How To Grab Life by The Horns

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Have you ever heard the expression when life gives you lemons, make lemonade?

Few people truly embody this concept like Lizzie Velasquez does, who is an ordinary woman standing for something extraordinary: love, acceptance, and peace.

Lizzie is a uniquely petite powerhouse that weighs in at 65 pounds because she, and only 2 other people in the world, suffer from a rare syndrome that prevents her body from storing fat. In a pivotal moment of cyberbullying, where she was called the ugliest woman on the internet in a youtube video that went viral, she decided to stand up for herself, in the most loving and peaceful way, and show the bullies that they are better than that.

Fast forward several years, and she is a 4-time author, college graduate and global motivational speaker, that has graced the stage at well over 1,000 events and appeared on major TV networks like The Today Show, The View, Nightline, National Geographic and on Katie Couric to name a few.

In addition to doing a Ted talk titled “What defines you?” which has been viewed by tens of millions, and resonated across the globe, she was featured in a deeply touching documentary called Brave Heart.

Tune in to hear some of Lizzie’s extraordinary life lessons and journey:

      • Get a sense for her off the charts leadership
      • How she became an agent for change
      • How she stood for global growth and empowerment
      • How she chose to counteract hate with love and what resulted from that
      • What it takes to stand up for something bigger than yourself
      • Finding courage in your darkest moments
      • Incredible life lessons

Connect with Lizzie Velasquez:

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Full Transcription:

Lizzie Velasquez: I had to realize that I had been waiting for this answer my whole life, and I was 25 years old at the time. When you are so used to being defined as a question mark and then in one conversation that question mark that you’ve had for all these years is now just a period at the end of a sentence, how do you adjust to that?

Tanya: That’s Elizabeth (Lizzie) Velasquez Velasquez, a uniquely petite powerhouse that weighs in at 65 pounds because she and only 2 other people in the world that we know of have a rare syndrome that prevents her body from storing fat. In a pivotal moment of cyberbullying where she was called the ugliest woman on the internet in a YouTube video that went viral, she decided to stand up for herself, and in the most loving and peaceful way, show the bullies that they are wrong about her. Fast forward several years, and she’s a four-time author, college graduate, global motivational speaker that’s graced the stage at over 1,000+ events and appeared on major TV networks like The Today Show, The View, Nightline, National Geographic, and on Katie Couric, just to name a few. In addition to doing a TED Talk titled “What Defines You,” which has been viewed by tens of millions of people and resonated across the globe, she was featured in a deeply touching documentary called Brave Heart. Lizzie Velasquez, what were you like as a child?

Lizzie Velasquez: I was a really fun child looking back. I mean, obviously, I don’t remember everything, but I think I was really adventurous. I was very bossy. I can remember being bossy, and I’ve seen home videos that prove how bossy I was. I think I just have the same personality that I do now but just sounding more like a little tiny mouse.

Tanya: That’s amazing. The bossiness definitely served you well. This is interesting. You were born six weeks prematurely, and you weighed in at 2 pounds, 10 ounces, which is tiny. Obviously, you wouldn’t remember this, but what did your parents tell you about that experience?

Lizzie Velasquez: What they told me was that my mom had went in, and they did an ultrasound and realized that I had stopped growing and were told that they needed to have the emergency C-section. When I came out, there was no amniotic fluid around me, so the doctors have no idea how I was still, A, alive and, B, coming out screaming at the top of my lungs. I was very tiny. My skin was very translucent, and you can see all of my veins. You still can now, mostly just on my hands. I was born in 1989, and at the time, they didn’t have a medical journal or a book that they could look up and tell my parents, well, these are all the symptoms of this. Instead of being optimistic, they told my parents that the outcome was going to be very difficult, and I was going to live a life that really needed a lot of hands-on help and really wasn’t going to be able to take care of myself. Being first-time parents, you would think that my parents would be terrified or upset, and they were the complete opposite and just so happy to have me alive and ready and willing to take on this adventure of figuring out me.

Tanya: Yeah, I could totally relate. I’m very interested in the premature part because my twins were born prematurely at 28 weeks. One weighed 1.7 pounds.

Lizzie Velasquez: Oh, my God.

