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“The world doesn’t fit me”: a new memoir chronicles everyday life at 460 pounds

Writer Tommy Tomlinson on battling obesity.

Author Tommy Tomlinson.
Jeff Cravotta

“All of us … have this disconnect between the face we put out to the world and the one we wear alone. I try my best to hide my fears at all the ways the world doesn’t fit me,” journalist Tommy Tomlinson writes in his memoir, The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America.

But, he acknowledges, “The world doesn’t fit me because I’m not supposed to be this big.”

On December 31, 2014 — when The Elephant in the Room begins — Tomlinson weighed 460 pounds. The book charts his weight loss over the course of the following year, tallying up his progress month by month. But beyond a weight loss chronicle, the story also shifts back to childhood, to family meals, and to all the emotional pulls that draw Tomlinson toward unhealthy eating. The result is a vulnerable and critical self-portrait of a man who, along with 5 percent of men and 10 percent of women in America, is morbidly obese.

Beyond posing serious health risks, the condition, for Tomlinson, means anticipating how he can safely navigate everyday scenarios, as he is “constantly looking around for the next thing [he] might break.” The little things that many people don’t even register — everything from toilet seats and restaurant booths to elevators and rental car seatbelts — force Tomlinson to execute significant mental arithmetic and strategizing, and he describes these challenges candidly.

Tomlinson, a longtime reporter and columnist for the Charlotte Observer, currently hosts NPR’s SouthBound, a podcast about what makes the South a unique region. I spoke to him about how his identity is tied to weight, the responsibility of restaurant chains, and the body positivity movement, among other subjects.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Hope Reese

Start by talking about the way you frame your book. You focus on your personal experience with your weight and don’t look as much at the science and genetic variables. Why did you choose that approach?

Tommy Tomlinson

I knew that regardless of the genetics, I had to make an attempt at losing weight. Part of what I wanted to talk about were the barriers that kept me from doing it before. I made my path. It’s extremely clear that some people gain and lose weight at much different rates. There are so many factors — genetic, cultural, environmental — but the more I talked about those, the more I felt I was straying from a really intensely personal story, which is what I had set out to do. Those studies are pretty available in the news, but I wanted to focus on what it was like from the inside.

In the end, I knew I had to do something, regardless of what science might be stacked against me. Whatever the genetics were, I had made a ton of bad choices too. And the choices were what I could fix.

Hope Reese

One of the most interesting and moving parts of your book is how you write about navigating the world in your body.

Tommy Tomlinson

One thing that’s almost a day-to-day thing is that when I go somewhere unfamiliar, I have to figure out the right place to sit. Even though I lost weight, I’m still big enough that it’s a struggle for me to get in and out of, say, a booth at a restaurant. If I go out with somebody, I always have to ask for a table. Sometimes the chairs are too tight, so I have to ask for a chair without arms. I’ll ask for a table for two, and they’ll say, “How about a booth?” and when I say I need a table, they’ll look at me like, “Why would you want that?” It’s always a puzzle to be solved when I’m in a new or unfamiliar place.

Hope Reese

When you look at food addictions in the context of other addictions, like drug addictions or alcoholism, how are they related?

Tommy Tomlinson

The one big difference is that all those other things, it’s possible to quit those things cold turkey. But you cannot just stop eating. Even if you wanted to just stop tomorrow, you can only fast for so long. So at some point, you have to be confronted again with the thing that you are addicted to. That doesn’t make it more difficult — I wouldn’t say that it’s harder than kicking heroin — it’s just different.

The other difference is that food is not only socially responsible, it’s encouraged as something that brings camaraderie and love. There’s not a whole [television] channel about doing drugs. But there are multiple food channels where people indulge their appetite for food. Those things are not hard for me to watch anymore, but at some point they were. They would make me hungry. They would make me go want to eat bad things. Food is universally considered this wonderful pleasure we have in life. It’s this incredible gift that some of us have a hard time dealing with.

Hope Reese

If we look at America’s problem with obesity and the fact that it’s rising, who should we hold responsible? What obligations do chain restaurants and grocery stores, for instance, have to the public?

Tommy Tomlinson

The most I blame anybody are the people who market fast food to kids. I grew up watching cartoons on TV, and every commercial was about some sort of sugary cereal. To this day, most commercials are about food or beer, and those are put in our faces every day in a way that’s hard to resist. The portions are so much larger than they used to be. At the movie theater I go to, a small Coke is 32 ounces. There’s no universe in which a quart should be a small Coke, but that’s what it is.

