Tommy Tomlinson's book about losing weight is really about "the things that haunted me"

"I was afraid of what writing about that would mean, of the emotional depths that I would have to go to"

By Erin Keane

Published January 15, 2019 5:00PM (EST)


The second page of veteran journalist Tommy Tomlinson's new memoir begins with an admission: "I weigh 460 pounds." (Read the excerpt in The Atlantic.) On one hand that's a simple statement of fact, but because it's a fact that Tomlinson keeps hidden from his wife, his doctor, and his closest friends, it "feels like confessing a crime." And of course it's a fact that's far from simple, as anyone who has ever thought deeply about body and feelings knows. But it's the first page that truly sets the tone for the book: Tomlinson details a recurring dream he has — a violent metaphor about the fight within himself — that sets the emotional stakes for the journey he chronicles eloquently and with great insight, self-awareness and gentle humor in "The Elephant in the Room" (Jan. 15, Simon & Schuster).
Subtitled "One Fat Man's Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America," Tomlinson's story isn't a typical beach-body transformation tale tied to achieving certain measurements or aesthetics, nor is it an endorsement of a silver-bullet diet, surgery or branded fitness plan.  "Those are the numbers," he writes, referring to his weight and clothing sizes, but the heart of the book is about "how it feels."

Throughout "The Elephant in the Room," Tomlinson details how and why he forged a slow and determined path toward a future of his own choosing — and is honest about when he feels he falls short — while also writing candidly about his family, childhood, and marriage.

I spoke with Tomlinson over the phone last week about gender and weight loss, about American expectations about diets, and how complicated our relationships to food, family, and culture can be. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

This turned out to be a very different book than what I thought it was going to be.

What did you think it was going to be?

Often stories about losing weight showcase a dramatic physical change — someone loses 100 pounds in six months, or fill in the number. So I thought it was — not quite revolutionary, but not far off, that your story instead focuses on a gradual, mindful, sustainable loss that isn't like the commercials where the guy is standing inside of his old, much bigger pants. 

There's no great dramatic before and after photos in this one, and I guess it is different from most of the stories, books and commercials. That's part of why I wanted to write this, to counteract those things. Because I think they send an awful message a lot of times, which is, "just do this quick easy fix and in 60 days you’ll be transformed." The fact is for most of us it doesn't work that way, and in fact, for most of us, in the long run it only makes it worse.

So I wanted to set out to talk about that and talk about ways to maybe do it in a more, like you said, sustainable way.

Instead of the overly dramatic physical transformation, what the reader gets from this book is really an emotional and mental transformation. 

You write critically about "The Biggest Loser" in this book, and that's one of the more high-profile versions we have of the expected narrative around weight loss, the game show-ification of it through reality TV. 

That sort of game show idea — in just seven days, we could turn your life around — is phony and it's a false narrative. The real way to do things is slowly and steadily and with great patience, which, especially for Americans, it goes against all our nature.

We want things to be quick. We want things to be immediate. We want things to be like, as you said, that before and after picture that you can put on your Instagram or whatever. I think real change in anything doesn't happen that way, and that's part of what I tried to write about.

That's a very good point. This book is downright un-American. But in the best way.

I may be chased out of the country.

In the book you write very eloquently about food, culture and class in a way that we don't often see, especially in narratives surrounding weight loss. So often the conversation is either about, say, Gwyneth Paltrow taking the SNAP challenge and buying a stupid number of limes, or on the other side, it's focused on immediate hunger issues and food deserts, which are of course important conversations. But what often gets lost in the middle, I feel, are America's working classes and their diverse food cultures, which are often overlooked until one type is co-opted and up-scaled by hip chefs for foodies.

Was there a point when the Southern working-class diet that so many people in the region grow up with and associate with family and culture begin to strike you as out of balance with the way that we live now?

I think for me, it was apparent I guess starting in, maybe, high school. Before, I didn't put the two things together. But at some point, when I got to be a little smarter, a little more aware of what was going around me, I realized that this food I was eating was [w]hat was making me fat.

I was getting, at that time, a lot of exercise, running around playing sports and everything, but I still kept gaining weight. I was like, "Oh, yeah, fried chicken every Sunday.” All this stuff is a huge contributor. But at the same time it was such a deeply rooted part of, not just our culture, but the way that people in my family expressed love.

I think this is true in many cultures. You can just substitute fried chicken for pasta or whatever in other cultures. But in the culture I know and I grew up in, we had no choice. Middle class, lower middle class, South. Poor South. Food was our one source of wealth.

The cooks among my Southern families could turn cheap ingredients and a little bacon grease into these astonishing meals. We were the richest people in town when we sat down at the dinner table. That knowledge that we gained there wasn’t in the rest of our lives. We weren't as rich as everybody else. So that food carries such a metaphorical, symbolic meaning [and] you don’t realize it. It does to me still.

