February 08, 2018 10:56 AM

Kathleen Golding’s weight loss struggle started when she was very young.

“I remember being in the fourth grade and having to get a note from my pediatrician granting me permission to start Weight Watchers,” Golding, now 26, tells PEOPLE.

At 21, she found herself wrestling with depression and anxiety turned to food as a “coping mechanism.” By her 22nd birthday she had gained 100 lbs.

“I was stuck in a constant cycle of daily binging,” says the New Bern, North Carolina resident, whose highest weight was 331 lbs. “I was eating fast food for every meal and enormous quantities each time.”

Kathleen Golding/Instagram

By August 2015, she was ready to start the process of getting gastric bypass surgery. “The morning [I decided to do it] I turned down an offer from friends to go to an amusement park because I knew couldn’t fit in the ride seats, and the following Monday I had a doctor’s appointment scheduled to discuss diabetes medications,” she recalls.

Golding had also been laughed at by strangers earlier that day. “They had pointed to my legs and I knew why — I had stopped shaving my legs because it was difficult to reach my calves, and that was funny to them.”

In preparation for the surgery, which she underwent in June 2016, Golding lost 20 lbs. Afterwards, the weight quickly started to “melt off,” she says. “I felt this incredible sense of confidence that I had totally forgotten about. Even after losing only 30 lbs., I felt amazing, both about my appearance and the way my body was able to move.”

Since losing a total of 178 lbs., Golding maintains a weight of 150 to 155 lbs. — and remains proud of her decision to seek medical help. “For some reason, weight loss surgery is seen as ‘cheating’ or being weak, but for me, I found strength in being able to say ‘I can’t do this on my own. I want to be healthy, but I need help.’ “

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She continued:  “For a long time, I felt completely hopeless. I felt trapped in my body, and no matter what I did to try and lose the weight, I failed. I went into this surgery with the mentality that this would work for me, and I looked at it as me finally taking back control of my life.”

Now the fast-food-free Golding — who recently got married — says she “loves salads and colorful dishes.” She also has been “hitting the gym hard.”

Another source of strength comes from social media. Golding, a photographer and operations manager, has been candid about sharing her story through photos and videos.

“Between Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, I probably receive about 25 to 50 messages a day from random strangers struggling with their weight and looking for diet and fitness tips, or from people who have been on the fence about bariatric surgery,” says Golding. “I’ve inspired them to take the next steps and move forward with the surgery.”

As for how she’s feeling these days, Golding says she is finally at peace with her body. “I have some loose skin and it definitely has its imperfections, but I worked hard for this body,” she says. “I spent so much time hating it but I’ve realized that this is the only body I’ve got and I’m going to take care of it.”

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