Auckland sisters Phia Wilson and Meni Tupu Tuia once weighed a staggering 324kg combined. And although each has chosen a different path to lose their weight, they have achieved the same amazing results. Meni (33) had her stomach stapled, while Phia (29) followed a healthy eating plan and exercise regime – between them, the siblings shed a remarkable 166kg.
Today, Phia and Meni, who were constantly told they’d be pretty if they weren’t so big, are embracing their new slim bodies and have become a true inspiration to family and friends.
“People keep asking me, what my secret is?” says Phia, who went from an unhealthy 176kg to 79kg, losing nearly 100kg in total.
“For me, I was just physically, spiritually and emotionally ready to lose the weight. Enough was enough!”
The sisters, who have three older siblings, and have always been the biggest in their family, say they were emotional eaters, and growing up in a large Samoan family contributed to their expanding waistlines.
“We’re Pacific Islanders. When we get together, it’s all about the food,” explains Meni, who went from 147kg to 78kg after her surgery. “It was considered rude to not eat everything on your plate, even if you were full.”
Phia was the first of the two to lose weight, after an embarrassing flight to Malaysia two years ago. She needed a seat-belt extension, and the air hostess loudly announced it in full earshot of the other passengers.
“Once I got off that plane, I said to myself, ‘Phia Wilson, you're going to change your life and lose this weight, or keep escalating to 200kg,” she says.
Phia had previously tried every diet under the sun and paid thousands of dollars for unused gym memberships. She decided to shed the kilos naturally by changing her eating habits and exercising, even taking up rugby.
“It was common sense. Eat less and be active,” says Phia. “The more weight I lost, the more addictive it became. When you see results, you just want to keep going and going.”
Meanwhile, her sister Meni saw Phia’s weight loss and was inspired to do the same.
Although she was obese, Meni always took solace in the fact that her younger sister was bigger than her. When Phia became slimmer, Meni just didn’t want to be left behind.
“She started dropping the sizes and I was getting bigger. Then we started to swap clothes. I would give her mine, because they were too small, and she would give me her big clothes. That’s when I knew I had to do something,” Meni admits.
But unlike her little sister, Meni, who is married and has four young sons, opted to have bariatric surgery – a procedure that removed 97% of her stomach.
“People may say that I took the easy way out, that I cheated. But the decision I made was for myself and my family,”
Meni says. She also had to lose more than 26kg before the surgery.
“I’ve gained my life back. Other people have their own ways and preferences, and this was mine.”
Phia supports her sister wholeheartedly, and is proud they were there for each other during the most challenging time of their lives.
“I respect her choice, but for me, I wanted to prove to myself that I could lose the weight naturally, without surgery or pills, but with hard work and determination. It’s a lifestyle now. Doing this on my own is a huge accomplishment.”
Meni loves the fact that as sisters, herself and Phia have become an inspiration to others.
“Phia’s a great example of a woman who chose to lose the weight naturally, and I’m an example of a woman who chose surgery. It feels awesome to inspire others,” Meni says.
Their success has brought the two of them closer, and now much of their quality time together involves training.
The two have also become a shining light to those closest to them.
“We’re educating everyone, and now all of the family are eating healthier foods. It starts with yourself, then you can influence your friends and loved ones,” Meni explains.
Youth worker Phia has become a motivational speaker, and will have her first seminar on August 31 in South Auckland. She is sharing her experience – and hopes to help others change their lives, just as her and Meni have done.
“It’s important to believe in yourself and have a positive attitude. You can physically exercise all you want, but if you don’t exercise your mind, you won’t see the results,” says Phia.
“When I was big, I actually felt like I was invisible. Now, I have so much confidence. My life is just great!”
Aroha Awarau, Photos: michelle hyslop • make-up: luisa petch