How it feels to be obese
Every fat person pays for his weight with anger and heartache and pain, said Tommy Tomlinson. After seeing his sister die from obesity, he embarked on the fight of his life to find the man inside himself.
I weigh 460 pounds. Those are the hardest words I’ve ever had to write. Nobody knows that number—not my wife, not my doctor, not my closest friends. It feels like confessing a crime. The average American male weighs about 195 pounds; I’m two of those guys, with a 10-year-old left over. I’m the biggest human being most people who know me have ever met, or ever will.
The government definition of obesity is a body mass index of 30 or more. My BMI is 60.7. My shirts are size XXXXXXL, which the big-and-tall stores shorten to 6X. I’m 6 foot 1, or 73 inches tall. My waist is 60 inches around. I’m nearly a sphere.
Those are the numbers. This is how it feels.
I’m on the subway in New York City, standing in the aisle, clinging to the pole. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and don’t visit New York much, so I don’t have a feel for how subway cars move. I’m praying this one doesn’t lurch around a corner or slam to a stop, because I’m terrified of falling. Part of it is embarrassment. When a fat guy falls, it’s hard to get up. But what really scares me is the chance that I might land on somebody.
My palms start to sweat, and all of a sudden I flash back to elementary school in Georgia, standing in the aisle on the school bus. The driver hollers at me to find a seat. He can’t take us home until everybody sits down. I’m the only one standing. Every time I spot an open space, somebody slides to the edge of the seat and covers it up. Nobody wants the fat boy mashed in next to them. I freeze, helpless. The driver glares at me in the rearview mirror. An older kid sitting in front of me—a redhead, freckles, I’ll never forget his face—has a cast on his right arm. He reaches back and starts clubbing me with it, below the waist, out of the driver’s line of sight. He catches me in the groin and it hurts, but not as much as the shame when the other kids laugh and the bus driver gets up and storms toward me—and the train stops and jolts me back into now.
By any reasonable standard, I have won life’s lottery. I grew up with two loving parents in a peaceful house. I’ve spent my whole career doing work that thrills me—writing for newspapers and magazines. I married the best woman I’ve ever known, Alix Felsing, and I love her more now than when my heart first tumbled for her. We’re blessed with strong families and a deep bench of friends. Our lives are full of music and laughter. I wouldn’t swap with anyone.
Except on those mornings when I wake up and take a long, naked look in the mirror.
My body is a car wreck. Skin tags—long, mole-like growths caused by chafing—dangle under my arms and down in my crotch. I have breasts where my chest ought to be. My belly is strafed with more stretch marks than a mother of five. My stomach hangs below my waist, giving me what the Urban Dictionary calls a “front butt”—as if some twisted Dr. Frankenstein grafted an extra rear end on the wrong side. Varicose veins bulge from my thighs. My calves and shins are rust-colored and shiny from a condition called chronic venous insufficiency. Here’s what it means: The veins in my legs aren’t strong enough to push all the blood back up toward my heart, so it pools in my capillaries and forces little dots of iron up under my skin. The veins are failing because of the pressure caused by 460 pounds pushing downward with every step I take. My body is crumbling under its own gravity.
Some days, when I see that disaster staring back, I get so mad that I pound my gut with my fists, as if I could beat the fat out of me. Other times, the sight sinks me into a blue fog that can ruin an hour or a morning or a day. But most of the time what I feel is sadness over how much life I’ve wasted. When I was a kid, I never climbed a tree or learned to swim. When I was in my 20s, I never took a girl home from a 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. Sometimes, when I could’ve tried anyway, I didn’t have the courage. I’ve done a lot of things I’m proud of. But I’ve never believed I could do anything truly great, because I’ve failed so many times at the one crucial challenge in my life.
What the hell is wrong with me?
What the hell is wrong with us? As I write this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 79 million American adults—40 percent of women, and 35 percent of men—qualify as obese. The obesity rate among American children is 17 percent and climbing. Our collective waistline laps over every boundary: age, race, gender, politics, culture. In our fractured country, we all agree on one thing: second helpings.
As every fat person knows, there’s no such thing as a cheap buffet—you always pay later, one way or another. Fat America comes with a devastating bill. According to government estimates, Americans pay $147 billion a year in medical costs related to obesity. That’s roughly equal to the entire budget for the U.S. Army. But the money is just part of the cost. Every fat person, and every fat person’s family, pays with anger and heartache and pain. For every one of us who can’t shed the weight, there are spouses and parents and kids and friends who grieve. We carve lines in their faces. We sentence them to long years alone.
Tomlinson: More than anything I want to buy time.
I know this from experience. I also feel it like a burning knife right now. Because my sister, Brenda Williams, died seven days ago, on Christmas Eve.
