Lizzie Velasquez knew she was different growing up. The Austin, Texas native was born with a rare genetic condition, marfanoid–progeroid–lipodystrophy syndrome, that prevents her from gaining weight. Thanks to a supportive family and her strong sense of self, it wasn’t until her later teen years that Velasquez realized just how cruel others could be.
At age 17, the outgoing, college-bound high schooler stumbled upon a YouTube video that changed everything: It was called “The World’s Ugliest Woman,” and it was all about her.
Instead of allowing internet trolls to break her, Velasquez, now 28, became a fierce advocate against bullying, using YouTube and other media to share her story. Her 2013 TEDx Talk titled “How Do You Define Yourself?” has racked up more than 13 million views, leading to features on “The Today Show,” “The View,” in Huffington Post and People magazine, among others.
On Sunday, Velasquez will deliver the Lawrence Public Library's 2018 Read Across Lawrence keynote address at the Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Drive. Before her big appearance, Velasquez spoke with the Journal-World about bullies, being a social media star and how she picks herself up when she’s feeling down.
Read on for a condensed and edited version of that conversation here. For more information on Read Across Lawrence programming, visit www.lawrence.lib.ks.us.
When did you first realize you were different?
I realized I was different for the first time when I started kindergarten. When I was born, my mom was working at a day care at the time. And because she had to stay home with me, she stopped working there and decided that if she was going to be home with me, she didn’t want me to be alone. So, she started babysitting two other kids my age. One was my best friend, and the other’s my cousin. We grew up together. So, when I was young, I grew up being around other kids who treated me normally, because they were just around me every day. It wasn’t until I started kindergarten when I was around other kids who had never seen me before, and their first reaction wasn’t what I was used to, and so that was sort of the red flag of, “What’s going on?”
How did your parents guide you through those younger years?
They were so incredibly supportive. I mean, my dad was a first-grade teacher at the same school that I went to, so I think it was really comforting for my mom to know that, even if she wasn’t there during the day, my dad was there, and a lot of his teacher friends were always looking out for me. So, they were really reassuring and encouraging.
I think the No. 1 thing that I always encourage parents to do is — and whenever I do give my advice or opinion on this, I always remind people that my only children have paws, so I can only speak from my experience of what my parents did for me — and that was to never send me in with the fear of being picked on or anything like that. They never sent me in with a warning of, “Well, this is going to happen, and so this is how you deal with it.” It was more of a day-by-day (approach), depending on how I felt. And if I came home and was upset, they would handle it then. I think what’s been the key to all of that is, (I had) such an open communication with them, and if I told them what was going on, I never felt like I would be shamed for it or made to feel worse about it.
By all accounts, you were doing really well by the time you got to high school. But things changed for you when you were 17 and you stumbled upon this now-viral video on YouTube that deemed you the “The World’s Ugliest Woman.” Could you talk about how you felt in that moment, when you saw that video?
I was really involved and doing a lot of things in high school, and I was really involved in my church at the time. It was also a time where I was a teenager who still wanted to be young, but at the same time, I knew I was getting closer to the age of applying for colleges. And I think no matter what situation you have at that age, you know at that time that you’re really focused on your friends and school and having fun and wanting to be accepted.
But at the same time, after finding that video accidentally, it felt like all of those worries just seemed so trivial. It all just sort of went away, and what was brought to the forefront was just pure negativity and thinking, “Well, if all these people are saying such horrible things about me, maybe they’re right.” Because when someone tells you something over and over and over, it gets to the point where you’re not just hearing it and you start listening to it. That’s how I felt — I was just listening to it and soaking it in. I think it could have become dangerous, because I could have allowed myself to only listen to those things and hide, but luckily, that’s not what happened.
Can you talk a little bit about what did happen, and at what point things began to turn around for you?
It was definitely not a light switch moment. It wasn’t, “OK, today’s the day I’ve decided I’m going to turn this around.” I think if it was, I don’t think I would be who I am today, because in figuring out how I was going to stand back up from that, I learned a lot. I learned that it’s definitely not easy, but I learned that it was possible. I mean, I had to keep living my life day to day, even though I felt like my world was falling down. My world wasn’t stopping — I still had to go to school, I still had to fulfill my responsibilities. I had incredible friends and family who were really, really surrounding me at that time. Once that kept going and I kept at my daily routine, that horrible stuff started getting pushed further and further in the back of my mind. I started to see that that was possible, and I just didn’t stop. I just kept focusing on everything else that I was doing, but at the same time, it was still always in the back of my mind.
I think it’s really interesting that instead of totally disconnecting from social media, you took YouTube, the source of what had been a lot of pain and agony for you, and turned it into a platform for sharing your story and empowering yourself. Was that purposeful on your end?
If you go
What: "An Afternoon With Lizzie Velasquez"
When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday, March 11
Where: Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Drive
Cost: The event is free and open to the public, no tickets required.
