Primary school bullies caused teenager Margaret O'Donovan to comfort eat. A magazine article inspired her to lose weight and now she wants to motivate others.
"I didn't tell anyone for the first few months, but as the weight came off, I felt for the first time that I had something to look forward to," says Margaret O'Donovan (19).
"I didn't know what to do with myself the first time I went clothes shopping into Cork city. I wasn't sure where to go or what to pick up, and I had no notion of style. It was funny, in a way."
The bubbly Margaret is reflecting on how her life changed after she lost an incredible four-and-a-half stone in weight over a one-year period.
The pretty teen from Leap in Cork is now a slim size 10, which is amazing when you consider that her school trousers were a size 22.
She attributes her weight gain to being bullied in primary school, which turned her from a bubbly, happy child into an anxious one who ate for comfort.
"Even though my mam cooked healthily, and my family were never into takeaways or junk food, I began eating all of the wrong foods," she says.
"I put on weight, and once I got heavier, it made me back out of a lot of the sports I loved, as I didn't have the confidence to join in.
"My parents were worried, and sometimes suggested that I went for a walk or ate different foods, but I used to get so upset at that.
"Because I had been bullied at school, I thought they were kind of picking on me too, even though all they were doing was trying to help me. I didn't want to hear any of it, so it was hard for them as well."
Having confidence in yourself and your abilities, irrespective of how you look, is the ideal situation in life and should be strongly encouraged, but accepting and embracing your appearance generally comes later in life.
The focus on looks peaks during the teenage years, where young girls are bombarded with images of slim celebrities that they admire, and the emphasis seems firmly focused on weight and image.
High-fashion clothes are often only made in small sizes, which can make life very difficult for an overweight teenage girl who desperately wants to fit in.
For Margaret, secondary school was a much happier experience, because she made a great group of friends who loved her for herself. However, there were still a few things that bothered her.
'We started to go to discos in fourth year, and I felt left out when we went shopping and my friends were trying on clothes that I couldn't buy," she recalls.
"I always loved clothes and my friends told me I dressed well, but looking back, I wore baggy clothes that hid me. I'd go into Cork on a mission to get jeans, and would come home with make-up instead, because I couldn't get any to fit me."
The turning-point came for Margaret after she read Unislim ambassador Nicola Bleakley's story in the Sunday Independent's 'Life' magazine. Nicola, sister of TV star Christine Bleakley, was talking about wearing maternity clothes for her 18th birthday, which struck a chord in Margaret, who was then aged 17.
"I was crying reading it, because I could relate so much to it," she says.
"I'm really close to my mum, and I went downstairs and said to her that I didn't want to be like that. I had my 18th birthday and debs coming up and wanted to be able to wear nice clothes.
"She suggested that I should go to the Unislim class in Skibbereen with our neighbours Betty and Catherine, and I decided to give it a go.
"I was so scared walking in, and a little embarrassed as I was the youngest in the class."
The scales showed that Margaret weighed 15st 7lbs, and even though there was a long road ahead of her, Margaret was determined to do it.
Over the following nine months, she shed four-and-a-half stone, and saw her confidence transforming in tandem with her physical appearance.
There were good weeks and bad weeks, she says, but even when she doubted herself, her class leader, Maura McCabe, was fantastic, and gave her constant advice and support.
"I think she was amazed to see a young girl coming in, but she and the rest of the people in the class were so supportive as the weight came off," she says.
"They were always telling me that I was amazing and incredible, and after being bullied in primary school, hearing that from other people was great for restoring my confidence.
"I had always seen myself as a bit of a failure, even
though Mam and Dad always told me that I wasn't."
Weight is a hugely emotive subject, and the lengths that women will go to in pursuit of the ideal body shape know no bounds.
This is borne out by the results of a British survey conducted on behalf of the eating disorder charity, The Succeed Foundation, which found that 30pc of women at university would trade at least one year of their life in exchange for having their ideal body weight and shape.
Another 10pc would be willing to lose two to five years, and 2pc would give up six to 10 years for the perfect shape.
In addition, 13pc would be willing to take a £5,000 (€5,800) cut from their annual salary, 8pc would forego a promotion at work, and 6pc would sacrifice achieving a first-class honours degree.
And most worryingly of all, 46pc of the women surveyed have been ridiculed or bullied because of their appearance.
Competition between women around weight can be fierce. Margaret can testify to this, having received a mixed reception at her all-girls' school when she went back after the summer holidays with a fab new slimline figure.
"People's reactions to me changed," she says."Some of the girls said I looked great, while others were a bit funny with me, and said that they thought I had been on diet pills or a crash diet.
"I told them that the weight loss was just down to healthy eating and exercise, and I didn't do it for anyone else – I just did it for myself and my parents, who were so supportive of me.
"The other thing was that lads who never said hello to me before were now saying hi, which I thought was funny. They never used to look at me before.
"Another bonus was that I learned so much about food and nutrition, which really helped me with home economics for the Leaving."
Margaret's sensible approach to dieting and nutrition is the ideal way for teenagers to shed the pounds. While celebrity fad diets like Beyonce's maple syrup diet or Lady Gaga's baby food diet may have a certain cachet for fans, the reality is that slow, sensible and steady is the way to lasting weight loss, as Margaret can confirm.
"I snack on fruit, and could never see myself eating the way I did before now, having bread or crisps or chocolate for the sake of it," she says. "I know I have to earn them now.
"Eating carbs was a really big thing for me, and I realised that I was eating loads of them.
"Now that I'm in college, I sometimes cook for myself, and am so educated around food that I know now what to choose."
Margaret's weight loss saw her becoming Unislim's Youth Ambassador, and a finalist in Unislimmer of the Year, and she says that she would never have thought she'd see the day when she would be appearing in magazines and on TV herself.
After she left school, she embarked on a year-long FETAC psychology course at the College of Commerce in Cork, as she was interested in the area of social care.
Now, however, she has changed her mind, as she would like to pursue a career in recreation and leisure, proving that it is never too late to follow your dreams.
"My little sister is into sports, and I was saying to my dad that I really regretted giving it up when I was younger," she says.
"He said that 'looking back is not the way forward', and that quote really stuck with me.
"I love going to the gym now, and I wouldn't have said that before I lost the weight.
"I can't believe how much my life has changed for the better, and I feel I'm a lot stronger now than I was before."
Health & Living