Women’s magazines love to use the word “willpower”:
“It seems there are two kinds of women: those that have willpower of steel and can somehow manage to avoid a taste (or two or three) of dough when making cookies, and the women who not only have a taste, but also lick out the bowl! Given that holiday baking season is on our doorsteps, I have to know: How many of you have been known to partake in a little cookie dough?” ~ Glamour.com
“In a world where you can inhale half your daily allotment of calories as you turn left out of the drive-thru, often the only thing standing between you and a few extra chins is willpower—that oh-so—elusive ability to halt the urge to indulge. …
These four tactics target the most common resolve busters. Put them into practice, and pretty soon that cheesy Sicilian slice or glazed doughnut will be no match for your mental strength.” ~ Women’s Health
The word “willpower” stands for everything that’s wrong with our weight. We aren’t skinny enough because we don’t have the willpower to resist dessert. We aren’t fit enough because we don’t have the willpower to work out. And, according to Women’s Health, a weak willpower can have dangerous consequences: An appetite for a Sicilian slice can result in several chins, and no doubt other atrocities.
To me, when women’s magazines write about “willpower,” it’s soaked in guilt and doesn’t tell us much, anyway. Instead of simply presenting healthful recipes or giving readers advice to deal with emotional eating, women’s magazines slap on the word “willpower” and just say it’s your fault for not being able to keep your mouth shut.
So, below, you’ll find other reasons why this word makes me angry.
Why I Hate The Word “Willpower”:
1. It’s simplistic. What is willpower, anyway? Yes, Webster-wise, it means self-control. And, unfortunately, it’s evolved into some prized possession that everyone wishes they had, because we’ve been conditioned to view it as virtuous. And it’s invaded our vernacular: “Oh, wow, she’s having a salad; she’s got so much willpower.” “I’m going to have that cookie, because I just have no willpower.” “I wish I had more willpower.”
Calling everything “willpower” — you ate that pizza because you have no willpower; you’re fat because you have no willpower; you can’t stick to a diet because you have no willpower — misses the point. Willpower isn’t the end all, be all, and it certainly gets too much attention these days. It’s like saying that everyone with an eating disorder just wants to be model thin, and if we pluck stick-thin models from the catwalk, we can prevent eating disorders.
It’s more complicated than that. For instance, the reason why you can’t stay on that diet may be because it’s too restrictive, because the food doesn’t taste good or because it isn’t enough food for you (or all of the above).
2. It assumes you’re a wildly out-of-control animal consumed by cookie cravings. I’m not sure precisely why magazines like to portray women as unable to control themselves around food. Yes, sometimes we overeat. Yes, sometimes we might swoon at the sight of cheesecake. Sometimes, we get excited about food; other times, we don’t. So what?
What worries me about magazines’ use of willpower is that it implies that we have no control over what we eat, that if left to our own devices (i.e. no rules or restrictions), we’ll go hog wild with a humongous plate of pie. While, overeating can become a serious issue, when you’re constantly told that it’s your willpower that’s the problem, you don’t get anywhere. And you certainly stop trusting yourself and the choices you make.
3. It glosses over emotions. Sometimes, it isn’t that you have no self-control, it’s that your emotions are driving your food choices. Thinking that it’s merely your wacky willpower run amok means you avoid seeing what’s really going on and addressing that. Addressing emotional eating is very different from trying a variety of tricks to whip your willpower into shape. (Women’s Health, for instance, suggests eating with your other hand.)
Working on your emotional eating takes a thoughtful approach, helping you dig deeper, while working on your willpower helps you mask the root of the issue. You might not even be aware that you eat emotionally; you might just think it’s a problem of willpower.
On a side note, I’d say that everyone eats emotionally, and sometimes, it’s perfectly OK. We might eat cake because we’re excited and happy thanks to some great news. Or we might have a bad day at work and crave some comfort food. It’s when it becomes a regular part of your day, a way to numb your emotions often, that it becomes a problem.
4. It gags your internal cues. I bet you that more often than not your withering willpower is really a sign of hunger. You might be so busy trying to restrain yourself from food, keeping your hands and mouth shackled, that you ignore your internal cues. I know I mention this a lot, but it’s true, that when you let outside forces dictate what and when you eat, you can get into trouble.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t plan out what you eat or should eat junk food daily or shouldn’t strive to include healthful foods in your diet. But if your body is hungry, it isn’t because you did something wrong and you can’t follow your diet. Or that you have the world’s worst willpower. It means that your body needs more fuel, and it isn’t getting enough.
5. It makes us feel like crap. I’m sad that one of the above quotes comes from Glamour.com — the same magazine that featured Lizzie Miller and a beautiful photo with plus-sized models, including my fave Crystal Renn. But either way, talk about making us feel terrible.
Automatically, that quote sets up the quintessential guilt-ridden scenario: If you’ve got anti-cookie-dough armor, then you’re doing everything right; if you lick from the bowl, then you’re not and you should be ashamed. Which woman do you want to be: the one who’s made of steel or the weakling who can’t resist some cough dough?
It’s these subtle messages that slither into our daily vocabulary and create that all-or-nothing thinking and make us think we shouldn’t enjoy what we eat. The second example is even worse. It equates having a craving for doughnuts — and eating one — to developing a few chins, shaming readers into following their advice: If you don’t want to have a double chin, honey, then you better restrain yourself.
On a related note, talk about fostering a fear of food, and creating a dichotomy of good foods vs. bad!
6. It says it’s all your fault. I alluded to this earlier, but when we think of willpower, we automatically think that we exert complete control over changing how we look and how our bodies process foods. This leads people to believe that if they aren’t losing weight, then clearly they’re doing something wrong. They need to start flexing that mental muscle, resist other temptations, reduce their calories and step up their workouts.
But this is misleading, because we don’t have that much control over how much we weigh. We do have control over being healthy and adopting healthy habits that nurture our bodies and our minds. We do have control over accepting and loving our bodies. We do have control over participating in pleasurable physical activity and doing things we genuinely enjoy.
What To Do Instead
Instead of beating yourself up about your wilting willpower, consider trying these things:
1. Eat mindfully (a pdf file) by paying attention to the taste, texture, smell and sound of food. Slow down and enjoy what you’re eating.
3. Keep a journal — not of what you’re eating, but of how you’re feeling. This helps to process your emotions and channel them onto paper, instead of bottling them up and always turning to food for comfort.
5. Take “willpower” out of your vocabulary. Reading articles about willpower and bashing yourself for not having enough self-control actually makes you feel like you aren’t in control of your choices. It makes you feel bad and it doesn’t capture how you’re feeling or what’s going on. Instead of using “willpower,” get more specific. Is it that you want to enjoy a dessert or you’re incredibly anxious and want food to soothe your stress (that’s when your toolkit comes in handy)? Is it that you’re bored or tired? Is it because you’ve been restricting yourself with a regimented diet?
To recap, I think using “willpower” misses the point, and only adds to an already bruised body image. It prevents us from exploring what’s really going on — our feelings, our current state of mind and what we want — and focusing our energies on that.
It’s simplistic, and, unfortunately, it’s become our moral compass (i.e. I’m good because I restrict, and thereby I have willpower of steel; she’s being so good for avoiding the cake). However, fortunately, you do have control over whether you consume and internalize all this info about willpower.
How do you feel about magazines using the word “willpower”? Does it bother you? Or do you think it’s OK?