Tanya: The other one weighed 2.4 pounds so pretty much around your size or smaller. I have so much respect and empathy for what your parent went through. How long were you in the hospital before you were discharged?

Lizzie Velasquez: I want to say a couple months. I could be way wrong, but that’s just me guessing. I was really just having to stay there just to really keep me warm because I was so tiny, and they were still doing so many tests on me. Every test that they did came back normal, so there wasn’t really anything that they were finding in that time period of my mom leaving the hospital.

Tanya: Yes, you were right that back then they really didn’t have the sophistication that they have today. In fact, a lot of the doctors told me that if my kids were born then that likely they would not have survived. They were on respiratory support. Did you need that, respiratory support?

Lizzie Velasquez: No, I didn’t.

Tanya: Oh, see, yeah, that’s amazing. That’s great. At what point in your life did you realize that you were not like the other kids and that you were special?

Lizzie Velasquez: I have a feeling that I knew. I think I recognized it, but I don’t think I knew it or understood it. I mean, being that age, you don’t really understand a lot of things. A lot of things don’t really make sense to you when it comes to being different, I guess. It’s more of just realizing things when your surroundings are bringing it to your attention, and my surroundings before I started school were not bringing it to my attention. I was just Lizzie and normal.

When I was born and went back home, my mom decided to stay home and take care of me. She had been working at a daycare center, and she didn’t want me to grow up isolated I think is the word. She started babysitting one of my cousins who’s a few months older than me and one of my – I call her my first best friend. She started babysitting her when we were both 6 months old. It was more so my mom really just wanting me to have this environment of normalcy, and it was incredible. I’m so grateful for it.

I went into kindergarten expecting the same surroundings and support and a non-issue of people being afraid of me, and starting kindergarten, I was very – I feel like it was just a very big wakeup call for a 5-year-old that you don’t look like everybody else, and that’s not a good thing at the time. I was very confused for a long time, more so confused because at home and around our church family and my very large extended family I was normal. At school, it just did not make sense to me that I wasn’t normal there. Starting at such a young age, I think I started realizing what was happening, and I wasn’t upset at the beginning. I was just very confused.

Tanya: Being a mom myself, I can’t even imagine how I would prepare my child for what would potentially be to come as they enter a different environment. Do you remember any conversations that you had with your mom at the time or your dad?

Lizzie Velasquez: My dad was an elementary school teacher. I think that was something that really helped my parents, but at the same time, I know it was still very terrifying. I know all of these things just because during my freshman year of college I had went – I came home for a weekend, went back to school, unpacking my luggage, and I found a large, like a brown mailing envelope. Inside was three composition notebooks. I opened them, and they were letters my mom had written to me since I was born, every day, just describing what I did that day…

Tanya: No way.

Lizzie Velasquez: …how I acted, which is also how I know I was bossy. She would just describe everything that was going on. There was the point where I got to the letters, and I was just bawling my eyes out the entire time. There was a part that just got me, and it was I don’t know when I’m going to give you these letters. I don’t know where you’re going to be. I don’t know how old you’re going to be, but I hope that, when I do give them to you, you’re reading them when you’re in college. I was reading them in my dorm room at the time.

Go back to the question how I know what I talked to my parents about, she had actually written me letters from the time I was born to about fifth or sixth grade, and at first, they were every day. Then they started spacing out. Once I got a little bit older, she started explaining more, more so in the sense that they knew that I was upset but I wasn’t telling them anything, and the things that they did behind the scenes that I didn’t know of, my mom just being very paranoid, and of course, just like any parent is when your kid starts school. There was other funny stories of other teachers calling my dad and saying your wife is staring at her through the window, and [00:11:38]. My dad would have to go take her away.

Tanya: That’s funny. Like a hawk, she was watching her baby like a hawk.

Lizzie Velasquez: Absolutely, yeah. My dad just was more of the reassurer that I’m here. It’s fine. Everyone knew him, and everyone knew me adult-wise. I know that I didn’t talk to them about it. I knew that, if I did, if I went to them and I said I’m being picked on, or they’re staring at me, or whatever it might be, it’s so easy for my dad to just to walk down the hall and go tell the teacher. I didn’t want to be that girl, so I totally just kept everything to myself.

