She was called “The World’s Ugliest Woman” for all the web to see. In an eight-second YouTube video, a then-17-year-old Lizzie Velasquez was thrown to the vultures of the Internet and was ravaged with brutal comments.
“Kill it with fire,” one comment spat. “The world would be a better place without you in it,” fired another.
While casually searching for music online, Velasquez stumbled upon the video featuring her image only after it had already garnered 4 million views. It was a devastating discovery.
"I cried for many nights—as a teenager I thought my life was over," she told the BBC. "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."
Growing up in Austin, Texas, Velasquez, now 26, knew she was different from an early age. Believed to be a type of Neonatal Progeroid Syndrome by University of Texas professor Abhimanyu Garg, the rare congenital disease with which she was born with doesn’t allow her to put on any weight, no matter what she eats. It’s also caused her to go blind in one eye and suffer premature aging.
But despite the mean comments and weird looks she’d regularly defend herself against, her tight-knit, multigenerational Mexican-American family always made it a point to make her feel a part of the community. As a teacher at her elementary school, her father Lupe would stand in front of the class at the beginning of each year and explain her condition. It was a way for the other kids to realize she was just like them, only, as Velasquez puts it to NPR,“A little smaller.”
“They're the best parents in the entire world," Velasquez, the eldest of three children, told the NY Daily News. "From the moment I was born they showered me with love. And they didn't just raise me. They raised my brother and sister in the exact same way. So that love, multiplied times three, is what definitely brought me to where I am today."
It was also through her father that she gained the strength to forgive the people that hurt her. “One of the first things my dad told me when this whole thing came about was that I needed to forgive other people, because that’s what [my family believes]; forgiveness is key,” Velasquez told Premier Christianity, “Being able to forgive them has been a huge weight that’s been lifted off my shoulders.”
On top of her family’s unconditional support, she also had teachers, coaches—she even made the cheerleading team—and a close group of friends who helped her overcome her insecurities.
“I had incredible friends who I went to church with and I was able to become really good friends with them. And then we all went to the same high school,” Velasquez told NPR. “And to have them around me was so, so nice…I still am really close with them.”
To combat bullying and show others how to be comfortable in their own skin, Velasquez decided to start her own YouTube channel. It was a battle strategy that left her vulnerable, sure, but it was one she thought was entirely necessary. She was going to own her story.
“After I found the bad video, I was just so determined to not let those people become my truth and my reality,” she told NPR about mustering the courage to fight back. “And the only way that I could figure out to have control over that and to decide what people see and—I don't know, I just looked at it as giving people a little peek in a window of my daily life and just to show them I am human.”
Since then, her presence has expanded globally. A 2013 TEDxAustinWomen talk, “How Do You Define Yourself?,” for example, has drawn nearly 10 million views to date. Now, the Texas State University graduate is not only a motivational speaker and published author, but she’s also the focus of the 2015 documentary, A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story.
Directed by first-time filmmaker Sara Hirsh Bordo, the SXSW Audience Award-winning, Kickstarter-funded film chronicles Velasquez’s ongoing physical journey and important social battle. Here, audiences not only witness her work as a motivational speaker, but also as an anti-bullying activist fighting to pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act.
It wasn’t the first time Velasquez had been approached with a documentary idea. However, it was the first time the right person approached her. “I am the type of person that when I have a gut feeling about something, I usually trust it and that is exactly what happened with Sara,” Velasquez admitted to Variety. “When she brought up the idea, I just instantly said yes.”
With Bordo’s direction, the project finally clicked for the 26-year-old.
“This documentary is another dream that I never knew I had,” Velasquez told Fox News Latino. “It has not been an easy journey, but I always say there are three things that have gotten me to where I am today: My faith, my family and my friends. I know there is still a lot of work to do, but I just want to hug every single person who’s rallied around me, who has supported this project and helped spread the word. It has truly been a beautiful thing.”
Bordo, who produced the TEDxAustinWomen event where she first met Velasquez, also added, as she told Indiewire: “Bullying is a subject that historically yields stories of victims, rarely stories of heroes. The inspiration Lizzie ignites crosses ages, genders, and ethnicities and proves that hope has no demographic.”
For more on A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story visit http://imwithlizzie.com/.