Eating Disorders and Willpower: An Absurd Association

will power

Willpower. It’s something that we associate with strength. It is something that we admire in others, and it’s something we want for ourselves. And in this day and age, it is problematically associated with dieting and weight loss. The association even extends to restrictive eating disorders. I want to tell you how wrong it is to think that the two are synonymous.

I want to firstly consult the dictionary. Let’s take a look at the definition of “will”:

Will
noun

1. the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.
“she has an iron will”
synonyms: determination, firmness of purpose, fixity of purpose, will power, strength of character, resolution, resolve, resoluteness, purposefulness, single-mindedness, drive, commitment, dedication, doggedness, tenacity, tenaciousness, staying power, backbone, spine; More
2. control deliberately exerted to do something or to restrain one’s own impulses.
noun: willpower
“a stupendous effort of will”

A person with an eating disorder does not decide to have one. They do not have any power or control when developing or having an active eating disorder. They do not initiate action: the eating disorder does. They have no say in the matter whatsoever. So using “will” in the context of eating disorders is absurd.
Let’s also have a look at the definition of willpower itself:

noun
1. control of one’s impulses and actions; self-control.

Again, there is no control when it comes to an eating disorder. There is certainly no self-control. In actuality, it is the opposite that is true: someone with an eating disorder is completely out of control. They are not deciding to abstain from food or drink. They are not deciding to compulsively exercise. They are not deciding to vomit their meals into toilets and trash cans. They have no control over their ever dwindling intake, the inability to eat ice cream, or the ten miles they feel they must run. The severe mental illness that they are suffering from is running the show, not the person with the illness. Eating disorders are not a choice, and to insinuate that someone with an eating disorder has willpower is to insinuate that they have a choice.

You might be someone who has previously considered an eating disorder to be a choice, and are looking for an explanation of how it is not. Let me first stress: eating disorders have a genetic link. This means that if you do not have the genes to develop an eating disorder, then you will not develop one. If you have the eating disorder gene (which is being researched: the specific gene has not been identified as of yet, and it is most likely a combination of genes, not just one) then it is possible to go through life without triggering it into action. However, if environmental factors trigger the gene (and the triggers are plentiful: dieting, bullying, death of a loved one, abuse, parents divorcing, illness, fasting – you see how these can be both emotional or physical triggers), then you will develop an eating disorder. Genetics load the gun, environment pulls the trigger, the saying goes. So genetics have an important part to play in the development of an eating disorder, and you don’t get to choose your genes.

Here are some examples of how it works inside the mind: if you had to choose between eating a highly restrictive amount of calories and living with aching hunger, or feeling like tearing your own skin off, would you comply with your eating disorder or your hunger? If you had to choose between exercising until you felt like you might vomit and pass out or feeling so disgusting in your body that you would consider killing yourself, what choice would you make? If you had to choose between not eating a slice of pizza that you desperately crave or feeling like such a failure that you punished yourself by cutting you body multiple times in multiple places, what would you choose? And when you see those options, does it really look like much of a choice any more? Each option is torturous and punishing, but one always gets you closer to the goal of losing more weight, or at least attempting to. You’ll feel better when your body is perfect, the eating disorder says. You’ll feel better if you barely eat. You will be more in control, it lies, and there are so many lies it will tell to keep you from fighting against it. 

The more the illness pervades the mind and the sufferer responds to the eating disorder, the more things like food and weight become a source of anxiety. Each time you respond to the voice telling you not to eat or you will feel something unbearable, the more the message in reinforced in the brain. You see, when you avoid something that makes you anxious, the more the brain is told that it is something to be anxious of because it is being avoided, and the more anxious you become of it. Another sneaky way the eating disorder survives is to completely distort the perception of the sufferer, so that their body looks to them to be completely different to what anyone else sees, and in a lot of cases, the thinner they become, the fatter they feel. This way the eating disorder continues to dictate the actions and thoughts of its host (and yes, that is what you feel like: just a host to a demon that is making you diminish in size inside and outside day by day).

I could go on, but let’s get back to willpower.