Tanya: I mean, it makes sense. It’s amazing that you had that foresight at such a young age to internalize it and not share it with your family out of fear that something would happen. You would be that girl, and maybe you would make things worse or whatever. That’s such a unique experience to go through. You finally, if I get this correctly, got your diagnosis much later in life. What was it, and how did you come about knowing what’s going on with you?

Lizzie Velasquez: The whole journey to my diagnosis has been a crazy, crazy rollercoaster. Before I started elementary school and I think throughout middle school as well, my parents really just wanted answers, and I think more so my mom just wanting to get more answers and be prepared. As far as medical things growing up, I did get – I was sick a lot when I was younger, which I think is normal with kids being around other kids, but my immune system was and still is very weak. I was getting a lot of colds that would take me down for not just a few days but maybe two weeks, and it would turn into a cold and asthma and then pneumonia and all these other random surgeries. We found out I lost my vision in my right eye around the time that I was about 4 years old. We don’t know how. We didn’t know what caused it or when exactly it happened. My mom did laugh and say is that why she will hold a paper right up to her face? I’m thinking, mom, [00:14:14] anything a long time ago? You’re just now saying that. You noticed me doing this?

There is a lot of other medical things that we did take care of here at home in Austin. There were also a lot of genetic specialists that my mom would read about back then in newspapers or parenting magazines, and she’d reach out to them. They took me at least once or twice a year to see a genetic doctor when I was younger, and I hated it. I very, very much remember feeling like I was just a thing and not a human. Having adults walk in and just stare at you and just randomly touch your head or touch your arm, it just – I hated it. I hated all the bloodwork, and it just was not fun for me. Everything that we were told throughout all of these years was the same exact thing. She fits some characteristics of one condition, but she doesn’t fit them all. We can’t tell her this is what she has.

There were so many times that I would get my hopes up and think we figured it out. I’m good to go. Just to find out that it’s not what they thought it was, so I felt like was wasting so much time. Once I started getting a bit older and could really speak for myself, when I was about 12 or 13, my parents allowed me to decide whether I wanted to continue seeing genetic doctors or if I wanted to take a break, and I decided to take a break. I would go to Dallas to see a genetic doctor who I had seen for – I think he was the most consistent one that we had been sticking with. He was really great with me. We really liked him, but I would have to go during spring break. I would call it hospital jail, and I would have to just stay in there. It was during my birthday every time. I hated it.

I decided to take a break. At that time, even though I was still developing, I was a teenager, preteen, figuring things out. I just knew that, if I keep going to doctors, if they tell me I have a cure for you, am I actually going to want it? I knew deep down that I didn’t despite everything else that I was going through, so it was just like I’m fine right now. I have my doctors here. I’m just going to give it a rest for a little while. That little while turned into many more years. We stayed in touch with the genetic doctor in Dallas just talking about – talking to him whenever I would have surgeries or anything, just keeping him up to date.

Fast forward to my – towards the end of my freshman year of college, I was on The Today Show. I went on it. It was great, super fun, came back home, and was flooded with tons of emails and messages from people saying we have the same thing as you. I just stopped believing people when they say that. I hadn’t met anyone who had the same thing that I did. I didn’t even know what I had. In one of the emails, a doctor from Houston reached out, and he said he was a genetic doctor. His wife had saw my interview, and she told him about me. I hadn’t gone to see any doctors, and I knew my mom was wanting to go see one just to check on things.

I agreed, and we went to Houston. He was super nice, of course did tons of testing, which I’m very much used to at this point. He also decided that he wanted to check not only my DNA but my parents and both my siblings as well, so they also had to do bloodwork, which made me happy. Now they had to be a part of this. We just did a bunch of testing. It was more of a wait and see game, and I’m going to study these things. My life just went on normally, seeing him every six months to a year, no changes, nothing. We were all on the same page, and everyone knew that I was never going to believe a diagnosis unless the doctor that I was seeing and trusted sat me down, looked me in the eye, and said, Lizzie, this is what you have. If you tell me anything else besides that, I’m not going to believe that it’s real. Everyone was very respectful of that, and we, again, kept on with our lives.

