Postcards from my weight-loss past

Postcards from my weight-loss past

41-year-old Valerie O’Donovan from Dublin shares the holiday highs and lows that inspired her to lose 10½st* – and explains how her slimdown has made trips abroad and family time fun again...

"Holidays are meant to be the highlight of your year – a time when you can relax and enjoy being with family without the miserable weather or the demands of work and school. For me, though, sunshine trips were more of a nightmare than a dream getaway, and the reason was how I felt about my weight.

"As I was growing up, it had gradually dawned on me that, at 5ft 9ins and a size 14, I was a bit taller and heavier than my friends. By cutting out my favourite foods, like bread, ice cream, crisps and cheese, I stayed around a size 14-16 throughout my early 20s, and lost weight fairly easily after each of my first three pregnancies. Then, in 2001, I gave birth to twin boys two months early. My partner, Vincent, and I practically lived at the hospital’s special care baby unit: it took more than a month for the babies to be strong enough to come home from hospital.

"With all the stress, plus looking after five children under the age of nine, my own needs went out of the window. I just ate whatever was handy and quick. The more weight I gained, the more my fragile self-esteem took a battering. And then came several holidays that, bit by bit, would inspire me to change my life..."

Greetings from… Ibiza, 2004

The twins are three and we’re on our first family holiday abroad. The boys are having so much fun in the pool and I wish I could, too. I’m a size 16-18 now, and too self-conscious about my arms and thighs to feel relaxed in my swimming costume. I only swim when there’s nobody around; the rest of the time I’m covered up. Vincent (one of those lucky blokes who never seems to put on weight) thinks I’m being silly – he insists size doesn’t matter and it’s the person inside he loves. And though I know I shouldn’t let it worry me, I can’t help comparing myself to all the other holidaymakers in teeny bikinis. Next time we go away, I’ll have lost weight.

Greetings from… Portugal, 2007

Three years later and I’m a size 18, feeling even more uncomfortable than before. I’ve tried losing weight – I started with my old trick of cutting out certain foods, yet got so hungry I ate more than ever. Then there was a raw juice diet, followed by a complicated plan that involved lots of weighing and measuring. It seems that whatever I try, I can’t sustain my enthusiasm for longer than a fortnight. It’s beautiful here and I should be thankful: the kids are having a whale of a time. I wish I could join in with them, or at least feel happy sunbathing in my cossie. Instead, I spend all day covered up in big denim shorts, worrying about what people are thinking when they look my way.

Greetings from… Ibiza, 2012

From the moment I struggle to fasten the plane’s seat belt over my tummy, I know this is going to be a humiliating week. I’ve gained at least 6st in the five years since our trip to Portugal, and I’m now wearing a size 22-24. Part of the problem is my hectic lifestyle. I’m working four days a week at a big department store, and as the hours are irregular, I often arrive home after dinner time. Exhausted from being on the shop floor all day, I don’t have the energy to move off the sofa, let alone cook something healthy for myself. I have frequent heartburn, indigestion, migraines and sore knees – all of which have come on holiday with me – and I feel so unfit. Just a single flight of steps in the hotel puffs me out, and even short walks in this climate make my thighs chafe so badly I have to slather them in antiseptic cream and talc.

It’s so sweltering here that I can’t resist the cool water of the pool. So I insist that one twin walks in front of me and the other stays right behind, figuring that if I’m sandwiched between my boys people are less likely to notice my size. When I’m not in the water, I wear a big skirt or dress, or long shorts, with perspiration rolling off me. Mostly, though, I retreat to our hotel room balcony, where I feel safe enough to strip off. As I sit waiting for the cool of the evening and watching everyone else having fun, I feel more miserable than ever about being overweight. It twists me up inside and makes me irritable. I even give Vincent a hard time about it. Each evening, the twins are despatched to take the balcony chairs down to the dining area as the flimsy ones everyone else uses are tight around my thighs. I suspect I’m spoiling the trip for everyone. I’m frustrated and angry – and food always makes me feel better when I’m upset.

Greetings from… Dublin, June 2013

I’ve done it – I’ve just joined my local Slimming World group. Although I came back from Ibiza determined to lose weight, I told myself I needed to get Christmas out of the way first. I’m here now, though, and wishing I’d actually joined sooner. The weigh-in lady is friendly and welcoming, and my Consultant, Tanya, has explained everything really well. She’s invited those of us who’ve just joined to sit through the new-members’ talk again next week if we want to, and as many times as we like until we feel really comfortable with the plan. I find this very reassuring because I know I’m going to need to completely change my way of eating – filling up on Free Foods rather than the fatty and sugary processed ones I’ve relied on until now.

