When Tommy Tomlinson rode the New York City subway, he would grip the pole near the doors as tightly as possible. The six foot one, 460 pound man was terrified that he would smother a fellow transit rider if he fell over after a sudden move by the subway car.
Growing up, he once reduced a wooden chair to splinters when it disintegrated under his weight after he sat down.
When the Southern sports journalist was a child, he never climbed a tree, or learned to swim. “When I was in my twenties, I never took a girl home from the bar. Now I’m 50, and I’ve never hiked a mountain or ridden a skateboard, or done a cartwheel. I’ve missed out on so many adventures, so many good times, because I was too fat to try.”
These are just a few of the heartbreaking anecdotes that Tomlinson shares with readers in his new book “The Elephant in the Room. One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America.”
Tomlinson’s memoir of growing up fat, and his subsequent struggle to lose weight is a gift to us all. More than 40 percent of adult American women are obese — slightly more than the 35 percent of men, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A report published late December 2018 by the National Center for Health Statistics also found that Americans in general are getting fatter: Women’s waists grew more than 2 inches, from 36.3 inches in 1999–2000 to 38.6 inches in 2015–16. Men’s girths increased just over an inch, from 39.0 to 40.2 inches during the same period. These numbers are significant because, turns out, where we put on weight impacts our health. Increasing weight around our waists, it turns out, is particularly unhealthy.
So Tomlinson’s decision to share his journey is a gift because it contains a psychological roadmap and reckoning that we all have to face if we want to change ourselves.
You may be thinking to yourself: “Tomlinson is outlier, none of this applies to me.”
But you might be surprised to find that you might actually be obese. I remember telling a relative about 20 years ago that they were obese. There was outrage in the family. But then when this person went to the doctor to verify my observation, the doctor confirmed it.
The U.S. government classifies anyone with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more as obese. There’s more about that here. As any doctor will tell you, being obese increases your chances of dying from a heart attack, developing diabetes, metabolic syndrome, kidney disease, cancer, and getting a stroke. It may even accelerate your propensity to developing dementia earlier in life. Being obese also makes any operations you might need to have more dangerous, and in some cases, impossible.
Tomlinson is a freelance sports writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina. He’s a former Pulitzer-nominated columnist for the Charlotte Observer, and he grew up in St. Simons Island, Georgia, the son of working class parents. He describes growing up on a diet of Southern specialties, fish and seafood, and being brought home peanut butter crackers and chocolate milk everyday when his father returned from the seafood processing factory. But unlike his parents, Tomlinson notes, he never engaged in manual labor.
It seems that the Southern diet, in addition to his own spectacularly unhealthy junk food tendencies, led to his 460 pound self. But as he chronicles, it was also the result of things that the rest of us experience in life —food-laden family gatherings and rituals, eating to comfort ourselves to get through the vicissitudes of life, low self-esteem (or ‘USUCK-FM,’ as he calls it,) and just a failure to grow up and acknowledge that we need to take care of ourselves.
“Losing weight is a fucking rock fight,” Tomlinson observes. “The enemies come from all sides.” Relentless food marketing. Anxiety. Friends and family who want you to share in their pleasure. Our own body chemistry. “On top of all that, some of us fight holes in our souls that a boxcar full of doughnuts couldn’t fill.”
At another point, he writes: “I did the math on all this one day and it just about knocked me over. On a really bad day, I might eat 6,000 calories — roughly the same amount as the daily consumption for the average adult tiger. And it goes without saying that I’m not spending half my day chasing down wildebeest.”
I have to admit that it’s been hard for me to write this review because I have a close family member who is morbidly obese, and is not likely to stop being so anytime soon. My uncle died prematurely of a heart attack a few years ago as a result of his poor health habits. I’ve also been through a weight management program myself. So I recognize many of the pitfalls that Tomlinson experienced, and the reckoning with the habits that he knows he has to change. We all have our own stories. Mine isn’t like Tomlinson’s but some of my fellow program participants would talk about the guilt and shame of being in the state they were in, and having to forgive themselves to be able to move forward. Tomlinson is very explicit about his self-loathing and feelings of worthlessness in his book.
As someone who has had to deal with this family member who is morbidly obese, I especially appreciated Tomlinson’s explicit acknowledgement of the emotional toll his obesity was taking on his wife. (It’s not my husband, by the way.) She would repeatedly dream that he died and left her a widow. His own sister Brenda died because of something related to her weight, he says.
“I saw what it did to the rest of us for her to leave so soon. I don’t want to put my family through that again. I want all the time I can get with the people I love,” Tomlinson writes.
By the end of the book, Tomlinson manages to lose 85 pounds, and he is happier with the habits he is cultivating. He feels better physically, and he sleeps better.
“It’s a simple message: Put in the work everyday, stick to the plan, and monumental things can happen,” he says.
My addendum is that you can go through all the fad diets that you want, but it won’t happen unless you examine the cultural, psychological, and lifestyle factors driving you to being overweight in the first place. Then you have to figure out how to change those, like Tomlinson did. It’s not easy to do it on your own, and much easier to do it in a group. As we were taught, be SMART: Set a goal, Monitor progress (like Tomlinson did in his book,) Arrange your world for success, Recruit a support team, and then Treat yourself when you attain your milestones.
So thanks Tommy Tomlinson, for sharing your journey with the public, and making us all face the Elephant in the Room. ###