that silly philosophy they cling to.

But why? Why do we feel implicitly judged by someone else’s choices? Why do we feel as though their choices for their own life are an indictment of how we choose to live? If someone decides to hit the gym during their lunch break instead of [insert franchise restaurant], why do we feel like we need to make ourselves feel better by clowning the gym-goer behind their backs over lunch? If someone decides to pass on the office pizza, why do we feel the need to put that person under the bright lights and give them the third degree over their choice?

If I decide that I don’t want to be a size 16, it’s not an indictment on size 16s. If I decide that I don’t want to eat the office cupcakes or the office pizza or the office potluck food, that’s not an indictment on (or judgment of) the people who do. It means that I don’t want it. What I decide for me and my body isn’t about you, so to make it about you is foolish on your part.

There are countless stories, shared by BGG2WL readers on this site, of how people have chastized them for doing what everyone else does – for goodness’ sakes, your “Black Card” can be revoked because of it – or do what they can to throw you off track… all because they feel judged by your choice to live differently.

So my friends take me out for sushi to celebrate (’cause we do go out to eat!). I’m enjoying an eel roll and seaweed salad when the friend of a good friend begins to go off about taking the fat girl out to eat, and that I should go on a water fast for 2 weeks, then a colonic, then vegetarian diet. I told her she know didn’t a thing about diabetes and uncontrolled low sugar levels. She told me that she knew that eating too much brought it on, therefore not eating would take care of it. So I said the only thing I could think of:

“I may be fat today, but I’m loosing weight and getting healthier every day. A year from now, I’ll be smaller, more gorgeous, and won’t even remember you. But you’ll still be mean-spirited and ignant. Sucks to be you.”

Then her friend had to step in before the heifer hit me but that’s another story.

Excerpted from Handling Unsolicited Advice and “Big Girl Guilt” | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

Also popular, is the “how dare you not offer what we want?” meme:

Last year for my son’s bday I set up a fajita station. We had grilled chicken or grilled sliced portobellas for the non-meat eaters, peppers & all the usual fajita offerings (lettuce, tomato, etc), fresh grilled corn on the cob, huge salad, fruit kabobs & of course the required cake & ice cream. My aunt complained the WHOLE time about where the fried chicken & macaroni salad was as if that’s the only fare we can serve at a family gathering. It really worked my nerves. Then she says, picking over my food, “I can’t eat this stuff.”

Stuff? What stuff? *sigh* It saddens me to think that for some of us if it isn’t fried, smothered, or cooked to death (string beans) it’s not our kind of food. This logic is ridiculous.

As for exercising this doesn’t seem to be a problem for men of color. They are encouraged to shoot hoops, run track & bike all day. Yet when a woman of color wants to partake in an activity it’s viewed with ulterior motives. She must be “trying to lose weight for the summer”; or she’s “trying to be cute” (or white). Being active is never viewed as wanting to maintain health or simply for enjoyment. This is bothersome.

Understand what I’m saying, here: it’s one thing to see or hear something you don’t like… it’s another thing entirely to then denigrate it because it’s not what you want.

I guess I speak of it in this fashion because I used to do it. My best friend is a size 6. Trust me. I used to do it a lot.

Is there jealousy involved? Is there guilt or shame involved? Absolutely. I think that is what compels the person who feels judged to respond negatively to you making a different decision than they did. How do you deal with it?

Like I admitted before, I used to be guilty of this. It’s strange now because I went from being the person embarassed that my fat ass was eating cake in public to being the person who everyone’s asking “why aren’t you having any cake?” and giving the puppy dog face when they see you turning it down. I’m extra-sensitive to it because I also know that the wrong word choice would cause someone to feel the same way I did.

And no, it isn’t my responsibility to coddle someone else’s feelings… but I do feel some responsibility to not be insensitive.

