Mary Jane O’Toole, an Orlando-based leasing assistant, had a happy love life and after six years with her boyfriend, Alex, a proposal was pretty much expected.
While the years have been good for their relationship, they haven’t been good for their waistlines.
Even though O’Toole had been overweight growing up, she became “clinically obese” from all those fast food dinners coupled with lack of exercise.
“I didn’t really understand how to eat properly,” O’Toole told PEOPLE. “I never ate because I was hungry — it was because it smelled or looked good, or because my friends were going to Steak n’ Shake or Taco Bell. Then when I met my husband, he had always been active and thought that as long as he worked out he could eat whatever he wanted, and I started to do that too, but I was never active. We just ballooned up.”
But more than that, all that extra weight – which ballooned to 281 lbs. that year – were taking a toll on her health that she was trying to ignore.
“I didn’t realize that my weight had caused me so much pain,” she admits. “I was in my cousin’s wedding and one of those group dance songs came on and I tried to get low and my knees would hurt. I thought I was getting arthritis — I always had some excuse in my head — but it was just because my knees couldn’t bear the weight of my body.”
Both she and her husband-to-be knew that something needed to change but it was their photos from a trip to Animal Kingdom at Disney World that proved to be the tipping point.
“When we got home they sent us the photos and I was mortified,” she says. “I couldn’t believe how big I had become. We didn’t even recognize ourselves.”
With that realization, they set weight loss goals and downloaded the app LoseIt!, which allowed them to log their meals, track calories, and monitor their weight loss.
“We had tried using it before and stopped, but seeing those photos was the catalyst we really needed,” she says.
In addition, O’Toole wanted the wedding dress of her dreams.
“I didn’t want to buy a plus-size wedding dress, because they cost way more than straight sizes,” she says. “I was tired of having to buy clothes that were only at certain stores. I felt like I was paying this fat tax — I didn’t have the ability to buy affordable clothes because I was bigger.”
They didn’t want to make any drastic changes only to revert back to square one, so they started out slowly.
“I strategically planned my meals to get the maximum calories. It became a game to me,” she says. “I got smarter about it out of a pure desire to eat more food.”
And it was effective. O’Toole lost 75 lbs. in a year while Alex achieved his weight loss goal. After those initial 12 months, they decided to add exercise into their daily routine, something O’Toole had never done before. After six months, the three days of strength training and two days of yoga a week brought O’Toole’s weight down by another 100 lbs.
“The day that I hit 100 lbs. lost was amazing,” she says. “ When I was 16 I weighed in at 170 and stayed there for a while before gaining it rapidly. So to get under that number, I was freaking out. I actually celebrated by going to the gym, because I had so much energy.”
Six months later, O’Toole reached 146 lbs. and got the size six wedding dress she never thought she could wear. This is the first time in her adult life that she was able to wear a dress size in the single digits.
“The ideal dress that I had in my head was cleavage-baring with a dramatic accent, and then I went with a long-sleeved dress that went up to my neck with a bareback.
I had never pictured something fitted, but I felt awesome in it because I had done it and lost the weight,” she says.Walking down the stairs that led to the aisle was very satisfying because I knew there were people there who hadn’t seen me since I was much bigger.
It was this dramatic moment.”
Her original weight loss goal was 135 lbs. but she acknowledged that her body might not be able to take it.
“It’s been a little frustrating to find that I can’t break out of the 140’s, but what I’m learning about my body now is that your goals will constantly change, because your body is changing,” she says. “Muscle weighs more than fat, and I just need to be conscious of the fact that I’m going to weigh more but it’s better for my body.”
One side effect of her 135 lbs. weight loss was all that excess skin.
“I can pick up the skin on my stomach and my legs,” she says. “I thought bathing suit shopping was going to be this amazing experience, but it’s just as traumatizing. There’s a part of me that wants to get skin removal surgery, but the idea of the drains freak me out. And I am very body positive, so I need to learn to love the body that I’m in. I’ve accomplished this incredible goal and I need to be proud of it.”
But instead of agonizing over numbers on the scale, O’Toole chooses to celebrate “non-scale victories.”
“The biggest one is being able to shop out of my friends’ closets — I had never been able to do that before,” she says. It’s so cool, it’s like I have double the closets, and what I had always dreamt about doing in high school!”
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