After six years in a happy relationship, Mary Jane O’Toole thought a proposal might be on the way. But life with her boyfriend, Alex, hadn’t been good for her eating habits.
Although O’Toole had grown up overweight, she had become “clinically obese” from fast food dinners and a lack of exercise.
“I didn’t really understand how to eat properly,” O’Toole tells 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.”
Her extra weight — which hit 281 lbs. that year — was causing health problems that the Orlando-based leasing assistant tried 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.”
Deep down, O’Toole knew that she needed to make a change — as did her husband-to-be, Alex, but it wasn’t until she saw photos from a trip to the Animal Kingdom at DisneyWorld that they found their motivation.
“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.”
Together, the couple set weight loss goals and downloaded the app LoseIt!, where users can log their meals, track their 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.
Plus, 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.”
O’Toole was wary of making drastic changes that wouldn’t stick, 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 worked — O’Toole dropped 75 lbs. in a year, and Alex hit his weight loss goal. After those first 12 months, they started to integrate exercise into their daily routine, something that O’Toole had never done before. Six months later, with three days of strength training and two days of yoga a week, she was 100 lbs. down.
“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.”
O’Toole reached her current weight, 146 lbs., a few months later, and ended up with a wedding dress — a size six, her first time in the single digits in her adult life — that she never thought she could wear.
“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 bare back. 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.”
O’Toole’s original weight loss goal was to hit 135 lbs., but she’s since realized that it may not be possible for her body.
“It’s been a little frustrating to find that I can’t break out of the 140s, 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.”
She also discovered that her significant weight loss — 135 lbs. in total — left her with 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.”
Instead of focusing on the number on the scale, O’Toole is making the point to celebrate her “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!”