Having said that, I think they’re reacting to demand. If people wanted smaller portions, they’d be available. And increasingly, they are available. There’s been a sea change in the past few years, where by law or by custom, restaurants are telling you what the calorie count is for everything. That information used to be difficult to find.

Hope Reese

But even with this information being more easily accessible, Americans are still gaining weight. We have the data on nutrition, and we have a whole fitness industry and diet industry claiming to help people lose weight. But as a country, we keep getting bigger.

Tommy Tomlinson

Yes. All those things are fighting a trend. Part of what they’re fighting is the fact that most people have desk jobs now. We aren’t burning off what we used to. And the amount and ability of industrial food is easier to get and is tastier.

The one thing that people who are not naturally inclined to be overweight — that’s the thing that’s difficult for those folks to understand. They think, “Just eat less and exercise.” Well, that’s so much easier said than done. Not just in terms of genetics and addiction, but with all of the other stuff that’s pulling us in the opposite direction.

Hope Reese

You are writing from the perspective of an obese man. How does your experience compare with what women like Roxane Gay or Lindy West have written about their weight?

Tommy Tomlinson

Well, we all have a similar experience. Some of it is this notion of not being able to fit in the world.

But we sort of expect men to be more robust. There’s the whole “dad bod” thing where it’s kind of sexy for a guy to carry around a few extra pounds in a way that’s not considered sexy or normal for women. Guys fall into that trap sometimes — they think, “Well, if 10 extra pounds is okay, maybe 50 is great!” There’s a cultural break that women find themselves facing every day. Men are not penalized for it in the workplace or the dating sphere in the way that women are. Guys don’t always see their weight as as much of a problem as women do.

Certainly when you get to my level, which my doctor says is “morbidly obese,” you have a problem. But culturally, men have been allowed to carry around extra pounds in a way women haven’t. Women pay the price more than men do.

Hope Reese

What do you think of the movement toward body positivity? How much should overweight or obese people embrace their body?

Tommy Tomlinson

Overall, I think it’s a good thing. I think there are people who are overweight but they’re still healthy, leading happy, productive lives. God bless them. They’re saying, “If you don’t like this, screw you.” I agree: Screw everybody who doesn’t react to them well.

For me, it was an issue not just of feeling the guilt and shame, but it has had major effects on my health. Every medical report I’ve ever gotten, and just the way my body feels. I can’t live to be an old man and carry around this weight. It’s not just an emotional concern — it’s practical. If I keep living like this, I’m not going to live much longer. That has to be the bottom line.

I do worry a little that some people are going to use the body positivity movement to basically give themselves a free pass to live a super-unhealthy lifestyle.

Hope Reese

How is your weight part of your identity?

Tommy Tomlinson

That’s something I’m really interested in finding out. I’ve never been not fat. One of the things I’m curious about, and a little worried about, is how my personality will change as my body changes. In terms of personality, I kind of like who I am. Part of what I feel like is positive about my personality is that I’ve always had a lot of empathy for other people. Whatever other strengths I have as a journalist, my ability to step into someone else’s shoes and understand their issues is something I can do. I assume that losing weight will not make me less empathetic, because I will remember that person I used to be. But I don’t know.

Hope Reese

On the flip side, you write about the toll it’s taken on your relationships. You wrote that “food has made me a liar.”

Tommy Tomlinson

The big secret I always kept was how much, exactly, I weighed. That number sounded so enormous to me that I thought it would change how other people saw me. I thought people would like me less if they knew how badly I’d let myself go. That’s silly — people can just look at me. I’m obviously a huge guy.

Once I started saying that number, that was a huge burden off me. It led me to become more honest with the people I care about. Now we can talk about everything else. I’ve been craving those deeper conversations with people.

Hope Reese

In writing your book, you’re putting the actual number on the page, out in the public. In a year or five years, it will still be on the record. How does it feel to know that people will follow your progress in this way?

Tommy Tomlinson

One thing I was thinking the other day was, “It’s going to be difficult for me to ever order a double cheeseburger again.” Not that I’m going to become famous, but someone will recognize me and say, “Aren’t you the guy who wrote the book about not eating crap like that?” People will probably ask me, for the rest of my life, “What do you weigh now?” Since I put that number out there, it’s no longer a secret.

If I don’t hold the line, people will be disappointed. I’m going to have this fairly large support group I didn’t plan on. I’m giving those people that license. And I have to be accountable to them.

I also hope that some people will read this book and try to become more accountable in their own lives.

Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Vox, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @hope_reese.