‘World’s Ugliest Woman’ fights bullying with forgiveness
“Why didn’t her parents just abort her?” “What a monster” “Kill it with fire”
The comments above are real. They were written in response to a YouTube video that Texan woman Lizzie Velasquez watched in 2006, when she was 17. The video was titled “World’s Ugliest Woman”. The video was about Lizzie.
Stunned, sickened and heartbroken, Velasquez’s response to that cruel video is probably not what most of us would expect. Having experienced bullying her entire life for the way she looks – Velasquez was born with an undiagnosed condition that meant she could not gain weight – the Texan teen began to fight back.
In line with her Christian faith and upbringing, Velasquez didn’t preach more hate or seek revenge. Creating her own YouTube channel of personal videos, Velasquez has lobbied for forgiveness, understanding and more positive relationships and outlooks.
Through such an extraordinary response to atrocious treatment, Velasquez has become an international superstar of anti-bullying. Having given a motivational talk that’s been viewed almost 11 million times and shared the stage with Hillary Clinton, Velasquez also attracted celebrities such as Chris Hemsworth and Kristen Bell to endorse a major US anti-bullying campaign.
A new documentary, A Brave Heart, has been released in Australia and it captures Velasquez’s story and message. In an age of cyberbullying — one in five Australian children have experienced it — the power in the way Velasquez has led her life should be a stirring support to those facing similar issues. Insights spoke with Velasquez about A Brave Heart, her personal battle with bullying, and why forgiveness is such a big part of breaking cycles of hate, violence and prejudice.
INSIGHTS: What impact did bullying have on you, especially from an early age?
LIZZIE VELASQUEZ: As a child, before school, I had pretty much a normal upbringing. I had no idea I was different. It wasn’t until my first day at kindergarten that I had the reality check of ‘Maybe I am different.’ That was due to other kids who were afraid of me; they were scared to play with me or sit next to me during lunch. I really couldn’t understand because I couldn’t recognise that I didn’t look like them. It didn’t make sense to me because I was being very nice to them. That’s when I had to go home and ask my parents, ‘What’s wrong with me? Did I do something? Why are they scared of me?’
That’s when they sat me down and they explained to me that I look different and I’m a bit smaller than the other kids, but I’m just like them. And I can do absolutely whatever I put my mind to.
How did you feel going through that, as such a young girl and, then, as you got older?
It was definitely a struggle. When you are about 13 years old, I think anyone of us … All we can want to do is fit in and have friends. That’s what I really wanted. When you combine that eagerness of wanting to be cool like the other kids, but you have no control over how you look so you can’t really make that goal happen, it’s really hard. There were times where I would really just wish and pray that when I would wake up in the morning, I would look in the mirror and look like everybody else.
You were raised in a Christian home. You’re a woman of Christian faith. When you prayed to God that He would change your looks, were you angry at God? Did you blame God? What was your relationship like with Him?
I think my faith journey has definitely had a lot of ups and downs throughout my life. When I was going through middle school, I didn’t know who to blame for the struggles I was going through. And I definitely couldn’t blame my parents. So I thought, ‘Well, I can blame God.’
I look back now and see how absolutely wrong I was to do that because every struggle and thing I’ve gone through has been such a huge blessing. At the time, I just couldn’t see it but looking back now I realise that everything I experienced in my life has only made me stronger today.
You’ve experienced a level of bullying and terrible treatment that many of us have not. But despite what you have been through, you genuinely believe they are a blessing from God?
I absolutely do because those things at the time seem horrible and awful but, when I look back at it, I’ve learned so many different lessons. I’ve learned to be resilient, brave and courageous. If I had this perfect life with none of those things happening, I wouldn’t have learned all these things or have these qualities I have now. I think that’s true of everyone; it’s our perspective and the way we look at our own situation.
One of the many moving moments in A Brave Heart comes when you explain how your Dad told you to forgive those who bullied you – even the person who posted that “World’s Ugliest Woman” video. Does your family’s approach to forgiveness come directly from your faith in Jesus?
It’s a combination of my faith, family and friends. Those are the three things that have really pulled me through everything in my life. I remember specific times where we would be out with my family and I would catch someone staring at me or I could hear them saying something about me. My dad would say you can’t be mad at them; all we can do is pray for them. Unfortunately, ‘hurt people’ hurt people.
A Brave Heart and your Youtube channel demonstrate how you are trying to send a positive message into an online space that often is negative. How saddened are you that bullying still continues?
It’s absolutely sad and I went into doing the things I do in the knowledge that, unfortunately, no matter what I say or do – or what you say or do – bullying is never going to end. Ever. But if we can continue to keep the conversation going… I hope that one day we will be able to continue this remedy that will lessen the amount of bullying that’s happening.
If you had a face-to-face conversation with a bully, what would you say?
I would first tell them that I forgive them for whatever they are going through, and I hope that forgiveness is something that can truly help them take the next step to move forward. I think they need to be reminded that they’re not alone in whatever it is they are going through.
Why do you think forgiveness is so powerful?
I think it’s different for the individual. There are so many different reasons why it can help someone but, for me, forgiveness is something that allows you to move forward. It doesn’t keep you chained to something traumatic that has happened to you.
A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story is available on DVD and through digital distributors such as iTunes, Telstra Bigpond Movies and Google Play.