When people ask me why I’m not having the cupcakes or any other super sweet thing? I just tell ’em, complete with a head shake, “I just have a headache… the sugar’s only gonna make it worse. Maybe after it dies down.” and I add in a hand toss for good measure. If they inquire further, you “already took something” and you’re waiting on it to take effect. That way, I’m not responding with anything similar to “Don’t you know that cupcakes make you fat?” or “Because I have a sugar addiction and I’m not trying to make it worse.” I don’t want to have any further conversation about my choice, and I don’t want to make an awkward situation worse.

If it’s something oily or cheap-looking? “I want to, but I have a stomach ache. Maybe after I have some pepto.””I haaaate [insert pizza chain.] It always makes me sick when I try to eat it!”

For some strange reason, saying “I’m just not in the mood” isn’t enough, because [thanks to all these cupcake boutiques] people love to respond with “a cupcake will always put you in the mood!” (Mind you, as a recovering sugar addict, this is creepy as hell.)

What I realized about myself – and it may be different for others – is that the times where I felt some kind of way about someone choosing to not eat the cake or cookies, were the times where I wanted to turn it down too, and couldn’t (yet, didn’t know why I couldn’t.) I felt an unnecessary compulsion to indulge… and didn’t understand it. I didn’t get it, but I’d do it anyway and be okay with it because, well, cupcakes taste good. It can’t hurt to have another one, right?

I didn’t want to take the “easy” way out, but I did because it was comforting. It’s a hard decision to go against habit and hit the gym or turn down the cupcakes. I didn’t know what that took then, but taking the time to learn made the difference for me, personally.

Do I think this happens the same way in every situation? Honestly, no. However I do know that, on the course of adopting a healthier lifestyle, we all will encounter this. My only advice is to do what you can to take the focus off of what’s assumed to be judgment, and put it onto something arbitrary that can’t be accounted for. It takes the sting out, squashes the debating, and everyone can go back to enjoying their cupcakes… while you, well, enjoy not enjoying them.

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Zee May 19, 2011 - 11:36 AM

Wow. I guess I’m fortunate that I have food intolerances and allergies, so I can always invoke those when somebody tries to pressure me to eat something I don’t want to. Alternatively, I just say “I’ve already eaten,” and if that’s not good enough for them, I don’t really care. The less I say, the less opportunity the other person has to try and ‘convince’ me to do something I have already indicated I don’t want to do.

I admit that I have low tolerance for the habit people have of “put[ting] your choices on a pedestal and measur[ing] themselves up to you.” This is because I experienced it, not in the food-related context, but in close friendships with folks who had low self-esteem. These kinds of friendships really wore me down. So by the time I started to encounter people who were that way about food choices, I didn’t have it in me to engage with the dynamic.

Biolobri May 19, 2011 - 11:40 AM

Luckily for me (and I mean that sincerely) sugar really DOES give me a headache. It’s the one good thing I got out of all that time of only eating “0 calorie sweetener.” My LOVE for sugar never died down (it probably peaked on all that junk!), but my TOLERANCE changed a whooole lot. Now I’m very sensitive to it, and too much = super sugar high (I feel like I’ve been drugged, seriously!) + MASSIVE headache. I think it’s a great way to break my sugar habit because I CAN’T overdo it. (I mean, I can, but I IMMEDIATELY reap the consequences.) Instead of being able to rationalize away the weight/health consequences, I am faced with immediate results – the headache.

Also, another BGG2WL fan and I were talking about how following this lifestyle (and no, not to a T.. we’re works in progress!) has not done a whole lot for our weight, per se, but it has dramatically flattened our tummies. When we DO indulge in sugar, the next day our bellies are back to doing their best pregnancy imitation. Something we could certainly do without. I told her that when it happens to me I spend the whole day thinking about the most fiber-full things I can eat to try to move everything along and out. It really discourages my sweet tooth.

Grace @ Healthy Dreaming May 19, 2011 - 12:21 PM

Super insightful post! I always feel pressured to order around groups when everyone is eating healthy, I tend to order the same only to feel dissatisfied after I eat because I wished I had ordered something else.

