No matter how confident or progressive or empowered we may be, we all know the feeling that comes with believing that some part of our appearance isn’t good enough; the stinging pain that comes with being told that some aspect of our physical appearance is unappealing. After all, we live in a world where aspirations for women to meet conventional beauty standards are relentless, toxic and extreme.
When Lizzie Velasquez was told she was the ugliest woman in the world, she didn’t let people’s cruelty crush her — instead, she used their words to empower her to help others. She’s now an internationally sought-after motivational speaker, inspiring people all over the world to rise above bullying and to treat themselves, and others, with kindness.
I am human… of course those things are going to hurt… (but) I’m not going to let those things define me.
Lizzie was born in 1989, 4 weeks premature. She was diagnosed with an extremely rare condition that made it impossible for her to develop muscle or body fat. The condition itself is so rare that it doesn’t even have a name, and it’s believed to only affect 2 other people in the world. Initially, doctors didn’t believe Lizzie would have a fulfilling life – there were even concerns she might not survive. They had no idea how she’d been born alive, and they couldn’t imagine her ever being able to walk, or talk. Lizzie, however, has always been one to defy expectations, and although she was incredibly small, Lizzie’s brain, internal organs and bones developed normally.
Lizzie describes her condition as “one big mystery.” At 4 years old, she went blind in her right eye, for reasons doctors still don’t understand. That eye clouded over and changed colour, so she now has one brown eye and one blue eye. She also has facial features most commonly associated with progeria, including a small mouth, pointed nose, and aged skin – although her disorder differs from progeria in that doctors now don’t believe it will be terminal. While they didn’t understand her condition, Lizzie and her family became very proficient at dealing with it.
However, when Lizzie was 17 years old, she did an interview for a local tv station. When the video clip was posted on YouTube, it was labelled “The World’s Ugliest Woman.” When Lizzie found the clip, it had already received 4 million views and was accompanied by a plethora of appalling comments.
Lizzie was heartbroken. She had already spent most of her life being bullied, but in this moment, she felt truly overwhelming pain. Fortunately Lizzie’s parents had a different take on it and reportedly said to her “You can have your one good cry and let it out, but then you have to pick your head up and move on to something positive.”
Thankfully for all of us, that’s exactly what Lizzie did.
Now I actually look at my condition as a gift… it’s something that I’m blessed to have and I want to share this gift with anyone who will have it.
Since then, Lizzie has devoted her life to speaking out against cyber-bullying and negative body image. Her Ted Talk on true beauty has been watched more than 7 million times, and she has become an internationally sought-after motivational speaker. She’s also written 3 inspirational books, and The Lizzie Project, a film inspired by her life, was funded through an incredibly successful Kickstarter project, which reached its $180,000 fundraising goal in less than a month. Hers is a considerable contribution to a world much in need of reformed attitudes to these issues, and although we still have a long way to go to fulfill Lizzie’s mission of eliminating cyber-bullying entirely, there’s no question that the world is a kinder – and more beautiful – place because Lizzie is in it.