It wasn’t so long ago that Natalie Hicks was taunted in the street for the way she looked.
‘Back then I weighed 128kg, but was in total denial,’ says the 24-year-old from Hervey Bay, Queensland.
Grief had set Natalie on the path to obesity. And it was tough love from her mother and sister that kick-started her remarkable transformation.
‘When I was six, my mum Karen and dad John divorced,’ she says. ‘Then my dad was diagnosed with a rare form of bowel cancer and given three months to live. I didn’t know how to talk about what I felt, so I comfort ate.’
Natalie’s father fought the disease for seven years and she was 13 when he passed away.
‘I coped by not thinking about it, almost pretending he was still alive,’ Natalie tells New Idea.
At 65kg and 170cm, she says she was already overweight.
An after-school job at McDonald’s made things worse.
‘I took all the shifts going and ate most of my meals at Macca’s. Eating two McChicken burgers, two fries and a milkshake for dinner wasn’t unusual.
‘Whenever I thought about Dad I’d eat more,’ Natalie admits.
Her mother Karen tried to help. ‘Mum’s always been slim. She encouraged me to walk with her, eat healthily, or go to the gym. But I didn’t think I had a problem.’
By the time she turned 15, Natalie weighed 80kg. Another 15kg piled on the following year.
‘I didn’t see myself as really overweight,’ she says. ‘I bought size 16 clothes and was always surprised when they didn’t fit!’
‘The boys were cruel. “You’ve got a really pretty face, but I wouldn’t date you because you’re too fat,” was a typical comment,’ Natalie recalls.
‘It did hurt, but I just told myself I wasn’t really that fat.’
Supporting herself with her McDonald’s job, Natalie moved out of home and rented – and her weight soared.
‘I had no idea about nutrition,’ she laughs. ‘Breakfast was a chocolate milkshake, then I’d have a meat pie at morning tea, and a pie, sausage roll and ice-cream at lunch. My after-school snack would be a litre of ice-cream and then I’d have spaghetti bolognaise for dinner.
‘My dream when I left school was to backpack around the world, but by then I was well over 100 kilos. I wouldn’t have been able to lift a rucksack without getting puffed out.’
Natalie went on to become a disability support carer – and during one outing she was pushing a client along in a wheelchair when a group of young men threw a chocolate milkshake at her.
‘They yelled, “Looks like the whale watching season has started early!” It took all my self-control not to cry. But I still didn’t do anything about my weight.’
It was a trip to Sydney with her mum and sister, Rachel, when she was 19 that finally shocked Natalie into action.
‘We shopped at Darling Harbour and I couldn’t find a single thing to wear,’ she says. ‘I was a size 22 and 128 kilos.
‘Mum and Rachel had taken lots of photos. “I look so fat,” I protested. “Natalie, you look skinnier in the photos than you do in person!” Rachel snapped.
‘Then mum chipped in, saying: “You’ll get diabetes and heart disease if you don’t lose weight.” I was devastated and burst into tears.
‘Anyone else and I’d have dismissed what they said, but Mum and Rachel were both nurses and they loved me. It was a wake-up call.’
After a check-up from her doctor, revealing Natalie had a fatty liver, she began walking on Hervey Bay Esplanade and swimming. Then she joined a gym.
‘After my first session with a personal trainer, I threw up in the car park,’ she laughs. ‘And at my first group fitness class,
I couldn’t even do the warm-up and walked out. The group fitness manager spotted me and asked where I was going.
‘I told her I was leaving because I felt fat, ugly and embarrassed. She said: “Get your ass back in that class! Do half and you can go home.”’
Natalie persisted and started enjoying classes.
When she added weights, cardio and healthy eating, the kilograms fell off.
‘One day I got in the shower, looked down and saw my feet for the first time since I was a child!’ she says.
Over the next 18 months, she lost a staggering 60kg.
‘I went from shopping in the plus-size section to the size 12s. For the first time ever as a young woman, I could wear beautiful, flattering clothes. And I got compliments too, which was new. I didn’t know how to deal with that!’ she smiles.
And now she was fit and healthy, there was no reason Natalie couldn’t fulfil her lifelong dream to travel.
She visited Fiji and South Africa, and spent three months travelling Europe carrying a 25kg backpack. ‘I wasn’t puffed at all,’ she laughs.
In 2016 she met her boyfriend Jason Lund through friends.
‘He never knew me when I was fat, so when he saw the photos, he was like: “Wow! Well done,”’ she says.
She and Jason have just returned to Hervey Bay after a three-month stint mustering on an outback station.
‘I used to sit on the couch watching movies when I was overweight, now life is an adventure. I’m planning trips to Japan and New Zealand, and we’re soon going mustering again,’ Natalie beams.
‘I can talk about my emotions now,’ she adds. ‘It’s a lot healthier than comfort eating.
‘I think Dad would be proud of me and I hope I can inspire other women. If I can do it, then anyone can.’