The fight to prevent bullying has a special advocate this fall, and it is Lizzie Velásquez.
Though she is making her impact on the big screen, she does not meet Hollywood’s outward standards of physical beauty. Rather, she has a face of determination, perseverance, and personal power in the battle against unspeakable cruelty and unfairness.
Velásquez, now 26, suffers from Marfan Syndrome and Lipodystrophy, which prevent her from gaining weight. Never weighing more than 64 pounds and blind in one eye, her skin-and-bones appearance made her a target on YouTube.
“When I was in high school, I found a video labeling me ‘the world’s ugliest woman,'” Velásquez recalls. “[It was] eight seconds long with over four million views and thousands of comments. People were saying: ‘Lizzie, please just do the world a favor. Put a gun to your head and kill yourself.'”
Quite to the contrary, Velásquez fought back. Taking to the airwaves, she tackled the criticisms with self-deprecating humor during a well-received Ted Talk, employed YouTube to disseminate her own message, appeared on talk shows with Oprah, Barbara Walters, and Katie Couric, and now is featured in a new documentary.
A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velásquez Story, details her life as the physically challenged victim of bullying turned motivational speaker. Directed by Sara Hirsh Bordo, the film has already won awards at multiple film festivals.
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A Brave Heart is rated PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned). New York Times film critic Ken Jaworowski calls that “an absurd rating if it keeps away the young people who most need to hear these harsh descriptions of bullying.” In assessing the film itself, Jaworowski says: “The makers . . . leave a few too many questions unanswered, but their subject’s immense optimism steamrolls through the documentary’s shortcomings.”
The soundtrack for the movie features the song “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. Writing for The Playlist, reviewer Kimber Myers says, “There’s rarely been such a perfect fit between the lyrics of an appropriated song and a film’s subject matter.” She notes that the movie “threatens to melt even the grinchiest of hearts in its audience, sending us to thesaurus.com looking for alternatives to avoid overusing the word ‘inspiring.'”
In grade school, Velásquez realized she was different than other kids. Her father was a teacher and would openly discuss the causes of her disfigurement in class. She coped as best she could, even becoming a cheerleader in high school. But it was not until she discovered she’d become the victim of cyberbullying (she stumbled on the negative YouTube video while searching for music videos online), that Velásquez recognized that she had an important choice to make.
“I cried my eyes out,” she recalls during her December 2013 Ted Talk. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to leave it alone.’ . . . Then something kind clicked in my head. . . . I could either choose to make this really good or choose to make this really bad.
“Am I going to let the people who called me a monster define me? Am I going to let the people who said ‘kill it with fire’ define me? No. . . . I’m going to let my goals and my success and my accomplishments be the things that define me—not my outer appearance, not the fact that I’m visually-impaired, not the fact that I have this syndrome that nobody knows what it is.”
Supported unconditionally by her parents, Lupe and Rita, as she has been since birth, Velásquez trained herself to become a motivational speaker and earned her degree in communication studies from Texas State University.
“I completely taught myself everything that I know about speaking via the Internet and YouTube,” she said. “I studied speakers’ websites. I studied if they walked (a certain) way across the stage, if they had note cards, if they had slide shows . . . anything I could get my hands on, that’s what I would learn.”
“In my mind, the best way I could get back at all those people who made fun of me, who teased me, who called me ugly and called me a monster, was to make myself better and show them: ‘You know what? Tell me those negative things and I’m going to use them as a ladder to climb up to my goals.'”
“Use that negativity you have in your life to make yourself better,” she says. “What defines you? Brave starts here.”
Velásquez didn’t let the bullies win. Her half-million subscribers on YouTube are a tribute to her inner strength and determination.
Share your images, short videos, and ideas to prevent bullying on social media. Take a picture or create a bullying prevention video (10–12 seconds) and post it to K12’s Facebook page or any of your other social media channels with the hashtag #ZeroBullying. Watch for your post to appear on Learning Liftoff. Be part of the solution by demonstrating your support for bullying prevention.