In 2015, I was in Barcelona with my – the director of my documentary and my mom. On our last day before we were going to fly home, we went to have lunch. We sat down, and they both sat across from me, which right away I was like what’s going on? What are you going to tell me? My mom started getting really emotional, and she couldn’t really talk. Sara, our director, just said we got a call from your doctor in Houston, and he has your diagnosis. He wants to see you when we get back home, and that absolutely came out of nowhere. I hadn’t seen him recently at that time. I hadn’t talked to him. None of this was on mind whatsoever, so to hear her say he has your diagnosis and he wants to tell you, I knew that it was real.

I didn’t say anything. I just sat there and processed. They both thought I was mad at them, but I wasn’t. I was just processing this crazy news. I had a flight from Barcelona all the way back to Austin. Lots of super fun time to think about what do I have? What does this mean? Do I want to know what’s in store with this diagnosis? There were just so many questions.

At the same time, we were filming my documentary, and I was still speaking a ton and working on my newest book at the time. Things were crazy. So much so that I never actually had time to really process things after that, after I got back home. Our whole crew went with us. This was not supposed to be part of the documentary. They asked if I would want it, if I was okay with including it and said it was totally up to me. I knew that if I was sufficiently diagnosed that it was probably going to be in the media somewhere, and I wanted to be able to have control of that story. I agreed, and the camera crew went with us who had become our family at that point. My sound guy had just found out that he and his wife were expecting their first baby, and he wasn’t going to be able to go with us to this big appointment, the appointment that so much was being built up for. That morning, I went downstairs from my apartment, and he was there. He said my wife agreed that I think I need to be here for you for this.

Tanya: Oh, my God. Wow!

Lizzie Velasquez: I have this incredible support system with me. It was me and my parents and then our crew and one doctor from Austin who I’d become really close with. She just went with us just to help explain things. We drove from Austin to Houston. Sorry this is such a long story.

Tanya: No, this is great.

Lizzie Velasquez: We drove from Austin to Houston, and I don’t think I – I didn’t really have many emotions while we were going. My mom was very emotional all the way there. She was just very worried about what they were going to say. We got to the meeting, and I thought I was probably going to be either really quiet and crying and scared, or I was going to be okay. At one point, in the beginning, I realized that I was comforting my mom and comforting my doctor and giving them tissue. I was sitting up and asking questions like, okay, now, what does this mean? That was very surprising for me.

We go, and he sat down. He looked me in the eyes like I said I wanted, and he told me that I was being diagnosed with neonatal progeroid syndrome, NPS for short. He explained that it is made up of two different conditions. One of them is called lipodystrophy, which basically means the absence of fat, so something that we’ve obviously known my entire life that I’m not able to gain weight. The second thing is that I have a condition called Marfan. I had heard of it before, but the type that I have is very, very rare and very specific. Basically, what Marfan affects is your eyes, your bones, and your heart.

Hearing all of those things just made – I felt like the pieces of the puzzle were coming together. The eyes thing, that made sense now, and I probably lost my vision because of this condition. The bones thing made sense. I’ve only broken a bone once in my life, which I think people think I’m very breakable, but I’m not whatsoever. It was a trampoline accident that wasn’t even my fault. I had all of these other things.

Of course, the biggest news being told that the problem with my heart and with this condition is that it can dilate your aortic valve so much so to the point where it bursts, and it’s very hard to catch. There is a possibility when it happens that I could be life flighted to a hospital and have this emergency surgery, but it’s just very risky. It happens out of nowhere, and so of course, that was the scariest thing hearing that. The game plan was to see a cardiologist every six months. There’s medication when they start noticing it’s dilating at all. I can start being put on blood pressure medication to stabilize it, and so ever since then, we’ve been checking.

Thank God everything’s been really great, but I think the biggest takeaway besides, obviously, officially being diagnosed is the weight that it lifted off of my mom that I never realized she was carrying the entire time. There was a point where it got quiet, and she just said it wasn’t my fault. My doctor looked, and he said it’s impossible. What I have was not genetic. It wasn’t passed down. It’s just a mutation in my DNA, which I quickly corrected him. I told him I don’t want the word mutation. I want the word my difference. That’s how it happened, and so my mom had been living with this thought that she was the reason why I was born the way I was born.

Tanya: Can you imagine your mother carrying that burden, in a sense that weight of guilt, which has nothing to do with her? That’s amazing.