It was sort of on purpose, but without a doubt, not on the scale that it became. That was never a plan. I started my YouTube channel and I never thought, “Once I do this, it’s going to become a whole new stage for me.” I mean, I didn’t even know that I had subscribers until a year and a half after I started my channel. I didn’t know what I was doing — I genuinely just wanted to give people a peek into my life and give them a peek in the way I wanted to and the way I felt comfortable in. I started when I was a freshman in college, so it was fun to be able to document this new chapter in my life of being on my own and meeting new friends.
I think I selfishly started it as a way for me to say, “This is who I am,” and without me realizing it, it organically turned into, “Hey, world. This is who I am — now show me who you are.”
You’ve talked about how important it is to try to understand and empathize with bullies. What have you learned about why people feel the need to bully others?
I think I’ve been very fortunate to learn all sides of bullying. From my perspective, I was only used to one side of bullying for so many years. I was only used to being the victim of bullying, and it wasn’t fun and it wasn’t easy. As I got older and speaking came into my life and the opportunity to travel came into my life, and the more people I was meeting and the more messages I was receiving on social media, my eyes were definitely opened to the fact that there are two sides to every bullying situation. It’s not just the victim that we need to comfort and help; it’s the bully as well.
When I first started realizing that and I first started talking about it in the press or speeches or whatever, I always got such a shocked reaction. People would say, “What do you mean? Why are you telling us to have compassion for the bully? They’re the ones hurting other people,” or, “This bully’s hurting my child; I can never forgive them.” And I think I’m very grateful to be able to be in the position to say I can totally sympathize with the victim. I’ve absolutely been in their shoes. But it’s so, so, so important that we sympathize with the bully, because they’re hurting themselves. And because they’re hurting, they’re hurting other people. How are we going to see a change when it comes to bullying if we’re only helping one side and not the other?
We’re living in this age where if you don’t have a Facebook, it’s almost as if you’re living off the grid. It almost seems as if participation in social media is this mandatory part of being a citizen of the world, or even a mandatory part of some jobs, but at the same time, social media can leave you incredibly vulnerable to trolling and some pretty terrible harassment. What’s the balance between wanting to feel connected via social media while still protecting yourself and your mental health?
I think it’s up to the individual. I think that social media is one of the most incredible things, but it can also be one of the scariest things. It’s just something that, before you click that sign-up button, you have to remind yourself that with the good comes the bad. Not everyone is going to be able to say something nice, and if you’re at a point in your life where, if you were to read a mean comment right now, if you felt that it was going to really, really affect you, then maybe you’re not ready for that certain social media account.
But at the same time, you can only post what you feel comfortable with online, because if you look at other people’s photos, you might think that they have the best life and everything is great. Social media is just the best of other people’s lives. We post when we’re on vacation or with a group of friends. Nobody posts the days when they’re being lazy and cleaning all day. Like, that’s the reality of people’s lives. You have to keep in mind that at the end of the day, social media is just something that we share. And unfortunately, not everyone’s going to have a nice opinion, so it’s up to the individual personally how to find that balance for what works for them.
Have you been surprised by how your message has been so universally and globally received?
Yeah, it’s crazy. I think that’s the best way to describe it. It’s been absolutely crazy in the best way possible. There are still times even now when I look back on the last few years of my life and it doesn’t seem possible that that actually happened. This is the most time I haven’t been on the go, nonstop, in two or three years. And now being able to pause and look back on everything, it’s absolutely unbelievable, because I set out to tell my story at first, and after I was able to do that, my platform grew. And from then on, I was able to tell not only my story but I was able to tell other people’s stories, in many different ways. And the response has been overwhelmingly incredible. I mean, from kids who are super young to teenagers to parents to grandparents who’ve said, “Your story has moved me, and I’m sharing it with my grandkids.” It’s just incredible, and it’s not something that’s just happening in Austin, it’s not something that’s just happening in Texas, it’s now not just happening in the U.S. It’s happening all over the world.
When you have bad days, what do you do to perk yourself up again?
I feel like I know the triggers now, and that sorts of lends itself to a game plan on the days when I know something’s bothering me. Before, I would just sort of sweep it under a rug and not acknowledge it, and over time it would just build up and come out at the worst time possible. I’d be sitting there bawling, and it wasn’t because of just one thing but because of a lot of other little things that are finally coming to the surface. Now, there are definitely days when I still struggle, but I allow myself to struggle.
I think’s it’s really, really good and healthy to allow yourself to have a day where you just want to cry. Or, if you have a day where you’re not feeling the best and a lot of things are bothering you, just acknowledge it. Don’t ignore it. Acknowledge what’s going on. Find a way to tell yourself, “OK, when this happens, this is what I’m going to do. I’m either going to have some time to myself or I’m going to go take my dog for a walk or disconnect myself for a while.” I just bought my first house last summer, and now, when I have these days of feeling sad, I’ll invite friends over or I’ll just do something at my home, whether it’s cleaning out my closet or doing something lame and boring. It allows me to let out all my feelings, but it’s also a constant reminder to be grateful of all the things I have in my life.