I wasn’t fat because I lacked willpower – but I definitely needed it to lose half my body weight

I went on holiday recently, came off my plan and gained 11lb. So have I still got this famed moral quality? Or am I feckless and fat once again? 

Emma Burnell
Tuesday 24 September 2019 14:54
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Willpower is a strange and complicated concept – especially when it comes to losing weight. Those who don’t lose weight are judged not to have it – and judged constantly.

It is rarely a trait that people fully understand themselves, yet it is an attribute that is conferred on them. I have lost weight, therefore I have willpower. I am, it is concluded, morally superior to those who have not; I have some quality they don’t.

We seem to want the world to be a lot more straightforward than it is. We want “goodies” and “baddies”. We want rights and and wrongs that allow us to make simple judgements. But life just isn’t like that.

I used to weigh 25 stone – that’s 350lb. It took me a lot of emotional and psychological work to get to the point where I was ready to lose weight. And it still takes a lot of work to keep doing it. And the reality is that I often fail. I went on holiday recently, came off my plan and gained 11lb. So do I still have this famed moral quality of “willpower”? Or am I now, once again, one of the feckless and fat?

It’s this grey area that makes the British Psychological Society report into obesity so interesting. The study looks at genetic and environmental factors that cause obesity, and concludes that a “lack of willpower” – whatever that means – is not a cause of obesity.

I don’t disagree with that conclusion. As I have written before, fat-shaming is nothing more than bullies giving themselves a moral licence to be vile and unhelpful. But I do worry about the way we now talk about willpower, because it’s a complicated thing that deserves better understanding, and a more concrete definition. Instead, we are left with a lazy word weighted with moral judgement that’s still being thrown in the direction of larger people.

The truth is that willpower is needed to lose weight, but it isn’t a consistent quality. I have had the willpower to lose half my body weight. I also recently ate a sausage sandwich for breakfast and drank beer well into the night. Because I am inconsistent, my willpower is inconsistent.

The absolutely hardest part about losing weight is going back to a weight loss plan once you have come off it. The sense of failure when you break your diet can be overwhelming. The sense that you might as well stay off the wagon is overwhelming and the emotions that come with that guilt and shame often mean that all you want to do is, quite literally, consume to achieve the short term dopamine hit. Choosing not to do that is willpower; choosing to go back to a diet, having done, that is also willpower. It’s not straightforward.

Instead of dismissing the concept of willpower, we should reclaim it from the bullies. It takes willpower to fail and try again. It takes willpower to get halfway.

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I am no one’s concept of thin, yet I have lost the weight of a whole adult human being. It took willpower to get this far, and it will take willpower to get the rest of the way. But when I fail – and I will fail – it will not be because of a lack of willpower. It will be willpower that will get me back on track.

I’m human. I don’t work like a machine and I shouldn’t be expected to. We shouldn’t stop talking about willpower or determination, which are essential to anyone’s weight loss journey, but we should remember that everyone on that journey is a human – and start to treat them accordingly.

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