The following selections from Ada Petriczko’s interview with Lizzie Velasquez appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in May 2016.
Ada Petriczko : “You know how sometimes you’re procrastinating and just looking for music on YouTube?” you asked your TEDx Austin, Texas audience. “Imagine that on the right side of the screen in the column of related videos, you see a familiar face. You click on it. 4 million views, thousands of likes and comments. The title? ‘The world’s ugliest woman.' Now, imagine that on the screen you see yourself.”
And when that happened, you were just 17 years old.
Lizzie Velasquez: I thought I would never go out of the house again. The comments under the video were the worst: “Why didn’t her parents just get rid of her?” “Burn it with fire,” “Do the world a favor and put a gun to your head,” “How can something like that show herself to other people?” I should have immediately closed the computer, but I read them all.
AP: "The world’s ugliest woman" -- no teenager wants to be called that.
If they had gotten to know her better, they would have found out that she’s fun. And has great hair. Because I do. And I also have a genetic condition that doesn’t allow me to gain weight.
I’ve never weighed more than 28 kg. But who cares? I lead a normal life.
AP: What does that mean, “normal”?
It means that I am like everyone else. I come from a big, loving Mexican-American family. For as long as I can remember I’ve been surrounded by relatives and cousins for whom I was just “Lizzie”. Zero special treatment. This was in spite of the fact that I spent a lot of my childhood in hospitals, because there was always something going wrong with my body -- lungs, intestines, stomach. I was four years old when I lost the sight in my right eye. Doctors are still testing me regularly to learn more about this syndrome. In spite of that, no one ever led me to understand that I was different. I thought that everyone looked like me.
AP: When did you figure out that it wasn’t like that?
The first day of kindergarten, I showed up on the playground decked out in Pocahontas gear, with a big backpack on my back. I went up to one of the little girls but she didn’t smile at me and say “hi!” like I’d expected. She looked at me as if I was some kind of monster and ran away. That was the first time I encountered that reaction and I was stumped. I decided that something wasn’t quite right about her, so I moved over to the other children, but the situation kept repeating itself. No one spoke to me all day, even though they talked about me and watched me from afar. When I walked up to them, they ran away. I tried to chase them, but I was too slow and I started to cough. When I got home, I asked my parents what was going on. They explained to me that I have a syndrome that made me a little smaller than them, but that it had no influence on who I was.
AP: How did you manage after kindergarten?
My parents and I developed a system. Every year on the first day of school, my dad and I would go to class and introduce me personally and explain a little about my condition. That helped. We did that for a few years until the second grade of elementary school, when I could manage on my own.
AP: What happened later?
I saw the video entitled, “The world’s ugliest woman.” It was a turning point, after which nothing could ever be the same again. But you know, not only in a bad way. Because even though I cried my eyes out for a few days, later, thank God, instead of feeling sorry for myself, I started to fight back.
These people had never met me. Why did they hate me so much?
AP: Were you itching to launch into a tirade to shame them?
You mean plug in the camera and start to scream “Why did you do this?!” and post it on YouTube? That wouldn’t have helped. I knew that the way to show them how wrong they were was to fulfill my dreams and achieve success. I wrote down my goals: to graduate college, write a book, and become a motivational speaker. I fell in love with the stage from my first performance. When I stand in front of a crowd, their energy brings me right up. On the stage I feel beautiful and self confident.
AP: In 2008, you set up a YouTube channel where you publish a new video every week. After six years of work as a motivational speaker you gave a famous TEDx presentation in Austin, Texas, which has been seen by more than 10 million viewers. You joked then that every affliction has its benefits, and that a description of your syndrome sounds like a dream come true for many people; you can eat as much as you want, but you can’t gain weight.
I’ve always tried to find the positive side of this illness, otherwise I’d just feel sorry for myself every day. This is the main thing I wanted to tell the audience at TEDx.
You can turn anything around to your advantage -- every negative thought, opinion, complex, imperfection. Use it as fuel.
AP: The main topic of your presentation is the bullying of children by their peers. According to National Center for Education statistics, 21.5% of American teenagers between 12 and 18 experience harassment by peers, and 6.9% experience cyberbullying. Who is being persecuted?
Mainly kids who are considered to be different in some way from others: non-heterosexual, atheist, poor, disabled, or people of color. It can happen to anyone if they deviate from the dominant norms of femininity and masculinity, come from a foreign country, or, like me, look different from the majority.
Bullying by peers is often trivialized. Adults consider it as something that “all of us go through,” like a baptism of fire before adult life.
Children bite their tongues, because they think that telling on someone will only worsen the situation. Beyond that, they want at all costs to be part of the group, even if that means enduring abuse.
According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, around 64% of those who are bullied don’t tell anyone. Meanwhile, numerous studies, including those conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, show that both being a victim and being a perpetrator can have long lasting consequences. It can reduce the ability to concentrate, increase absenteeism in school, and, as a result, lead to lower grades in school. Kids lose their sense of self-worth, and develop health problems that continue into adult life -- depression, anxiety, insomnia. In extreme cases, harassment by one’s peers can be one of the causes that leads students to suicide.
In my opinion the majority of these problems result from the fact that in the US, we do not have uniform policies to combat this phenomenon. We have not developed common standards and practices.
AP: That’s why you’ve become active as an advocate for the first law to combat bullying in schools.
When I graduated from college in 2013, Sara Bordo, a film director, introduced herself to me and proposed that we make a documentary film together about my life. We started to research the topic of bullying and we found out that there had been a bill circulating in Congress for seven years that could become the first federal law protecting people from all kinds from bullying, but for some reason, it hadn’t been pushed through.
In July 2014, I went to Washington in a new role for me -- as a lobbyist. I had conversations with Representatives in Congress about the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA). What does this bill propose? It demands that schools receiving federal funding adopt and participate in the creation of standards of behavior to prevent discrimination and harassment. Schools must record cases of bullying and send them to state administrations, which in turn will file annual reports to the federal Department of Education. The more we know, the more quickly we can create a successful and experience-based federal policy.
I like the fact that the Safe Schools Improvement act places the emphasis on prevention and the propagation of positive forms of behavior, instead of resorting to stigmatizing the negative. This thinking in the spirit of the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program recommended by the bill, sets out the idea that in every difficult situation, one should establish a model of positive behavior rather than starting with prohibitions. The key here is to educate the teachers, providing clear guidelines of what kinds of behavior are forms of persecution and what they should do in each situation to help the victims, and not only to discipline the perpetrators.
Lizzie Velásquez -- Elizabeth Ann Velásquez, born in 1989 in Austin, Texas. She is a motivational speaker, activist, vlogger, and author of three books. In 2015, a film about her life, Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velásquez Story,” directed by Sara Bordo, appeared on the National Geographic People channel. The Safe Schools Improvement Act was reintroduced in Congress on March 20, 2018.
-- translated from the Polish by David A. Goldfarb