Until last year, Julie Real avoided being seen.
She dreaded requests by her husband, an effervescent and social person, to visit the beach, park or bars.
Photographs were largely a no-no.
The only times she faced a camera was at the births of her two daughters and on major holidays. Otherwise, she ducked out of sight and hid behind people or otherwise ensured that video cameras missed her.
The reason? Her weight.
It wasn't until a friend died from a brain aneurysm in late 2011 that she decided it was time to change her habits. Even though her friend's death wasn't weight-related, the shock inspired Real to think about her own mortality.
"Her daughter was so little that she was not going to remember her mom, and any memories she would have would be from videos and pictures," Real said. "I had no pictures of me and my daughters because I was so heavy and didn't like to be photographed.
"It hit me that, God forbid if something were to happen to me, my daughters would literally have nothing to remember me by."
Spurred to action, she began altering her bad eating habits and gradually dropped 10 pounds.
Being photographed at her surprise birthday party in early 2012 cemented her determination. All it took was one glance, and the Huntington Beach resident knew it was time to stop hiding.
"I was an 'everything eater,'" she said. "I ate when I was bored, tired and stressed, and I didn't make the effort to make wise decisions. It's funny because if I'd eaten the way I fed my kids, I wouldn't have gone through what I did."
While balancing the myriad duties of parenting and her job as an event coordinator, Real, 31, admitted to grabbing easy-to-access, and usually unhealthy, food. Del Taco bean and cheese burritos and Goldfish crackers were at the top of the list.
Last April, she joined Weight Watchers — for the third time — and began keeping track of her food intake and the points assigned to each item. Although she'd given the service a try before her wedding and again after delivering her first child, Real yo-yoed and kept packing on the pounds.
This time, though, she stuck to her plan and attended weekly meetings, where she was weighed in, often crying but always relishing the support and inspiration gained from others facing the same battle. Unlike previous attempts at weight loss, she also tacked on daily exercise during her children's afternoon nap.
Christmas was around the corner when the family's stationary exercise machine gave out. But the new Real didn't waste the two weeks it took to replace the elliptical trainer. Instead of taking a break from her regimen, she started running at the pier, in her neighborhood and elsewhere, and, soon enough, she was hooked.
Today, 101 pounds lighter — she attributes 91 of those to Weight Watchers — Real has taken to marathon training. Between February and October, she participated in three half-marathons, with another scheduled for November. Next year, she will try her hand at the entire 26.2 miles.
"Unlike drugs or alcohol, you can't give up food, so you can't just go cold turkey," she said, adding that it all comes down to smarter decision-making. Real, who is averse to terms like "fat" or "skinny," has revamped her lifestyle and household — her children are allowed cookies and chips on special occasions — with an eye toward wellness.
The behavior is contagious. Real's older daughter has taken up running.
When the Weight Watchers 50 Years of Success Contest rolled around this summer, Real decided to toss her name in. While Real didn't snag the grand prize, a "You Only Live Once Adventure" — she was hoping to participate in the ING New York City Marathon — she was one of 50 first-place winners from more than 4,000 entries nationwide. She was honored with a $100 gift card for her achievements.
"Julie's story of inspiration was a very emotional one," Lisa Craig, public relations manager for Weight Watchers, wrote in an email. "The changes she made in losing weight have not only helped her to have a more healthy, active lifestyle, but the fact that the changes also affected her kids was a big part of her story's appeal. Julie has become a role model for her kids, and her story is sure to inspire others."
In the past year, Real has been forced to buy an entirely new wardrobe, but she keeps one pair of size-18 jeans to keep herself in check. She says she is happier and more confident having transformed her body, now a size 4 to 6, but the highlight of her past year was crossing the Surf City Half-Marathon finish line one minute shy of her target time.
Overall, Real, who recently launched a fitness blog, says she is most concerned with providing a role model for her daughters.
She sums up her journey this way: "In the end, I ran out of excuses."