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According to Carmen Rene, also known as @eatthecaketoo, loving your body starts with unlearning: unlearning all of the negative messages pushed on you, causing you to see your body as anything less than lovable. Rene knows what it's like to hear these negative messages. She was diagnosed with lymphedema at 3 years old, and this year she found out she had lipedema.
Lymphedema is a swelling of the arms and legs usually caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system, according to Mayo Clinic. Carmen has primary lymphedema, a rare inherited condition, which can cause severe swelling and permanent skin tissue changes, such as thickening and scarring if left untreated. Lipedema, a related condition, creates enlarged fat cells under the skin, usually in the legs, and is believed to affect up to 11% of women according to the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center. Lipedema, however, has no genetic or hormonal link, and both can be treated with compression garments and potentially surgery.
"We look at fat and plus-size bodies, and we instantly place judgement or try to assess someone's health based on their size—and we know that we can't do that based on appearance," Rene, 32, tells Health. "Lipedema is a struggle for a lot of women because it's like you're trying to lose weight to fit into this mold and there's nothing you can do. You can't change it."
After struggling with pain and bullying due to her conditions, Carmen decided she no longer would let other people's opinions about her body make her feel bad about herself.
"I came up with the concept of 'eat the cake, too,' which is my Instagram handle, because I got tired of listening to these ridiculous beauty standards," says. "I wanted to show people that they can be and look different and still have everything." Garnering over 162,000 followers and a spot on Amber Rose's SlutWalk speaking roster, Carmen has made a name for herself as a "body acceptance and lymphedema warrior."
"Apparently on social media and this crazy Instagram world [showing off my body is] still something 'brave' that people want to see," Carmen says. "I'm happy to showcase bigger bodies in a confident light and normalize us doing everything—swimming, being with our partners, wearing lingerie, and just being comfortable."
Of course, every day isn't perfect or comfortable as she deals with the pain of her conditions. Managing them every day means wearing compression garments like leggings and tights and doing low-impact exercise like cycling or swimming to boost her circulation, as well as keeping her feet elevated to reduce swelling. "Compression garments are a number one resource, like socks, tights, leggings," Carmen says.
Carmen knew that openly sharing her body and lifestyle on Instagram would come with drawbacks, like mean messages from trolls. "I remember the worst one I got was that my legs looked like elephant trunks, and that actually made me cry," Carmen says. Now, she has her own philosophy regarding why people choose to be mean on the Internet.
"People who take the time to tear someone down online is a direct reflection of what they're going through," Carmen says. "I felt bad for that person. I wish they were in a better space about how they feel about themself." But for every bad comment, there are plenty of good ones from those she inspires.
Carmen hopes that by sharing images of her body, she can encourage other women with the same conditions to stop hiding theirs. "I remember one woman with lymphedema mentioned that after she saw my Barcroft video, she went swimming in a pool with her kids for the first time ever. That was really big for me," Carmen says. "Despite any success that I have, I'm touching people's actual lives and they're making real life changes. That's more powerful than any amount of monetary success that I'll ever have."
Carmen wasn't always this confident in her skin. She once recognized herself as the "chubby sister" in her family and was raised by a mother who also dealt with body image issues. "I don't think any parent wants their child to be seen as different or to be bullied, and it's a fear that they have out of love, but sometimes it's not always communicated back," Carmen says. "These pressures that even young kids feel to not be different and to look a certain way, it's very scarring and can take years to unlearn all of those habits and opinions we've created for ourselves."
After years of crash dieting and over-exercising, Carmen decided to put self-love to the forefront, accepting that her body will never fit into a particular mold. "I spent the majority of my life hating my body, and the question I finally asked myself was 'why?' The answer to that was 'Someone else was telling me to.'"
Her handle, "eat the cake, too," is a play on stereotypes regarding larger bodies and enjoying cake. Carmen believes the phrase to mean that she can truly have it all as a plus-size person, including happiness, health, and her ideal partner—and she hopes her Instagram profile will inspire others like her to think the same way. "I chose 'eat the cake, too' because I wanted to show people that they can be different and look however hey choose and still have everything," Carmen says.
Her influence and frankness regarding her body and self-love didn't go unnoticed. After reaching out to model Amber Rose's team, she was selected to be a body positive speaker at SlutWalk 2018. A longtime fan of Rose, Carmen calls it a "very liberating experience." "I followed the SlutWalk movement from the very beginning, and I think most people don't take the time to understand what it is or where it derives from. So that's close to my heart as far as women's rights and us taking the power back of our bodies and not letting people make decisions for us based on how we dress or how we look."
So what's Carmen's next move? Designing body positive apparel, starting with her "Thick Pack" and "All Bodies Are Good Bodies," both inspired by her own personal experiences. "I did 'all bodies are good bodies' with art that I created representing six different body types—an athletic body, a curvy hourglass body, bodies with stretch marks and rolls, and bodies that had top surgery," Carmen says. "I want to everyone to look at this shirt and see some part of themselves."
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