‘Being different is unique’: How Lizzie Velazquez turned her pain into a platform after being bullied online

The social media trap of comparing yourself to others can trigger feelings of confusion, jealousy and inadequacy. That was certainly true for anti-bullying advocate Lizzie Velasquez, who found that scrolling through timelines during the pandemic started to have a negative impact on her self-esteem.

“I will look at everyone's engagement photos, I will look at everyone's gender reveals, and all of these big life moments, and feel horrible about myself,” Velasquez tells Yahoo Life. “With quarantine and being at home, I have made a rule for myself: If I'm on social media, when I start feeling like I'm falling down the rabbit hole of comparison, I have to stop."

Feeling pressure from the internet is nothing new for Velasquez. In 2006, when she was just 17, a video calling her “The World’s Ugliest Woman” went viral on Youtube. It was a difficult period for the motivational speaker, who had been dealing with a lifetime of bullying due to a rare health condition.

“I was diagnosed with neonatal progeroid syndrome and it's made up of two different conditions. One of them is lipodystrophy and basically, that just doesn't allow me to gain weight,” explains Velasquez. “The second part is Marfan syndrome. Marfan, I found out is actually pretty common, but the type that I have is very rare and it affects my eyes, my bones and my heart." Still, she says, "Despite being in a very small body, I live a very normal life.”

(Photo: Instagram)
(Photo: Instagram)

Growing up, Velasquez, now 32, says that she lived in two different worlds. At home, her family treated her just like everyone else. She says that her parents were a source of support, and raised her to be optimistic and confident. That got harder when she started school.

“I didn't become aware of it until I started kindergarten, because I was now entering this other world where I had to face the reality of, ‘I do not look like everybody else,’” says Velasquez.

“If you asked me how I felt about bullying when I was in elementary and middle school, it was horrible and I hated it. And that was mostly because I hated myself at the time and I didn't want to look in mirrors.”

As Velasquez transitioned into high school, she started to gain more understanding about her condition. This new level of self-acceptance inspired Velasquez to make new friends, join the cheerleading squad, and write for the school newspaper. She had started to feel gratitude for what she had accomplished, but then came the Youtube video, which threatened her already-shaky foundation.

“I found the video at 17 and it was a time where I felt like I had finally built up my confidence and my self-esteem so much,” says Velasquez. “And then to just see a video that says 'the world's ugliest woman,' it felt like, within two seconds, everything that I had worked for up to that point was just sort of knocked over and done.”

But, she adds, "Little did I know that that moment was going to be such a defining one in my life."

According to DoSomething.org, about 37 percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 have been bullied online. Nearly 30 percent have had it happen more than once. Of those who suffer harassment, only one in 10 teen victims will inform a parent or trusted adult of their abuse.

But Velasqez did speak up — and hasn't stopped. Despite her feelings of defeat, that moment of bullying inspired Velasquez to use her newfound platform for good. In 2013, she gave a TEDxAustinWomen talk about her experiences, reaching millions with her uplifting messages about beauty and happiness. She has written two children’s books, given interviews on national talk shows like The View and was featured in the documentary film A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story, which premiered at SXSW in 2015.

“My mission is always just to remind people that no matter how different you are, you are meant to be in this world, and being different is unique. Your purpose in life is out there waiting for you," says the motivational speaker.

Velasquez is known for her optimism and positivity online, but she’s honest about the moments when she still gets down. “Once I started growing my platform, I felt like I could only post positive stuff, even though there are many times where I would be typing and I would be crying. If there are days where I feel sorry for myself, or if I'm sad, it's okay to say it. I finally got to a point where I can be completely vulnerable and honest."

Dating is another topic that Velasquez gets real about with her social media following. She is now a public figure, so there’s an extra level of attention that may make potential suitors nervous, and she also still struggles at times with how to best approach her unique situation.

“I have this medical condition that forever has been in the back of my mind — that I have to automatically say, ‘Don't worry, I don't have an eating disorder.’ I feel like I have to automatically go into defense mode, which I don't, but I do," she says.

"But we need this reminder that just because our life achievements aren't happening right at this moment, they're going to happen. So it doesn't mean we should stop clapping and celebrating for those other people, because our moment is next."

During Hispanic Heritage Month, Velasquez takes pride in being Mexican-American. As she travels around the country, speaking to young people about confidence and self-love, she is grounded by the support of her family and the deep connection to her culture. “It’s shaped who I am and I think that comes out with my values and the things that have really been a part of my foundation,” says Velasquez.

“I hope with my story I'm able to be that reminder to other people that no matter your circumstance, you can achieve whatever you put your mind to."

Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove