The man in front of me shook his head. “Sorry, ma’am, we can’t take you on this ride,” he said.
“It’s too dangerous.” Blushing, I tried again, but it was no use. I’d been battling to squeeze into the pirate ship ride along with my four-year-old daughter Mairi for the past ten minutes but no matter how much I tried I couldn’t get the safety bar to close over my stomach.
“Oh, that’s OK,” I said, pretending it didn’t matter. Inside though, I was mortified. I knew I was overweight but I didn’t think I was obese. I’d never had to buy two seats on an aeroplane or get a seatbelt extension, though I had noticed my baggy clothes getting tighter.
Scuttling along, holding Mairi’s hand, we joined the queue for the next ride. We were chatting when suddenly some teenagers barged into me. “Fat cow,” one of the boys sniggered. Cheeks burning, I hurried away, trying not to cry in front of my little girl.
“That’s it,” I told myself. “Next year I’m going to come back and go on any ride I want.” I wanted to be a good role model for my daughter. I didn’t want her to be teased for having a fat mother, so I had to go on a diet.
Back home I weighed myself. The needle span round to 129kg, which at 167cm tall, was 63kg too much. It was time to rejoin Jenny Craig, the slimming club, and try to improve my health for my and Mairi’s sake.
I’d always been overweight, even while I was growing up in the small town of Lima, New York. My mother had personal problems and couldn’t look after me so my grandmother raised me – mostly as a single parent after my grandfather died of cancer when I was nine.
My grandmother tried the best she could but we were poor and sometimes we had to survive on food stamps. Back then it was often cheaper to buy junk food. I also went to a small school where hot lunches were not provided. I’d buy sweets and crisps with the couple of bucks my grandmother gave me each day.
At home I usually had second and third portions of dinner, which was often breaded or processed food. I also drank cans of fizzy drinks throughout the day. Unsurprisingly, I weighed 90kg by the time I was 15.
I never had a boyfriend at school and the kids sometimes teased me by calling me Marshmallow Man. Despite those taunts I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities; I played basketball, was in the marching band, joined the drama club and was even on the student council.
Being fat did knock my confidence though. I was too big to wear fashionable clothes so I dyed my hair black and wore funky glasses and jewellery to make up for it.
How I met my match
I met Keith in 2000, shortly after I finished school. I had joined a dating hotline – a bit like internet dating but you met people on the phone. I was checking my voicemail one day when I heard a man reading a poem that he had written. He had a really nice voice. I sent him a message telling him that I liked his poem and we started communicating.
Within a few weeks we exchanged numbers and ended up spending hours talking on the phone. Keith was 22 and he lived in nearby Rochester. Over the next few months we started hanging out. With his red hair, Keith was 178cm and cute. Like me he was overweight, but he never mentioned my US size 22 figure.
We spent our dates eating at restaurants. Between us we would order huge meals. We loved it when appetisers were half-price. Then we’d order about eight dishes between us; potato skins, chicken wings, chicken fingers, loaded fries (dripping in cheese, and sour cream) and spinach-artichoke dip.
Keith would usually then order a cheeseburger and I’d have some other chicken dish with loaded mashed potato. A dessert each was essential. Keith loved pies and I liked chocolate molten lava cake. We’d wash our three-course dinner down with fizzy drinks.
Keith proposed in August 2001. We had been dating for less than a year but I knew he was the man for me. Just a few months earlier Keith held me while my mother died of lung cancer in my arms. It was a week after my 21st birthday. It was such a courageous thing for him to do, especially as he was still grieving the loss of his cousin who had died in a car accident.
On the day I married Keith in November 2001 I was a size 28 and weighed around 120kg.
Joy followed by heartbreak
Over the next two years Keith and I tried to start a family but I struggled to get pregnant and in June 2003 I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome. My weight must have affected my hormones, because when I lost 12.7kg by following the Atkins’ Plan, I conceived. I put on more than 25.4kg during the pregnancy, taking me up to 131.5kg. Mairi was a big baby, weighing 4.2kg when she was born in December 2004.
Within days of giving birth I was rushed to hospital where I was diagnosed with a rare heart disease called peri-partum cardiomyopathy, where the heart starts to fail towards the end of pregnancy. Doctors didn’t know the cause, only that one in 4,000 pregnant women get it.
I was bloated, had high blood pressure and was sick. During pre-natal check-ups I’d been wrongly told that I had pre-eclampsia where in fact it was congestive heart failure. I was rushed to the intensive care unit where doctors found that my heart function was dangerously low at 25 per cent.
I had pneumonia and, unable to pump properly, my heart was drowning in blood.
I stayed in hospital for two weeks where I was treated with medication.
But within a few days of getting home I was rushed back to hospital because I had a terrible pain in my groin. Doctors found that I had a blood clot the size of a grapefruit that had travelled up from my calf. If it had travelled up to my heart or lungs I would have died.
The pain and the complications with my health meant that I could barely look after our new baby. But I still desperately wanted more children. I spent the next year resting and trying to heal.
My doctor monitored my situation and in January 2006, a year after my congestive heart failure, I was given the go-ahead to try for another baby. Once again, I wanted to get healthy before conceiving and I lost almost 19.5kg on the Jenny Craig weight loss programme. Later that year I discovered I was pregnant with our second child.