I haven’t told anyone except Vincent and the boys that I’ve joined Slimming World, and I’ve even sworn them to secrecy. I feel that if I tell the rest of my family and friends about it, they’ll be expecting history to repeat itself and me to give up after a couple of weeks of following the plan. And that’s not going to happen this time.

Greetings from… Malta, August 2013

I’m at my brother Dennis’s wedding in Malta. I got on the plane a whole stone lighter and felt on top of the world. I was sure my health problems were improving, and was also just really pleased with myself – I’ve never stuck to an eating plan for such a long time before and lost so much weight! Then something happened to knock my confidence: the seat belt wouldn’t go around me on the plane. At the wedding, nobody can tell I’ve lost anything. The ‘flattering’ black, size-22 maxi dress I’m wearing makes me feel so uncomfortable, I’ve just fled to my hotel room to change into leggings and a top. Part of me feels like giving up right now because I’ve been trying so hard for weeks, yet there’s clearly still such a long way to go. Feeling low, I make a bargain with myself: if, after sticking to Food Optimising for this whole trip, I haven’t lost weight, that’s it. I’ll quit.

Greetings from… Florida, 2015

I came back from Malta a few pounds lighter, so I didn’t give up, thank goodness – though I did decide I’d avoid any more holidays abroad until I reached my target weight.

As the months went by I steadily lost the pounds, and now I’m 12st 3lbs and a size 12. Yes, you read that right – I’ve lost more than 10st!

So here I am in sunny Florida, and it’s truly everything I’ve dreamed of. It’s so different… the seat belt on the plane fitted, for a start. And thanks to all the Body Magic I’ve been doing – going to the gym four times a week and lots of running, too (can you believe it?) – I feel energised for all the theme parks we’ve been visiting. I don’t think I would have even fitted in the rides before. Instead of sitting on the sidelines trying not to cry, I’m laughing and smiling all day with everyone else. It’s the first time I’ve ever honestly enjoyed a holiday with the kids.

Greetings from… Puerto Rico, 2016

We’ve been invited to stay out here with my brotherin- law and his wife. As our Florida trip wasn’t a beach holiday, this is the first opportunity I’ve had to confront my fear of being seen in swimwear. I know it sounds odd, but a part of me finds it hard to accept that I’m a size 10-12. And so, despite knowing that my two new bikinis (my first ever!) fit perfectly, I’m still quaking with nerves at the thought of walking to the pool. In the end I ask Vincent to take a picture of me on his phone so I can see what I look like… and it gives me the confidence to head out.

I’ve been at or around my new target weight of 12st for almost a year now, and it still feels wonderful. Vincent is pleased, too, as he no longer has to bear the brunt of my emotional outbursts. He, and the boys, have been incredibly supportive. Food Optimising has become a way of life for me. I feel in control and can even eat my Healthy Extra helping of cheese without feeling I need to demolish the entire block. I no longer use chocolate to fight fatigue or deal with stress – I exercise or go for a drive instead – and I can enjoy it as a treat. Though to be honest, I usually prefer to use my Syns for a vodka and diet cola! I still go to group every week – Tanya and the others are a special lot; I learn so much from them.

Holidaying now I’m slim is just fantastic. I walk around in the hot weather and don’t feel my thighs rubbing together. I wear strappy tops and pretty dresses at night, and I no longer worry about what strangers think of me. And best of all, I feel happy, healthy and relaxed. For so many years, going on holiday made me feel like an outsider. Now I’m finally joining in the fun, wherever I am!

Holidays transformed

Eating Before, I’d fill up on fried meat or fish with a big helping of chips – and a sugary pudding every time. Now, I still fill my plate, just with lots of grilled fish and veg, followed by fruit or an occasional pudding. 

Attitude I had an all-or-nothing attitude to food. I reckoned if I couldn’t stick to my diet 100 per cent, I may as well give up and eat anything I liked. While I Food Optimise most of the time, I’m only human, and I do sometimes veer off track a little. If it results in a gain, it’s no problem – I just get straight back on plan when I step off the plane home, and it comes off again.

Clothes I’d cover up as much as possible in a big tunic top and leggings or a shapeless dress. Even sitting by the pool, I’d wear baggy shorts or a denim skirt. Now my suitcase is packed with summery clothes… shorts, T-shirts, vest tops, jeans, pretty dresses and even a bikini or two. 

*Weight loss will vary due to your individual circumstances and how much weight you have to lose

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