For example, my parents knew the one way they could show love to me, express it in something tangible, is by making a great meal. Those great meals carried with them tons of fat and calories, salt, and all the things that are bad for you. But it was the one sort of tangible expression of what mattered to them, and what they considered to be the riches that they could share with me.

To this day, those things are really powerful to me. A piece of fried chicken is not just not a piece of fried chicken. It carries this cultural meaning to me that matters way beyond the calories.

I think just about everybody who has to struggle to maintain fitness, or even just has to watch what they eat, struggles with that: food isn't just food. It also means a lot of other things. And we can't go without it, right? You can give up cigarettes. You can give up alcohol. But you can't give up eating entirely.

Right. It's the one addiction that you can't quit cold turkey.

So I'm curious about your observations about our current diet and health culture. Are we attuned enough to the emotional and psychological reasons why we as Americans might have a hard time turning down the second helping of the fried chicken?

I don't think we are. I think we're getting more and more attuned to the practical reality of it. Any restaurant you go to now, on the menu it lists calories for everything, and so it's much easier in a practical sense to keep track of how you're doing and to realize when you're going off the deep end.

Because either by law or by custom, all these places are now making that information available to everybody. So that's a critical matter. You can do the practical work of it much easier than you could even five years ago.

That's the how, and what that doesn't take into account is the why. What I wanted to go into in this book more than anything else was the why, exploring in my life the factors and the things that I thought about, and the things that haunted me, that kept me eating so much, and not exercising and not being in shape. Most of those reasons are psychological and most of those reasons are internal — things that I didn't talk about with other people.

One of the things I want to do in this book was put all those secrets out on the table and let people realize — I hope they realize — that they're not the only ones thinking those things.

Most of it is emotional and I don't think — certainly not at the game-show level — that we deal with that very often. Even in the commercial diet and fitness [industry], it’s all about that external transformation, when the real transformation is on the inside.

We'll come back to the diet world and the branding of it in a second. You were a columnist at a newspaper for a long time, but is this a departure for you as a journalist, writing this personally about yourself?

Right. Well, that made it hard for me to do. I was a local columnist for 15 years at a newspaper in Charlotte, and during that time I would write about myself occasionally, [about] some big moment in my life or something like that. So I’d write personal columns occasionally, but most of my work was about other people, and so I had not really turned the spotlight on myself that often before I started doing this book, and certainly not at sort of the emotional level I needed to get to, I feel like, to do it justice.

So, I had to really think about, first of all, whether I wanted to tackle that. I sort of started this idea with my agent in 2011. We were having breakfast one day, and he said, "What are you thinking about?" That’s when I said, “I'm thinking about what it’s like to navigate the world as a fat guy." He said, “Well, you should write that book.” I said, “That's a great idea.”

Then I didn't do it for three years, because I was afraid of it. I was afraid of what writing about that would mean, of the emotional depths that I would have to go to. I was afraid of what it would mean for my family, the people I care about — my wife, my parents, my friends.

I was worried about how people would react to it. Whether I would just be mocked for taking on this subject in an emotional way. So it took a long time for me to get the guts to write this book. So that was a big part of the process just in itself.

Are you nervous for it to come out?

Oh yeah, I am, absolutely. Yeah, I'm nervous. First of all, I'm nervous anytime I've written something and it hasn't come out yet. I worry that I made some massive error that nobody has caught. Or that I’ve said something really stupid that I'm going to regret. But those are everyday writer worries, right?

What I worry about in a larger sense is that people are going to see this story and be like, "Ha ha, there's the fat guy." I've dealt with that on some level. I can sort of deal with it, definitely now. But in doing this book, I’ve opened myself up to a lot of criticism that's not just [about] I don't like this guy’s writing. It can be, I don't like this human being. That's what I'm nervous about.

So far, everything I've heard has been great. I don't think there is going to be a lot of that, but I'm sure it's coming, because there are people out there in the world who wait for something like this to happen so they can mock somebody because that’s how they get through their day.

And journalists are so much more visible now than we were even 10 years ago. You have your "brand," you have to be out there. 

Right. The personality is much more important than it used to be.

If I didn't make it as honest as possible, people can sense that. If I held back or if I was phony. Or if I didn't go pretty much all the way with it, I certainly think they can glimpse that. To grab other people too, [or else it] can just feel like this guy didn't feel like sharing the whole story with me. So I decided to put it out there and just take whatever aspect that comes with it.

It feels pretty open to me, so that's good. And one relatable aspect in it for me was reading this as a journalist, because it's also a memoir about living in and working through the massive changes in journalism as an industry, going from when daily newspapers had those robust, full-staff local bureaus, to now, with you as a freelancer working on contract.

But you also really show how journalism work itself is very much not conducive to healthy habits, like regular eating and exercise. You're either on the go, grabbing food in the rush, or you're working weird hours, and then for the finale you have to plant your butt in a chair and not get up until you story is finished. 