I was thrilled. I knew that because of my heart problems it was considered a high-risk pregnancy. But my doctor monitored my heart very closely and I had weekly prenatal checks. Everything seemed to be fine. Keith and I knew we were going to have a girl and we couldn’t wait for her arrival. Everything was fine, I was constantly monitored, and then when I was 41 weeks pregnant a nurse couldn’t find our baby’s heartbeat and we were told she had died.
We were devastated. We named her Catriana. I had to give birth to her knowing she’d never cry, never wriggle in my arms.
I ached for her, couldn’t stop sobbing.
No one knew why she’d died. I was depressed for months, resenting every newborn and pregnant woman I saw. Life seemed so unfair.
Despite our pain at losing our second child and warnings from my doctor that I risked heart failure from another pregnancy, Keith and I wanted to try again. In 2008 I conceived our little boy, Elijah.
Of course, I was anxious. I didn’t want to lose another baby, but the pregnancy went smoothly and I was relieved when I gave birth to a healthy 3.8kg baby in March 2009.
Now, six months after bonding with my son, I decided that I wanted to try to lose weight again. The cruel comments I faced at the fair focused my thinking – I wanted to get thin and healthy, and stay that way. I joined Jenny Craig again and decided to complement my new eating habits with some exercise.
I started lifting weights at the local YMCA to tighten my excess skin while I shifted the pounds. But I needed to do some cardio to burn up the calories. I wanted to do something that would keep me motivated, rather than just going on the treadmill, which was boring.
Looking online, I saw a website Hoopnotica, who trained hula-hoop dance teachers, and bought their basic instructional DVD and a travel hoop. “I’ll do it for 15 minutes a day for a month,” I told myself. If I couldn’t keep the hoop around my waist after that, I’d give up.
Every day I went to a corner of the room at the YMCA and tried the moves from the DVD. It took me two-and-a-half weeks to be able to keep the hoop around my waist for 30 seconds. I was elated when I could keep it up for a whole song. Every day I’d swing the hula-hoop around my waist, watch it fall to the ground, bend over, pick it up and try again.
My persistence paid off. I lost 1.8kg in my first week. After one month I lost 4.5kg. I was thrilled. I ate Jenny Craig pre-made low-fat meals and snacks although my husband and kids didn’t change their eating habits immediately.
I decided to up my game
For the next year I steadily lost weight. In September 2009 I also joined a college where I took physical education classes. It was an online course so I had to go to the gym, exercise and get the staff to sign off each activity so that I could get my credits.
By January 2010 I weighed just over 89kg.
I hadn’t been that weight since high school. Spurred on, I decided to take a course to become a certified Hoopnotica instructor, discovering that hooping is great because it is a low-impact exercise that trims the stomach muscles while burning up to 600 calories an hour.
I sent out a few emails to local gyms and YMCAs to see if they would be interested in taking my classes. I was amazed when I started to get a few responses. I knew that I had achieved a lot by losing around 38kg but I was still a long way away from my goal weight.
I worried that the women wouldn’t accept a chubby gym instructor. I was wrong. I was nervous before my first class, but I soon forgot those encouraging the men and women who came along. It was fun – and I sailed through it.
Over the next few months, as my classes got more popular, I lost more weight.
Keith saw the change in me – I was happier as well as slimmer – and joined me on my new healthy lifestyle, eating low-fat meals that I cooked. I even taught him to hoop dance and he made himself his own hula-hoop from black tubing, which he decorated with camouflage tape. The weight began to drop off him as we dieted and hula-hooped together.
More than a year after I resolved to lose weight, I weighed 65.7kg and was a US size 6. Keith weighed 85.2kg – that’s almost 107kg between us. We both looked completely different, after hula-hooping every day and watching what we eat.
For breakfast we’d eat low-carb wraps with egg whites, peppers and onions or Greek yogurt with fruit. Lunch was a salad or a 6-inch Subway sandwich, and dinner a low-fat high-protein meal.
We snacked on fruit but would treat ourselves to a low-fat Starbucks frappuccino, which we shared. In September 2010 I returned to the fairground and went on the pirate ship ride that I was kicked off a year earlier. I felt a real sense of achievement. I was soon teaching 15 hoop classes a week, in addition to running and working out, and became confident enough to enter a local beauty pageant and was chosen to compete in Mrs New York.
The entire family travelled to watch me. It was terrifying, but exiting as well. I had to take a deep breath as I stepped out in a swimming costume, but the cheers made me smile. I did have some loose skin but honestly not as much as I had expected as hooping really firms and tones the belly!
If someone had told me 18 months earlier that I’d be parading in front of an audience in a swimsuit I would have thought they were mad.
In summer 2011 I found out I was pregnant with our fourth child and on March 15, 2012, our son baby Lachlan was born. This time I only put on 18kg going up to a respectable 83.9kg. I had no problems with my heart, which I’m convinced is because of my weight.
I taught hula-hoop classes up until a week before Lachlan’s birth and I know that with healthy eating I will easily regain my pre-pregnancy figure.
Keith and I are already hooping together six hours a week, and I’m back teaching my classes. We’re also doing Master Training for Hoopnotica (travelling the country, certifying others to become Hoopnotica Instructors), performing and doing workshops.
After all the sadness I’ve been through it feels good to be happy and in control of my life as well as my body again. To think that our lives changed by picking up a hula-hoop is truly amazing.