Meghan Trainor caused uproar with her incomprehensible comment about her apparent lack of willpower to “go anorexic”.

I wasn’t strong enough to have an eating disorder. I tried to go anorexic for a good three hours. I ate ice and celery, but that’s not even anorexic. And I quit. I was like, ‘Ma, can you make me a sandwich? Like, immediately.’

Her comment is one of such extreme ignorance that it makes my blood boil. For one, strength doesn’t come into eating disorders. Strength is something of value. It is a brilliantly positive trait to have; something you use in the face of hardship; to get through something or to defeat it. It is something that you use to fight and beat an eating disorder, not something you use to continue its existence. It does not take strength to have an eating disorder: it takes sickness and misery and intense self-hatred. It takes strength to recover. Secondly, you cannot “try to go anorexic for a good three hours”. Anorexia is first and foremost a mental illness (like all other eating disorders), not something that you can just “try” and then stop because you get a bit too hungry. “Trying” is not part of an eating disorder. You would never in a million years “try” to have an eating disorder if you understood what it entailed. It’s not about having the willpower to “go anorexic”. Any eating disorder is a disease that creeps up on you and slowly invades your mind bit by bit until it has wormed its way into every part of it, and then suddenly you realise that you are drowning in it and there is no conceivable way out. You don’t just “go anorexic” for three hours and then choose to stop. Need I say it again: there is no choice. And no, funnily enough eating ice and celery for three hours only does not mean you have a serious and deadly disease.

Willpower is inextricably linked to choice, and we know that eating disorders are not a choice, so the two cannot be thought of in conjunction with each other. Ever. To talk about eating disorders requiring willpower undermines the helplessness and hopelessness that someone feels whilst being under the control of such a powerful and deadly disease. To talk about eating disorders requiring willpower – a positive trait we all want – undermines the sheer anguish and torment someone suffering from one has to experience every second of every day. To say eating disorders require willpower is to inadvertently say that there is something that tortured person has that you admire. You are looking into eyes full of pain and saying, “I want what you have.

Willpower is a positive thing. Having an eating disorder is a living hell. Willpower is strength and control. Living with an eating disorder is being crushed under a dictator that ultimately wants you dead and feeling unable to do anything but obey and walk knowingly into the jaws of death. Willpower is willpower and eating disorders are eating disorders. Let’s not mix up the two.

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7 thoughts on “Eating Disorders and Willpower: An Absurd Association

  1. punkkimono

    “I wish i could resist food like you” Yeah?!! Well i wish i could fucking stop. IT. IS. NOT. A. FUCKING. DIET. “How do you have so much willpower?” If I’m not eating what i want when i’m hungry, then i literally am displaying none. I’m fucking hungry, you idiot. If i had the willpower, i would fucking eat. And they only ever say this about restriction, and then apply the same myth in reverse to bingeing and tell you to use willpower to stop! THIS SUPPOSED WILLPOWER IS MYTHICAL.

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  2. Courtney

    I once described my eating disorder as feeling like an OCD behavior to a therapist (this therapist did not specialize in eating disorders, at least I can say that for her), like it was something I had no control over and I just *had* to do, and she said, “Interesting. I’ve never heard it described that way.” I was shocked. Really? You must never have had any other patient with an eating disorder then.

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  3. watchheremerge

    This is such a strong post Sarah. I wish everyone who ever threw out the willpower word in the context of anorexia was forced to read and consider it. Funnily enough I was railing the other day when I saw the word WILLPOWER plastered across the back of a box of Special K cereal. I won’t be buying that cereal anymoer.

    To Courtney-I don’t know your situation but just a thought-if you have an ED it may be much more helpful for you to have or to add an ED therapist. Sometimes therapists who don’t know ED’s can do more harm than good despite their good intentions. (Same is true for ED specialists, but I think less likely.)

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  4. Ally

    If only you could preach this to the entire diet culture…I’m looking at you Special K!
    “It does not take strength to have an eating disorder: it takes sickness and misery and intense self-hatred. It takes strength to recover”—Brilliant!

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