You may have heard of Lizzie Velasquez. Nine years ago, when Lizzie was 17, she was browsing around YouTube when she came upon a video with the title: “World’s Ugliest Woman.” Lizzie clicked the link, waited for the video to pop up, and was faced with an absolute nightmare: The video was of her. By the time Lizzie saw the 8-second video it already had 4 million views and thousands of devastating, hateful comments directed at her. Lizzie couldn’t help herself. She read every single comment.
Lizzie was born with a rare and unnamed syndrome that makes it impossible for her to gain weight (she’s never weighed more than 64 pounds), it’s also caused blindness in one eye. Lizzie has had frequent surgeries since childhood, and while she is healthy she does suffer from a weakened immune system and a heart that must be closely monitored to prevent aortic rupture. Lizzie also happens to be one of the most empathetic, inspirational, and motivational people on this planet. Her life and work will be showcased in a documentary, out today, called A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story, and if you’re still on the fence about whether or not this woman is a hero, trust us, after you watch the movie you’ll be firmly on Team Lizzie.
Today Lizzie is 26, and the experience she had with YouTube as a teenager changed her life entirely. The hateful video and commenters motivated Lizzie to begin her own empowered YouTube channel filled with inspiring and personal videos. That YouTube channel led to a viral TedX talk (“How Do YOU Define Yourself?”) which has, in turn, led to Lizzie’s career as a writer, a motivational speaker, and an anti-bullying crusader. In anticipation of the documentary about her life an work, we had the opportunity to speak with Lizzie about everything from what keeps her positive, to what her advice is for anyone facing bullying today.
Elena Sheppard (ES): Your incredible Ted Talk asks the question, “How do YOU define yourself?” So let me ask you that very question. How do you, Lizzie, define yourself?
Lizzie Velasquez (LV): I define myself as a young woman who loves to laugh and to be surrounded by people she loves. I also define myself as someone who has a sincere passion for helping others in any way, shape, or form.
ES: There are so many people who deal with bullying every single day. If you could send a message to each of them, what would you say?
LZ: I would say you are not alone in feeling the way that you do right now. Trust me when I say there is a light on the other side of being bullied. You just have to be brave enough to find it.
ES: In seeing the movie and hearing you speak, you have such an infectious positivity: How would you tell people to change their thinking so that it’s more positive too?
LV: I often remind people that a lot of the time when my story is shared publicly, or [with the] things that I post on my personal social media, [it’s] positive. Only sharing things when I’m happy has become second nature. For so long I thought if people saw me having a bad day or being weak I would lose my credibility of being a positive person. I had to come to terms with this very quickly and remind myself that at the end of the day, I’m a normal human. I’m a girl who is hormonal and just wants to complain on some days!
The reality of the situation is that I’ve learned we are all just people who experience good and bad times. I now allow myself to have a “Sad Day.” Instead of hiding behind my smile and pretending like all is well, it’s so much easier to be able to just say, “You know what? I’m having a bad day today and that’s OK!” That would be my advice for people to might need a little help in finding the balance between positivity and negativity. You have to be willing to figure both sides out all while staying true to who you are.
ES: What motivates you? And what motivates you when you’re feeling REALLY unmotivated?
LZ: What motivates me is reading the emails, tweets, and comments from people around the world who share with me their personal struggles and, after learning about my story, feel confident enough to make a change in their lives. On the days where I’m struggling a little bit more than normal, I like to go read through the comments on my YouTube channel. I take pride in seeing comments and am so impressed with the amount of positivity [in] my community. It’s always a reminder that I’m on the right path.
ES: You had the benefit of an incredible support system in your family. What’s your suggestion for kids who might be feeling bullied or alone and don’t have that support at home?
LV: I am very blessed to have the support system that I do. At the end of the day all you really need is one person you can trust at all times. One person that you can share good days with. One person you can feel safe enough to be completely honest about any topic with. One person you can be vulnerable with. Whether it be a friend at school, a family member, a teacher, a counselor. Whomever you feel the most comfortable with. I promise you, there will never not be someone who doesn’t want to help you. They might think you are super happy and have no clue that you’re struggling. Don’t be afraid to tell someone how you are feeling because I guarantee you will be very surprised at what they have to say back to you.
ES: Let’s talk about confidence. How do you advise people to build confidence?
LV: Do something that scares you at least once a day. Whether it be something really small like eating lunch alone or putting yourself in a situation that you know is outside of your comfort zone. It’s really uncomfortable at first but you really have to be committed to push past the awkward stage. Once you get in a routine of realizing, “I did something that terrified me but I did it and I’m alive to talk about it!” That mindset will quickly turn into confidence when you least expect it.
ES: And what about bad days, because they happen to all of us. What do you do when you’re having a really bad day? Any books you read, shows you watch, songs you listen to, to feel better?
LV: I allow myself to have “sad days.” I close all the blinds in my apartment, put on sad music, and disconnect from everything just so I can cry all I want and throw the biggest pity party ever just to get it out of my system. It sounds silly but the sun will always come up and there will always be a new day to start fresh.
ES: We opened the floor up to HelloGiggles readers on Twitter, and they had some excellent questions for you. Firstly, one reader asked, “How do I make my child feel secure and confident if I’m insecure myself inside?”
LV: One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in life is that you can’t help anyone else unless you are able to love yourself first from the inside out. My dad always reminds me when I’m feeling down about myself that someone in the world right now is having a way worse day than I am. Instead of being upset with what I don’t have I have to stop and remind myself of all the blessings I have in my life.
ES: Another reader asked, “Who is your mentor?”
LV: I’m so blessed to have so many incredible people in my life that I consider my mentors. Sarah Bordo, the director for our film as well as Tina Meir, who is an incredible mother who lost her daughter at a young age due to severe online bulling: Both women have taught me what it’s like to stand up for what you believe in and to not let people just walk all over you. When I’m around them I turn into a sponge just soaking up everything they do.
A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story premieres today. Check out the trailer for the film and then head to your nearest theater to witness the moving journey of one utterly inspirational woman.
[Images via Sunshine Sachs]