Lizzie Velasquez — a motivational speaker who was born with a rare genetic disease that causes an aged appearance — is speaking out after she says her photo was used in a cruel trick involving children.
In August, the 31-year-old posted a plea to social media asking parents not to participate in the viral #NewTeacherChallenge, which she said saw at least one woman use Velasquez's image to prank a child into believing she was his teacher for the upcoming school year.
"TikTok, I need your help," Velasquez, a Texas native, said in a video message posted on her social media accounts.
"This trend where you are pretending to FaceTime someone who is either disabled or is a baby or just it's some crazy mugshot and you’re showing it to someone to get their reaction to saying, ‘Oh hey, talk to this person’ just to get a quick laugh, this is not funny!" she continued. "This is not a joke."
Velasquez was born with Marfanoid-progeroid-lipodystrophy syndrome, which causes and aged appearance due to a lack of subcutaneous fat, according to an entry in UniProt. Velasquez's video message — which has been viewed nearly 1.5 million times on Instagram — shows an example of the #NewTeacherChallenge using her image. In it, a woman shows a picture of Velasquez to a young boy, and he backs away while having a scared reaction.
“If you are an adult who has a young human in your life, please do not teach them that being scared of someone who does not look like them is okay,” Velasquez said. "Please, everything that these kids need to know about having empathy and being kind to one another starts at home."
"This is not okay, this is a trend that needs to stop," she concluded her video. "We are human and we have feelings, so please keep that in mind."
This isn't the first time Velasquez has had to confront bullies on social media in recent years. When she was 17, she was the subject of an upsetting YouTube video that labeled her the "ugliest woman in the world." Then, in 2016, a picture of Velasquez was featured in viral memes that shamed her appearance.
Those pictures pushed Velasquez to pen an emotional post in an effort to remind others that memes using their images are hurtful.
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Velasquez has been an outspoken advocate for people with disabilities since experiencing online bullying, amassing a social media audience of hundreds of thousands of followers.
In a positive counteraction to the #NewTeacherChallenge, Velasquez shared a TikTok video of a mother showing her son a picture of "her friend Lizzie," and asking what he thought of her.
"She looks really nice," the boy says.
"She does look nice, doesn't she?" the mom says back. "Hopefully you can meet her in person one day."