Twelve years later, Lizzie Velasquez still remembers that afternoon as if it were yesterday.
Velasquez, then 17, was at home and opened YouTube to play some music. But instead, a thumbnail image caught her eye and she clicked on it. The eight-second video, titled “The World’s Ugliest Woman,” was actually a clip of herself, taken from an appearance she made on a talk show as a child.
It had gone viral, with 4 million views and thousands of hateful comments, some telling her to “do the world a favor” and kill herself.
Velasquez was born with a rare syndrome — only one other person in the world is known to have it — that makes it difficult for her to gain weight, so she has never weighed more than 64 pounds, making her appearance a frequent target of ridicule and bullying.
But since becoming a victim of cyberbullying, the 29-year-old from Austin, Texas, has become a nationally recognized motivational speaker and anti-bullying advocate. Her YouTube channel has more than 800,000 subscribers, and her 2013 TEDx Talk has more than 13 million views across the internet.
She also produced “A Brave Heart,” a documentary about her life, and has written several books, including “Dare to Be Kind,” published last year. Key to overcoming life’s challenges, she said, has been her faith.
Velasquez is the keynote speaker at the fifth annual OneLifeLA Walk for Life on Jan. 19, and Angelus News had the chance to talk with her before her visit.
Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil: What was your Catholic upbringing like?
Lizzie Velasquez: My faith journey has started literally from day one. When I was born, I had a lot of medical issues. The doctors told my parents basically, “Expect nothing,” and right then, my parents said, “God sent her to us for a reason and we’re going to love her to the best of our ability.”
Since then, my parents raised me, my brother, and sister in the Catholic faith, and taught us the importance of having our faith, family, and friends.
As I got older I questioned my faith more, especially when life was tough. I didn’t know who to blame because I knew that my parents didn’t do this to me on purpose. So I blamed God. It took me a few years to truly understand that he wasn’t doing these things to punish me, but he was doing these things to make me a stronger person.
Kandil: How did you overcome bullying?
Velasquez: Even at the age of 29, I’m dealing with it. My parents were very protective of me. I was raised in such a normal way that I couldn’t physically tell that I looked different because I was just Lizzie.
It wasn’t until I started school that I realized that I don’t look like other kids, that they’re afraid of me. It was hard to understand because in my mind, I was just like them and I was being nice to them. As I got older, I went from being bullied and people pointing and staring to being cyberbullied.
I didn’t overcome it, but what’s helped me handle it on a day-to-day basis was understanding that I went through this journey to learn how to use my voice and feel proud of myself, and to use my voice for other people.
So when I’m getting negative comments online, or if I see people staring at me, I remind myself of why I’m here on this earth. It’s to show people that we all look different from one another, but that we all have a purpose for being on this earth.
Kandil: What role did your faith play?
Velasquez: The day I found that YouTube video the first thing my dad said was, “We have to forgive the person who posted it.” And I was like, “You’re insane, look at what they did.” But he reminded me that with our faith, we needed to forgive those who hurt us because we don’t know what’s happening in their life.
Being mad at them isn’t going to accomplish anything, and if I’m not able to forgive those who hurt me, then I’m going to be in a dark place for a really long time.
Kandil: How do you reconcile your faith with the challenges you’ve faced?
Velasquez: Whenever bad things happen, I don’t have that instant, “Why God?” question that comes into my mind like it did when I was younger. Now, when something bad happens or I see something bad happening to other people, I instantly ask myself, “What is the lesson? What are you trying to teach me in this?”
I’m human and there are days when I just want to be mad. But I feel it in my heart, and I think I’m more excited, in a weird way, to try to figure that out now.
Kandil: How have your views on social media changed?
Velasquez: After I found the video on YouTube and it went viral, I wanted to have control to say, “I’m not just the girl who people made fun of. This is who I am.” I started my own YouTube channel my freshman year in college, and eventually I had a few hundred thousand subscribers, which I was shocked by.
A few years ago I was invited to the YouTube headquarters to speak to their employees and the CEO and to give my opinions on ways to lessen bullying in the comments. So I went from YouTube being the one website I thought destroyed everything to the one website that I can’t imagine living without because it has such a great community on there.
Kandil: What advice do you have to parents and children who are being bullied?
Velasquez: For parents, I can only say what my parents did for me. When I started elementary school, they never sent me in with the fear that I was going to be bullied. Instead, they sent me with excitement, even though they knew it was going to be difficult.
When I did encounter bullying, I opened up to them. They never pushed me. They let me take things at my speed, and when I talked they listened and made me feel like I was being heard.
Having their constant communication, openness, and support was really great. It wasn’t them sitting me down, saying, “Tell us what really happened, tell us right now.” I never had that pressure.
Unfortunately, bullying doesn’t discriminate. It happens to everyone. So it helps knowing you’re not alone. But it won’t get better unless you tell yourself that you’re going to do whatever it takes to come out on the other side, because you’re the biggest influence on your life. As long as you believe in yourself, I promise it will get better.
For more information on the Jan. 19 OneLife LA Walk For Life, visit OneLifeLA.org.
Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil is an award-winning reporter and graduate of Harvard Divinity School whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, NBCNews.com, Religion News Service and other publications.
SPECIAL OFFER! 44 issues of Angelus for just $9.95! Get the finest in Catholic journalism with first-rate analysis of the events and trends shaping the Church and the world, plus the practical advice from the world’s best spiritual writers on prayer and Catholic living, along with great features about Catholic life in Los Angeles. Subscribe now!