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Project Runway Winner Ashley Nell Tipton Reveals She Had Gastric Bypass Surgery Last Month

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Ashley Nell Tipton
Jovanni Lorigo

After winning season 14 of Project Runway and landing fashion collaborations with major brands, Ashley Nell Tipton should have been feeling like she was on top of the world — but she wasn’t.

“For a while now I’ve been dealing with depression, and I’ve had this up and down battle with myself,” Tipton, 25, tells PEOPLE. “I feel like I’m in such a prime time of my life with everything that’s happening. I couldn’t ask for anything else, but I felt trapped in my body.”

Tipton began working with a personal trainer two to four times a week, and meeting with a therapist to deal with her emotional issues. But nothing seemed to be helping and she wasn’t losing weight.

“I went to multiple doctors to make sure that I’m taking the right anti-depression medication, and make sure that my blood pressure’s okay,” she says. “I found out that my blood pressure wasn’t okay and that I had a fatty liver. All these health risks were coming up. I was like, no wonder I’m not happy, because my body is working 10 times harder to try to be healthy.”

Then, Tipton ended up in the hospital with a skin infection caused by having folds in her skin that were not exposed to air.

“Going into the hospital for something that was caused by just being overweight really struck a nerve,” says the designer and body positive advocate. “I didn’t ever want to be in that pain again or have another scare like that. I was like, I really need to figure out what I can do to lose weight and get healthier. It had nothing to do with how big I am. I still wanted to be plus-size, but I wanted to be plus-size in a way I can work with, and at that point I didn’t feel like that.”

Tipton began discussing the option of having weight loss surgery with her therapist, and decided to meet with a surgeon for a consultation. After taking some initial measurements and running a few tests, the surgeon delivered some alarming news — her metabolism was not functioning.

“That really concerned me,” she says. “He explained to me how weight loss surgery can re-boost your metabolism and help you eat right. Weight loss surgery isn’t going to make you lose weight, it’s a tool to help you lose weight. Half of it is the surgery, and half of it is you eating what you’re supposed to eat and exercising.”

After the consultation, Tipton took her time deciding whether or not she wanted to go through with having gastric bypass surgery.

RELATED VIDEO: Mama June Opens Up About the Grisly Side of Gastric Sleeve Surgery

“I researched it and talked to friends who have it, and weighed pros and cons,” she says. “I knew this was going to be a huge life change. I wasn’t taking the easy way out — this next challenge was going to be an intense, life-changing experience that you do because you love yourself and you love your life, and you want to continue living. I knew that I loved myself enough to get help to make myself feel better.”

Tipton had the procedure done last month, and says life after “has been a rollercoaster.”

“I’ve never been under the knife, I’ve never gone on anesthesia or witnessed how much pain the actual surgery is,” she says. “I was in the hospital for four days. Now the battle has been seeing what I can eat.”

While healing from surgery and adjusting to her new diet has been difficult, she is already experiencing amazing results.

“I’ve already lost 50 lbs. this first month,” she says. “I can see a change in my face and my chest, and I love everything about it. I continue to love every step of it.”

Tipton knows this was the right decision for her, so isn’t worried about any possible criticism or backlash.

“This is a decision that I made for myself and nobody else,” she says. “[People who criticize] are not living in my body or doing what I do every day. I’m not telling anyone to get this surgery, I’m just telling you to love yourself enough to know what’s best for you and your health.”

And no matter how much weight she eventually loses, Tipton’s focus will remain designing clothes for curvy women.

“I’m still planning on catering to the same woman that I’ve been catering to, and if other doors open in the future, I’ll take it with an open mind,” she says. “Whatever happens, if I decide to start designing in smaller sizes then so be it, but right now plus-size women and men are my focus. I’m so passionate about it that I don’t have any other plans to go anywhere else right now.”