‘WORST DAY OF MY LIFE’
A former victim of vicious bullying, today Lizzie Velasquez teaches unconditional kindness
A former victim of vicious bullying, today Lizzie Velasquez teaches unconditional kindness.
Lizzie Velasquez always knew she was different, she just didn’t know why. The 28-yearold from Texas has a rare condition that was only diagnosed three years ago: neonatal progeroid syndrome (NPS), which is a combination of Marfan syndrome—a genetic condition affecting vision, the heart and connective tissue—and lipodystrophy. “Lipodystrophy is responsible for my inability to gain weight,” explains Velasquez, who long-suffered “skinny” taunts—just one facet of the bullying she has endured since kindergarten, which culminated when, at 17, she learnt that the internet had labelled her “the world’s ugliest woman.” Eleven years on from her nadir, Velasquez has become an in-demand motivational speaker and evangelist for kindness—a simple trait she believes can change the world, as she tells in the following extract.
The B-word, Bullying: It sucks. I know a thing or two about being bullied. I was bullied at school throughout my childhood and later, I experienced unspeakable bullying online, all because I look somewhat different.
I like to think of my [first] bullying experience in kindergarten as a big slap of reality. As a 5-year-old, I had no clue how mean people could be to each other. I didn’t know being mean was a thing! I’d grown up with my siblings, my cousins, my parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents, and everyone just treated me like Lizzie—like I was any other beloved member of the family.
That’s why going to kindergarten was such a shock. That first day, it was like there was a sign on my forehead that everyone could see except me: Don’t sit by me. Don’t play with me. Don’t even talk to me. No-one wanted to stand next to me in line. No-one asked me to play with them. No matter what I did that day, I was all by myself. The most I got from the other kids were stares. And that was just day one! In seventh grade, I was voted princess at the Homecoming Dance. I have no idea how that happened—who nominated me, who voted for me, or how I won. What I do know is the boy who won prince did not like me. He was embarrassed by me. He didn’t want to stand next to me and when all the other couples were dancing, he refused to dance with me. So I just sat there on the stage, in front of everyone, alone and humiliated.
The bullying continued off and on throughout middle and high school, but the worst experience of all happened when I was 17 years old. At that point in my life, everything was actually going pretty well. Over the years, I had made friends and built up my confidence, and it had taken me a long time to get to that point. One afternoon, I wanted to listen to some music while I did my homework, so I went to Youtube. I started looking around for a song to listen to, and on the right-hand side, under “Suggested Videos,” something snagged my attention. It was a thumbnail—a little photo of a girl with black hair and glasses. The girl in the photo looked so familiar. Was that me? At first I thought, “No, that’s not me. That couldn’t be me.” But when I clicked on it, of course, I found that it was.
All the air in my entire body suddenly vanished—it just whooshed out of me, and I was left sitting there, speechless and trying to breathe. I had one hand over my mouth and the other over my heart, which was beating incredibly fast.
I scrolled down the page and read the title of the video—“World’s Ugliest Woman”—and then noticed the view count. Over 4 million viewers had already watched this video of me, because they all wanted to see the ugliest girl in the world. It was like I was the world’s most popular sideshow attraction.
I watched the video. There was no sound to it, and it was only eight seconds long. All I felt, all I could feel, was shock. When I scrolled down to the comments below and read the first two, I saw that they were awful.
Why didn’t her parents abort her?
Kill it with fire!!! My astonishment only increased. Why had 4 million people watched such a video? And why had so many gone out of their way to post such hateful, negative comments? Then something happened: it was like the floodgates opened, and I just couldn’t stop reading those comments, every horrible one.
If people see her face in public, they will go blind. WHAT A MONSTER! She should just put a gun to her head and kill herself! Kill yourself. Do everyone a favour and just kill yourself.
I ended up reading a good two thousand or so comments, one after another, while sitting there at my desk. I was desperately searching for just one person who might have stood up for me.
No-one had. Not one comment was kind. Every single one was mean and nasty.
The door to my room was open. When I looked out into the hall, I could see into the living room, where my mom was sitting. I remember looking at her and then just starting to bawl. Instantly, I wanted to hide this awful discovery from my parents, because I knew they would feel so powerless and upset. They would feel the way I felt, but times a million.
So I just sat there and cried silently. There was a towel on my bed, and I grabbed it and held it over my mouth to muffle the sounds. I was just praying my mother wouldn’t look into my room and see me falling apart.
Then, of course, she did get up and came toward the hallway. I didn’t see her. I was crying too hard. But she saw me, and she came into my room and asked me what was going on.
When I told her, she cried, too—but not in front of me. In front of me, she held it in. She immediately told me to stop looking at the comments on the video. “Close it,” she said, meaning I should close the web browser window immediately. But I couldn’t do it. I just sat on my bed and kept crying.
A while later, my dad came home, and we told him about the video. My dad had always been able to make things better with a joke, a smile, and a hug. Not this time, though. None of us knew what to say. We were all completely shocked. I had been bullied before, of course, and my parents had always taught me to laugh it off, stay confident, and keep my sense of humour about me. But none of us had known anything like this could happen, so we had no preparation for it when it did.
Finding that video was by far the worst, most devastating and unexpected shock of my life. As soon as I laid eyes on it and all those awful comments people had posted, it was as if all the hard work I’d done over the years building up my confidence went right down the drain. In an instant, it was gone. It was the first time I had ever felt completely defeated.
Fast-forward a decade. At 28 years old, I am a motivational speaker and an antibullying activist. I absolutely love my work. I feel that it’s what I am meant to do, what I’m here on this earth to accomplish. But what’s most meaningful and important to me is being able to support people and their families who have experienced what my parents and I did.
So many of us have our own stories of intimidation, victimisation, and pain. Bullying comes in lots of different forms. But shaking our heads in sorrow or even reaching out in commiseration isn’t enough. The problem of bullying has a solution, and it’s a very simple one: kindness.
Kindness towards ourselves and kindness towards the bully. That might seem ridiculous. Kindness probably seems like the last thing a bully deserves, and treating bullies with kindness is definitely difficult to do. Believe me, I know from personal experience, since that’s my approach every time I encounter a bully. It’s been a long process, but I have come to see that a culture of kindness is what we desperately need. It is the best solution to the problem of bullying, in all instances and at all levels, from schoolyard taunting to the systemic marginalisation of minority groups, and even to our country’s problem of violence that has gotten so out of control.
Kindness is what I have found to be the best answer to all of these issues.
“They kept on trying to figure out what was wrong with her,” said Rita Velasquez of her daughter, Lizzie.
“It’s ironic to me that Youtube, and of all things, was my first to be a biggest tool in learning writes motivational speaker,” Velasquez (with Eva Mendes in New York last year).
In 2015, Kylie Jenner supported Velasquez’s campaign to urge the US government to pass an anti-bullying bill called the Safe Schools Improvement Act.
An edited excerpt from Dare to Be Kind by Lizzie Velasquez, available now at K-mart Big W, Target and bookstores (Affirm Press, $22.99).