One of the great joys in our family was getting Brenda to laugh. If somebody cracked an off-color joke, her eyes cranked open wide and her eyebrows flew up her forehead like a cartoon. Sometimes she let out a low cackle that tickled me even more. She and her husband, Ed Williams, had been married 43 years and raised three kids. Brenda was never happier than when she had a house full of the people she loved. But she didn’t laugh as much the last few years. Her weight scared her and isolated her, and eventually it killed her.
Brenda was 63 and weighed well north of 200 pounds. Her feet swelled so much that she could hardly wear shoes. Her thighs cramped so bad, with so little warning, that she was afraid to drive. For years, she dealt with sores on her legs caused by the swelling. They leaked fluid and wouldn’t heal. In late December, one of the sores got infected.
The funeral was on my mom’s 82nd birthday. She cried tears from the bottom of the ocean. She lived next door to Brenda and Ed for almost 20 years—we moved her there after she retired. She spent so many nights telling stories around Brenda and Ed’s dining-room table. Now she won’t go back in their house. All she can see is the empty space where Brenda used to be. The infection was the official cause of Brenda’s death, but her weight killed her, sure as poison.
What happens when someone close to you dies? People bring food.
It arrived at Brenda and Ed’s house, and my mom’s, within minutes and in great quantities. Neighbors made potato salad and pecan pie. Folks who didn’t cook brought cold cuts and light bread. One of Ed’s friends arranged for the Western Sizzlin down the road to send a whole rolling cart of meat and vegetables. No matter where you stood, you were no more than 10 feet from fried chicken. I crammed everything I could onto my double-thick paper plate. The sugar and grease pushed back the grief, just for a minute or two, long enough to breathe.
This is the terrible catch-22: The thing that soothes the pain prolongs it. The thing that brings me back to life pushes me closer to the grave.
More than anything, I want to buy time. I want to write every story that needs to come out of me. I want to be the old retired guy with nothing to do but read books and play cards. I want to pack a bag and fill a cooler and get in the car and just ramble. I want to kiss Alix on her 80th birthday and I want her to kiss me on mine. I want to look back and be able to say with an honest heart that my years were not wasted.
Brenda’s death shook me. My only sister died a terrible death from something connected to her weight. 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.
Losing weight is a f---ing rock fight. The enemies come from all sides: The deluge of marketing telling us to eat worse and eat more. The culture that has turned food into one of the last acceptable vices. Our families and friends, who want us to share in their pleasure. Our own body chemistry, dragging us back to the table out of fear that we’ll starve.
What matters to me right now—even more than losing weight—is that I’m trying. I never tried this hard before. I am still a fat man. I will probably always be one in my head, even if I shed every pound I want to lose. But I know for sure now that there is another man inside me. And I’m no longer scared to meet him.
There’s a ladder I want the man who walks inside me to climb—the pull-down ladder to our attic. It’s rated at 250 pounds. I’ve never been up in the attic, because I’m afraid the ladder won’t hold me. Whenever we need what’s up there—Christmas ornaments, winter clothes, an extension cord—Alix has to go up and get it. I’m embarrassed that there’s an entire part of our house that I’ve never been in. I want to climb that ladder with confidence.
There’s a boat I want the man inside me to put in a lake. Daddy’s johnboat lives in our backyard. It’s green aluminum and still has its Georgia registration number on the side. When I was a kid, we hauled a thousand catfish over the side of that boat. Daddy died in 1990, and the boat hasn’t been in the water since way before then. I’ve always been afraid that I’m so big, I’d tip it over. It needs a drain plug and a little love. But it’s still strong enough to hold a normal-size man, and maybe his beautiful wife.
There’s a bicycle I want the man inside me to ride. Nothing fancy—I’d be fine with one of those old-man bikes with straight handlebars and a cushy seat. Our neighborhood is full of bike riders. There’s a group that rides together every Tuesday night. Sometimes we sit on the porch and wave at them as they glide past our house, a rolling parade. I’m tired of watching parades. I’d like to be in a few.
There’s a game I want the man inside me to play. Damn, I miss basketball. It’s been so long since I boxed out for a rebound or put up a shot with a hand in my face. It doesn’t matter if I’m just the old guy who jacks up threes from the corner. It doesn’t matter if I sprain my ankle for the 18th time. It would feel so good to be back in the game again.
There’s a flight I want the man inside me to take. It doesn’t matter where it goes, as long as I’m in the middle seat. I want to sit there without flooding the banks of the armrests. I want the seat belt to click around my waist with an inch or two to spare. After that, I can bitch about the middle seat like everybody else. But I’d like to sit there and feel good about it. Just once.
From The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America by Tommy Tomlinson. Copyright © 2019 by Tommy Tomlinson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc. ■