Yeah . . . working in the newsroom where everybody’s always got snacks. Then you work from home, and you're like three steps from your refrigerator. Or you are on the road somewhere, where nobody eats well, and so there’s no good place to be a journalist to be healthy. You can't write your story in the gym, so it’s a difficult thing to navigate.

As you know, there’s all this constant deadline pressure. Somebody that’s a freelancer, you’re scrambling to do stories. Then layered on top of all of that over the last 10 years is, is there even going to be journalism? Are we going to be able to make a living doing this in the near future? Or much less, the long term. It's a very conducive business to eating poorly.

Speaking of journalism, also I think about with the rise of "the brand," how much pressure journalists are under these days to look a certain way, too. I'm thinking about an article I read about makeovers that a bunch of political journalists had done now that they were being called upon to be on TV to talk about the Trump administration. Has that been a factor in your career? Has the way that you looked affected your work in that way?

I did have to go buy some new clothes for the book tour, I will say that. I did the haircut on Thursday. But by and large, and it's funny you should mention that, because [another interviewer] asked me yesterday when we were talking what I thought was a really good question, which was, most of these books about people who struggle with their weight, especially the narrative ones, they’re written by women. And she was asking me why that was.

I’ve not done a lot of deep thinking about it. My off-the-top-of-my-head thinking was that historically women have been penalized a lot more from being overweight than men have.  As a woman it's so much harder to get ahead in the workplace, or even in the dating scene, or any of those things that you think about, if you're carrying a few extra pounds around. Whereas if you’re a guy, in some ways it's almost, if you're a little overweight, it's almost charming. There’s that whole "dad bod" thing.

There is no equivalent of that for women. So women are always judged and penalized for not looking the proper way, whatever that is, way more than men have.  In the work life, in the terms you’re talking about, I have not been judged for my weight in that way. But I can almost guarantee if I was a woman I would be.

Oh, 100 percent yes. 

That's a break that I’ve caught as a guy. There's nothing I can do about it. I'm grateful for it, but I wish it was different. But I have not had to pay professionally the penalties for it, at least that I know about.

The things that I don't know about — are there jobs that I was a candidate for that nobody ever told me that I didn’t get because somebody in that room thought I was too fat? Or the opportunities I haven't gotten, that I didn’t even know I might get because I was too overweight? You can drive yourself crazy.

But those are things that I don't know about. In terms of what I do know about, so far I've not paid the price and I feel pretty lucky for that.

That's a great segue into what I wanted to talk about next, which is weight loss and gender. I am curious about your experience on this — especially now, very public with the book — weight loss journey as a man.

Over the last several years names of popular diets have started to shift a little bit. I remember when the South Beach Diet was really big, and when you hear South Beach, you think of, I don't know, buff bodies and tiny clothes. It's a more feminine, or a kind of stylish life that's being implied. 

Pastels, yeah.

Now when you Google, it's all about the Paleo Diet, the Military Diet, even — I swear this is the headline — "The Jordan Peterson All-Meat Diet." It seems that the diet world has started to re-position itself as a very masculine space, too. I'm curious about what your experience has been as a man working through weight loss and trying to navigate all of the cultural messages that are out there. 

The times that I went to Weight Watchers — and I went two or three times over the years at different points, I would dabble in it for a little bit and leave, then dabble in it and then leave. Often I was, if not the only guy, one of the only guys in the room.

If you took the other times, even when, I guess sort of anecdotally, I’m talking to my wife and female friends, when they're in a group talking, they talk about their diets and that sort of thing quite a bit. Guys, when they get together, never talk about that. It's just not something that's discussed.

And so I think this is actually a very savvy marketing move, the Paleo Diet and those kinds of things.  Because guys know they need to lose weight, but it's always felt sort of feminine to try to count calories, to take care of yourself in that way. It's manly to go to the gym and pump iron, but it’s feminine to count calories. It's dumb, and as most of the science has shown, exercise is not how one loses weight, diet is.

So I think there's been some pretty savvy marketing going on that tried to frame diet in a way that's appealing to men. Because in the past it really hasn't been. For the people who do this for a living and make money off this stuff, it's really smart.

But it also tells me that in the end, I understand the commercial diet business is gimmicky anyway. They're just marketing whatever they think might work to some market niche that they haven't filled yet. Somebody had the great idea, well why don’t we make guys try to lose weight? Well if we just make [a diet] all-meat, yeah, maybe we can sell some books that way.

In the book [I cover this] about diets: Virtually every diet works in the short term. If I did nothing but eat meat for two weeks, I will probably lose weight. I would feel terrible, and my trips to the bathroom would be horrendous. But I would probably lose weight if I kept the number of calories down. But that's not any way to live.

That’s why [a diet] like Whole 30 —  well, that’s the first 30 days, but what about the next 30 days? And the 30 after and the 30 after that? If you’re going to sustain any sort of lifestyle that's meaningful, you have to move beyond those short term diet plans and most people can't do that. In fact those diet plans, for most people, backfire. Because once you don’t have that crutch anymore, then what do you do?

Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief. Her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," will be published in September 2022.

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