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Lizzie Velasquez, now 26, credits a life of bullying for making her the empowered motivational speaker she is today. Photo courtesy of “A Brave Heart.”
For many teens, being dubbed the “World’s Ugliest Woman” on a viral YouTube video would be a blow to the esteem too huge to recover from. But for Lizzie Velasquez — who was just 17 when she happened upon that exact phrase about herself — the bullying insult became the powerful motivator that helped her find her life’s purpose. And now she’s the subject of a new documentary, A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story.
"If I ever see that person [who made the video] I would jump on them and give them the biggest hug in the world and tell them, ‘Thank you for bringing the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life,’ " Velasquez, 26, told People magazine this week. “That video changed everything and it has given me the platform that I have now to be the voice for anyone who’s ever been bullied — and not just myself.”
Valesquez, who weighs just around 60 pounds and is blind in one eye due to a rare and unnamed syndrome that doesn’t allow her to gain weight, used that video to become an anti-bullying activist and motivational speaker. Her incredible ascension is documented in the new film, which premiered earlier this month at SWSW in Austin, Tex.
“It went over so well with the kids in the audience,” Tina Meier, founder and executive director of the anti-bullying Megan Meier Foundation, who makes an appearance in the film, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Looking over at Lizzie’s parents as they watched her up on that big screen, seeing how they were so proud because they have gone through so much — it gave me goose bumps just looking at them.” Tina lost her 13-year-old daughter Megan to suicide following cyber bullying in 2006, and has been working through her Missouri-based foundation ever since to help prevent others from going through such tragedy. Working with Velasquez on the film to strengthen each other’s message, she says, has been incredible.
“I think so many times kids hear about ‘do this, don’t do this’ and it’s coming from adults,” Meier says. “When they hear from someone like Lizzie, who has struggled so much but then see what she’s been able to do, it’s such an inspiration. They see, if she can do this, I can do this.”
A Brave Heart is the inspiring result of a TEDx talk Velasquez gave in 2013, in which she discusses her rare syndrome — she’s one of only two people in the world known to have it — and the impact it’s had on her life, including the excessive bullying she’s experienced. “Things have been scary, things have been tough… I’ve had to deal with bullying a lot,” Velasquez, who was not available to speak with Yahoo Parenting this week, explains in the TEDx video. She talks about how eager she was to meet others on the first day of kindergarten, and how she had “absolutely no idea” that she looked different until she saw how other kids reacted to her.
Velasquez made a huge impact with her TEDx talk in 2013. Photo courtesy of “A Brave Heart”
“I walked up to a little girl and smiled at her, and she looked up at her like I was a monster, like I was the scariest thing she’d ever seen in her life,” she recalls. “A lot of people wanted nothing to do with myself and I couldn’t understand why. In my mind I was a really cool kid… But my parents said, ‘Pick your head up, smile, continue to be yourself, and people will see that you’re just like them.’” After seeing the 8-second bullying video a stranger had made of her, which was watched by 4 million, she says she realized, “In my mind, the best way that I could get back at all those people who made fun of me, who teased me, who called me ugly, who called me a monster, was to make myself better and to show them, you know what? Tell me those negative things and I’m going to turn them around and use them as a ladder to climb up to my goals.”
After the TEDx talk went viral, the group Women Rising, which had brought Velasquez onto the TEDx Austin Women event it had produced in the first place, decided to take her message even further by documenting the activist’s efforts to get a federal anti-bullying law passed; now Women Rising’s CEO, Sara Hirsh Bordo, is producer and director of A Brave Heart.
“Lizzie had already proved to more than 10 million TED talk viewers that she was worth listening to. My job was to show what Lizzie could do with more than the 18 minutes the TED rules allowed,” notes Hirsh Bordo in her director’s statement. “Where does the strength and bravery in Lizzie’s fragile 58-pound body come from? How does she battle an unknown syndrome in the hospital one morning and speak on stage to thousands that afternoon? Simply put, to Lizzie and her family, her life has never been about the start and end dates on our life, but the dash in between.”