Danielle May 19, 2011 - 9:51 PM

I know how you feel girl! I always order first (telling everyone that Im doing them a favor because I always change my mind 50 times ).

I feel like eating healthy at a restaurant is like a quest in a videogame, and I kinda get a kick out of researching the restaurants nutrition info and deciding what I want and planning my day around it! (wow that makes me sound REALLY wierd!)

Savannah May 20, 2011 - 1:10 PM

Girl you are not weird! I always try to find the restaurant’s menu online so I can decide what I want before hand. I’m also someone that change’s her mind a lot so it makes ordering quicker (my GF has no patience when it comes to ordering!). I also try to eat before hand, at least a protein bar or a piece of fruit so I’m not starving when we get there and order something I shouldn’t because I was too hungry to make a good decision.

Serenity May 19, 2011 - 12:31 PM

And that behavior is learned. I look at children who will or won’t eat something an adult does and they aren’t judgmental at all. Some where down the line we teach them conformity. When you can shake that shackle it becomes a non-issue

Alovelydai May 19, 2011 - 12:41 PM

See that’s the thing. NO ONE says, “Hey you can just have one drink” to a recovering alcoholic and yet we do it all the time with people who have sugar/food addictions.

I don’t believe in moderation either and I had to hear that for a while. Oh & my other favorite, “but you’re doing so well, you can have 1 cookie!”

Bannef May 19, 2011 - 1:36 PM

I can definitely see it from both sides. My mother is downright pathological regarding food – she’s always worried there won’t be enough. We rarely eat canned food, but our pantries are filled to the brim with it (we get rid of them when Christmas carolers come by with can drives :D), and whenever she cooks she always makes SO much. And when guests are over? Forget it. She always gets too much, and will always try “tempting” people with it. She’s not pushy (thankfully!) and she won’t ask questions when people say no, unless it seems like a person really wants it and just feels guilty, but she does this, and I can see it in my behavior too.

Partially she does it because she was taught that this was what a good host does, but honestly I think it’s partially because she “inherited” HER mother’s very honest fear that there wouldn’t be enough food – but living on a good income in NYC is very different than trying to survive on a cruddy farm in France through World War II. Her mom came over when she wasn’t that old (and my mom was an infant), but you learn these things as kids… My point is, that whole “just take a cupcake, just take oooooooone” thing is so weird! But I get it.

Daisy May 19, 2011 - 2:39 PM

I just recently discovered that I too have a sugar addicition. I’ve been eating better for about two years now and never really have sweets and stuff in my house except when i slip up and buy a pound cake when I shouldn’t. So anyway that hasn’t happened in awhile. But I still encounter a lot of cake at my office because of course we celebrate every birthday with a bunch of cake. So now because of who i am, I’m know as the cake cutter in the office. Now that you are more aware of your addiction, etc. do you turn down cake all the time? Because I truly love cake, or at least i think I do. But I know the power cake has over me & i also know that if I were to turn down cake, everyone at my office would get on me because I’m the cake person.

Tatiana May 19, 2011 - 2:51 PM

I really like how you weave food and culture into one awesome post. Since I’ve never had a lot of friends, I was spared a lot of the stresses that come from interpersonal relationships.

However, I’ve experienced something similar with my family. I’m a really picky eater, and generally I don’t eat anything I’ve never had before – if that makes sense. I don’t normally care, but my family often makes me feel bad that I don’t eat a variety of stuff. They often tell me, “You should try new things.”

Semi-recently, my grandmother got really upset with me because I only eat burger king in terms of fast food. I don’t like fast food, so I don’t understand the need to eat more of it. But she kept getting on me about “what if I’m out on a date and I don’t want to eat anything because all I eat is Burger King?” It was actually, in retrospect, really irrational. But I guess for a lot of people who feel a lot of shame or frustration over food, they tend to project. So I always get nervous when I’m in a situation with food involved because I’m tired of people trying to dictate what I should eat.

