Image Credit: Instagram/Emily Bartley

At just 15 years old, Emily Bartley was 203 pounds. With her family right beside her cheering her on, Bartley set out on a weight loss journey by eating clean and working out every day, sometimes even twice a day.

While she watched as her stomach began to tone and tighten, her legs and arms stayed the same.

Due to the lack of results she was seeing in her extremities, Bartley became frustrated despite losing roughly 30 pounds, People Magazine reports.

“After I lost the weight, it was obvious that my legs were much bigger than the rest of me.”

The teenager was at a loss, and the size of her legs started wearing on her self-confidence; so much so that she transferred from her regular school to an independent study high school.

“I couldn’t handle being in a regular high school with normal kids when I was dealing with this,” Bartley tells People. “I just wasn’t happy with myself.”

That’s when Bartley’s mom stumbled upon an online article about lipedema, a chronic disease of the fat tissue. As Lipedema-Simplified reports, the disease involves the excess deposit and expansion of fat cells in an unusual and particular pattern.

As this picture posted by Bartley shows, lipedema fat is very different from regular fat.

According to Lipedema-Simplified, “unlike the ‘normal’ fat of obesity, lipedemic fat cannot be lost through diet and exercise.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) explains that lipedema occurs almost exclusively in women, and as Bartley tells Independent Journal Review, it is a pretty common disease that is just not that well known. About 11 percent of women in the United States are affected by it:

“Most of these women have no idea that they have it. In a lot of cases, extra fat can mask the typical disproportionate look of lipedema. This was the case with me. It wasn’t until I lost 30 pounds that I realized my legs and arms were out of proportion and that I was only able to lose weight in my stomach and face area.”

Once Bartley realized she was experiencing the symptoms that came with lipedema, she sought the help of Dr. David Amron, a lipedema treatment specialist.

Amron tells People:

“Lipedema is a very under-recognized fat storage disease. The symptoms are severe disproportion in a lot of areas, commonly in the legs, which causes them to appear column-like or tree-like.”

The diagnosis “shocked” Bartley, and she tells Independent Journal Review that at first she didn’t want anyone to know about her diagnosis. However, after learning how many women went their whole lives not realizing they had the disease—and eventually being left unable to walk—Bartley knew she needed to do her part to spread awareness:

“After about a month from being diagnosed, though, I started to realize how few people actually knew what it was and acknowledged it as a real disease.”

Eventually, she felt reassured knowing that not being able to lose the fat in her arms and legs wasn’t her fault. In order to fight the disease, the now 16-year-old underwent liposuction surgery to have diseased cells permanently removed from her extremities.

Despite not being able to see the full result of the surgery for another six to 12 months, Bartley—pictured below at her lowest weight yet—is feeling more confident than ever, thanks to Dr. Amron and his team.

She tells Independent Journal Review:

“Although I am only two months post-op I already feel a huge difference. Most importantly, I feel so much better on the inside and my pain and swelling levels have gone down to almost nothing.”

She adds: “Nobody deserves to suffer from a disease, but if that is what the universe throws your way, make the best of your situation.”

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