Elizabeth Ann “Lizzie” Velasquez of Austin, Texas, was 17 when she discovered someone had made an eight-second YouTube video about her that went viral. More than 4 million people viewed it, and there were thousands of comments, most of them mean and hateful.
“They said that I should do the world a favor and kill myself,” Velasquez told Our Sunday Visitor. “Can you imagine someone calling you the ugliest woman in the world? Or calling you ‘it’ or a ‘monster’? It makes you feel like the world is ending. It broke my heart, and it broke my spirit. I cried my eyes out. It was more than an eye-opening experience of how cruel the Internet can be.”
Velasquez, now 25, courageously turned that hurt into a determination to show others that they can survive bullying, define their own self-worth and let their true beauty shine.
She achieved her goals of graduating from Texas State University with a degree in communications and became a writer. She also wanted to become a motivational speaker and became internationally recognized in December when a presentation she gave was live-streamed by TEDxAustinWomen. It was seen at 220 TEDx events in 58 countries and has since received more than 9 million total views on the Internet — more than twice the views of the video that cruelly made fun of her eight years ago.
The next major project is a documentary celebrating her life and her commitment to make online interaction more positive.
Her strength, she said, comes from the support of her family, her friends and her Catholic faith.
“They have all come together to help build the personality and the person that I am today,” she said.
Velasquez was born prematurely with an unidentified syndrome that only two other people in the world are known to have. It possibly is a form of neonatal progeroid syndrome, which causes accelerated aging, tissue degeneration and loss of fat from the face and body. She cannot gain weight and has never weighed more than 62 pounds, with her website saying she weighs 58 pounds. She lost sight in one eye and has limited vision in the other.
Her father, Guadalupe, is an elementary school principal and her mother, Rita, is a parish secretary. Lizzie was their first child, and another daughter, 19, and a son, 16, do not have the syndrome.
“When I was born, the doctors told my parents that I would never crawl, walk, think or do anything by myself,” Velasquez said. “The first thing they told the doctor was, ‘We want to take her home and love her and raise her to the best of our abilities.’ And that’s what they did. They raised me 150 percent normally.”
She didn’t realize that she looked different until children stared at her on the first day of kindergarten. She smiled at one little girl who reacted, she said, “like I was a monster, like I was the scariest thing she had ever seen in her life.”
Velasquez wondered what she did wrong as the day got worse. At home, her mother explained that she had a syndrome that made her smaller than the other kids, but said, “It’s not going to define who you are. Smile and keep your head up.”
Velasquez made friends and found support from many people in her community, parish and school.
“From Day 1, I was born with a strong Catholic foundation from my parents and extended family,” she said. “I was very involved with the Church while growing up and had different people help me with my faith. And my parents always reminded me of the positive.”
Still, there were many challenges in her life. Some children bullied her and strangers stared. Velasquez recalls hating to get up in the morning and looking in the mirror, wishing and praying the syndrome and her struggles would go away.
Seeing the hate-filled video put her at a crossroads. She wanted to fight back with anger at those who had been so mean to her online. Or she could leave it alone.
“I started realizing that my life was in my hands,” she said. “I could either choose to make this really good, or I could choose to make this really bad. I could be grateful and open my eyes and realize the good things that I do have and make that what defines me.”
Velasquez used the negativity as a ladder to climb to her goals of graduating from college and writing books. The first, “Lizzie Beautiful,” (Epigraph Publishing, $19.95) is the story of her struggles and includes entries from her mother’s journals.
“When I read them, I realized how much of a superwoman she really is,” Velasquez said. “In the face of so many questions, she had so much faith and was ready to see where God was going to take us.”
“Be Beautiful, Be You” (Liguori Publications, $14.99) is an inspirational story for young adults and chronicles her journey to find beauty within. Her next book, “Choosing Happiness,” (Liguori Publications, $15.99) is scheduled to be released Aug. 1.
Velasquez has spoken to numerous groups and has been interviewed for news and talk shows and for print media. She has followers on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, her own website (aboutlizzie.com) and other social media. Her visibility skyrocketed after her appearance with TEDx, a set of global conferences designed to spark conversation on a variety of topics. Her powerful testimonial was entitled “How Do You Define Yourself?”
That video was produced by the media group Women Rising, which is also behind the currently untitled documentary about Velasquez’s life.
“I am the girl with the wild dream, and the fact that the world is rallying around me is just the most wonderful thing in the entire world,” Velasquez said.
The documentary will be produced by Alexis Jones and Ngoc Nguyen, who worked with her on the TEDx project. One of the team writers is Michael Campo of Grassroots Films, which in 2008 produced “The Human Experience” that won 30 film awards.
Velasquez wants to use the documentary to let people know how hurtful bullying is, and she wants to make social media a safer place. But it’s not about fighting back. The message is about taking the higher road.
“One of the biggest things that we all need to keep in mind whenever we come in contact with someone who is not being nice is that we don’t know what’s going on in their lives,” she said. “They might be hurting themselves and feel the need to hurt other people. If we are consciously aware of that, we will go down the path of not bullying the bullies and not becoming mean back.
“Saying something negative back is not going to accomplish anything. Say something positive instead of fighting back with negativity. Being kind to one another can go further than you think. Just a simple smile to a stranger and looking someone in the eye and acknowledging them as a human just like you can affect somebody’s life more than you can imagine. We just don’t know what’s going on in their day-to-day life.”
Velasquez’s faith is forefront in her message. God has been present through every one of her struggles and every aspect of her life, she said, even in times when she didn’t understand that.
“God knew what he was doing when he made every one of us very different and unique,” she said. “If we were all the same, it wouldn’t be exciting. We have something to look forward to in bringing our different personalities to the table.”
Her best advice?
“Whenever people find their purpose, everything in life will fall into place,” she said. “Their eyes will be open to a world of blessings that they have, just waiting to be discovered.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.