So, you’re right: what I eat isn’t a reflection of you.

L.P. May 19, 2011 - 4:50 PM

In the past couple of weeks, I have had several business lunches where people were inquiring why I wasn’t eating the bread (you know in the bread basket), I had to go with “I have a slight gluten intolerance, so I have to be careful with bread etc…” I realized that people react better when it’s an allergy/food intolerance/sickness thing than just flat out saying “because I don’t want to”… It keeps the peace and avoids further (unnecessary) comments.

Good post!

Eva May 20, 2011 - 9:40 AM

It’s like this. I don’t drink, I don’t drink soda, and I try to stay away from sugar.

If someone asks why I’m not eating it, I just say, I’ve had enough. It’s not my responsibility to tell anybody my life story.

Andrea May 21, 2011 - 5:35 AM

I found myself nodding my head in agreement throughout this entire post. While I never announced to my coworkers that I was losing weight, they all pretty much caught wind of it from my rapidly shrinking body , plus the fact that I chose to workout during lunch, and I instantly started experiencing the “implied judgement” syndrome from people. I used to joke that I always felt like the food police at work b/c people would come up to me and feel as if they had to explain themselves to me if they made a poor eating choice or preface grabbing an “office cookie” with some sort of justification directed at me. I’ve of course also experienced the infamous food pressure aka “you can have just one…” which I absolutely hate! There’s no such thing as “just one” for me. If I have one, I’ll crave another and there begins a vicious cycle.

There is also another side to this too, though. Have you ever experienced what I guess could be considered “reverse implied judgement?” For example, eventually my coworkers learned that if they offered me the cake or cookies, I was gonna say no, so it got to the point where they wouldn’t even bother offering it to me. They would go from office to office offering leftover muffins from a breakfast meeting, etc, but waltz right past mine. At first this was fine…great even! I thought “they finally get the point and are trying to be respectful. No more having to explain myself.” But then something happened. There came days where I DID want that muffin or that cookie on the table at the meeting, but felt that I couldn’t have it because “what would everyone think??” Would they be gloating in their heads? Would they think I’d fallen off the healthy bandwagon? So basically I felt implied judgement and pressure that MY food choices were now being watched and judged. Erika, have you ever experienced this too? Do you ever now?

Lauren June 7, 2011 - 12:52 AM

This is truly a universal problem. Honestly, nothing I do has anything to do with anyone else, especially what I eat, why don’t people get that? Is there some kind of transcendence others must attain before they quit taking everything so personally? Anyway I really enjoyed this article and what works for me is to say, “I want to take my thyroid meds in two hours and it has to be on an empty stomach.” True story. It does have to be on a two hours-empty stomach, but I take them in the morning and then I can’t eat for an hour after that, so it’s only slightly a lie, but I tell myself it’s okay because when I tell it, it’s true and then I change my mind later. Not really. But anyway. I really reaally liked the other poster’s “Oh I’ve had enough!” reason. That’s a good one to keep in mind. Your blog backdrop is lovely and I think I’ll stick around and read some more.

Troy August 27, 2011 - 12:58 PM


Thanks for your well written article. It rang true for my experience and it’s interesting to see the transference that can happen with implied judgement. You’ve explained the dynamic in a great way which help me be sensitive to others as I make my new healthy choices.

Great Blog!

Stefanie September 19, 2011 - 10:15 PM

Troy said that well; therefore, I second that!

Dee September 10, 2012 - 6:27 PM

Hmmm, nobody ever asks me why I’m turning down the cupcake or treat. Now I’m feeling implied judgement that they FULLY AGREE I shouldn’t be eating the cupcake!! LOL!!!

I have noticed that people act like this alot around turning down alcohol. I have to find a way to abstain that doesn’t imply that I think they are a lush. (I don’t think that). Seriously- refusing to order or take at least one drink invites great alarm and many questions.

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