What a story
A woman who was bullied for the way she looks is the focus of a new film that premieres at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas on Saturday.
What started as a search for music online – purely homework procrastination – would change Lizzie Velasquez’s life.
She was 17 when she stumbled across a YouTube video entitled “The World’s Ugliest Woman”. What she didn’t expect was that the woman featured in the video would be her. It was an eight-second clip and had been watched over four million times.
She didn’t realise it was her until it started playing.
“I was shocked,” Velasquez recalls, “but it wasn’t until I started to read the comments that my stomach really sank.”
“Why would her parents keep her?!” read one of the comments, “kill it with fire” said another. And they continued on and on. Some commentators said she should kill herself, and one said people would go blind if they saw her on the street. Velasquez couldn’t help but read every comment, and she says there were thousands.
“I cried for many nights – as a teenager I thought my life was over,” she says. “I couldn’t bring myself to talk to anybody about it, I didn’t tell any of my friends, I was just so shocked that it had happened.”
Velasquez was already used to being bullied daily for the way she looks. Born with two rare conditions – Marfan and lipodystrophy – she is unable to gain weight, no matter how much she eats. When she started kindergarten she remembers how classmates recoiled from her, afraid.
Now 26 she is 5ft 2in and weighs about 60lbs (27kg). She is totally blind in her right eye and visually impaired in the other, and was in and out of hospital growing up with a number of health problems – eye surgery, ear surgery, complete foot reconstruction, bone density tests, and a number of blood tests as doctors tried to decipher what her condition was. It wasn’t until last year that they managed to put a name to it.
She lacks energy at times because of her conditions, and takes a long time to fight off infections such as bronchitis. She is currently undergoing heart scans to determine whether or not Marfan syndrome has caused any defects, and she was admitted to hospital in November unable to keep down food due to a problem with her oesophagus.
She also has a recurring problem with her right foot which easily fractures due to a lack of fat on the sole, but is adamant she doesn’t let it get her down.
“When I was a teenager I would look in the mirror and wish I could wash away my syndrome,” she says. “I hated it because it caused so much pain in my life. Being a 13-year-old girl who is constantly picked on is unbearable.”
When she was born, Velasquez, from Texas, weighed just 2lb 10oz (1.2kg) and doctors told her parents that, in all probability, they would have to take care of her for the rest of her life and didn’t know what her life expectancy was.
Full of instant love for their daughter, Velasquez’s parents, Rita and Lupe, say they never thought “why is this happening to us”, and just wanted to get her home, to start her life.
It’s because of this attitude that Velasquez credits her parents entirely for her ability to think positively when she was being bullied at school or stared at and mocked in the streets. As a child they told her to go to school with her head held high, smile, and be nice to everyone, no matter how they treated her. It’s a message that has stuck and she says now that she happily forgives the person who posted that YouTube video nine years ago. “I don’t know what they’re going through,” she says. “While my life may be hard at times, they could be going through something much worse.”
Velasquez decided she could try to make a change. She started her own YouTube channel to let people know who the person behind the “World’s Ugliest Woman” video really was, and to teach others they, too, could be confident in their own skin.
She currently has about 240,000 subscribers to her channel and a TED talk she was subsequently asked to give in Austin in 2013 entitled “How do you define yourself?” has over seven million views on YouTube.
She says that the community that has built up around her online presence has been amazing, and she sees people posting comments who have been bullied saying she makes them feel able to seek help, speak to somebody, or stand up to the bullies.
Going further, she has teamed up with Tina Meier whose daughter Megan took her own life after being bullied online, and together they are campaigning US Representatives of Congress to vote for the first federal anti-bullying bill. It would mean that all schools would have to start recording every instance of bullying and would be provided with funds to put towards anti-bullying efforts.
And now Velasquez’s life and anti-bullying work is the focus of a new documentary due to premiere at SXSW. Sara Hirsch Bordo, the director of the film, says that it is not just about Velasquez’s story but is a universal story, for everybody who has been bullied.
“Her experience of triumphing adversity and making it to the other side of a painful experience is universal,” she says. “As soon as Lizzie became more open and honest – whether it was her TED talk or her YouTube videos – it was clear that people were thirsty for a story where somebody stands up and says I’m not going to be a victim, I’m going to make a change.”
A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story premieres at SXSW on 14 March.