Lizzie Velasquez: Yeah, it was an incredible, unexpected time. I think that, after that appointment and after the official diagnoses, the next few months after that was very hard for me, very, very hard, more so because after that appointment – I mean, I had to realize that I had been waiting for this answer my whole life, and I was 25 years old at the time. When you are so used to being defined as a question mark and then in one conversation that question mark that you’ve had for all these years is now just a period at the end of a sentence, how do you adjust to that? I had been so used to being the undiagnosed girl and carrying that name with me. I dealt with a lot of thoughts of, well, now that I’m diagnosed, am I not going to be inspirational anymore? Now that I’m diagnosed, do I have to find a different career? All these crazy things that looking back now made no sense but, at the time, it was all I could think about.

Those fears then quickly started getting a lot darker. I had stopped filming my documentary. It was time for it to be edited in L.A. My schedule wasn’t 24/7. I was finally sitting down in a place for longer than a few days, and after really catching up with rest that I hadn’t had in almost a full year, then I really started thinking about the diagnosis. I think the heart thing is what really scared me, and I just kept thinking – in my mind, the only thought I had was one day my heart is going to explode. Why am I going through all of these things? Why am I putting my family through this of just waiting for it? It was just a very, very, very hard transition for me to understand, but I’m at a point now where I’m just so thankful that we know, more so because we have game plan in place now.

Tanya: How do you make peace with what may potentially happen? We know that doctors have been wrong in the past, so that’s something on your side. How do you make peace with that information?

Lizzie Velasquez: I think it’s a mindset. It’s a mindset combined with faith. My family has raised me and my brother and sister in the Catholic faith. It’s been something that has been such a pillar in our lives, and I really had to get back on this journey, this faith journey of mine. I feel like I had strayed from that path for a while. Getting back on it and realizing that God has had the plans for my life long before I was even born. Why wake up every morning in fear of what plan is ahead of me? Instead, wake up with more of an excitement of what’s to come.

Tanya: I love that. You mentioned something that I want to highlight for a minute. More recently, you posted a YouTube video that you very courageously came forward with something that you’ve been challenged by for the last year. What has that been?

Lizzie Velasquez: This past year, 2019, I really thought was going to be an incredible year. I think we all have these optimistic thoughts of what the New Year is going to bring, and everything that has happened this year has been the complete opposite of what I could’ve wanted or imagined. It has been probably one of the most difficult years I’ve had in a long time. I had been working nonstop since I graduated college in 2013. I’ve never taken off longer than two weeks. It’s always just been go, go, go, go 24/7. I really realized that I needed to slow down at the beginning of this year.

There were other factors that came into play workwise that was really showing me that I do need to take a break, and I need to slow down. This is what I’m meant to do right now, so I enjoyed it. I played with my dogs, and I binged watch every show and spent time with my family and my friends. It was great, and then when that stopped, it was just like, okay, I’m getting bored. I need to go back to what I’m going to do next. Then I realized, well, what am I going to do next? It’s one of the things where you can imagine us being at home. You know what’s inside, and you know that you can either do laundry or go lay down. You know the activities that are inside your house, but then there comes a time where you need to leave and walk out. You have to open the door and ask yourself where am I going? I feel like I’ve been stuck standing in that doorway for a very long time.

There were times where I had lots of fear of what was out there, and so I would just come back inside. I would just feel sorry for myself and scroll on social media and fall down dark holes of comparison. Asking myself what have I become? I have gone from doing all these really big incredible things and meeting all these people to now things are slowing down. Are things slowing down because no one wants to hear what I have to say anymore? All of these really dark thoughts were coming back, and I think I was more so lost than anything. Just very much feeling like what do I do? How do I do it?

All of these thoughts just kept coming, and I think I finally had to realize that I really needed to lean on what always picks me back up again, and that’s my faith. I don’t open up about it very often just because I’ve – I haven’t been allowed to in certain places, or they don’t want me to talk about it. Then, if I do, it’s very feeling like I’m walking on eggshells and not really saying what I want to say, so I just stayed away from it. I just felt that I was having this really big wakeup moment and realizing that I don’t know what’s in store for me, but I have to change my mindset and realize that, yes, those same plans that God had for me that He showed me when I was 25, they’re still there. I needed to open my eyes and, really, my mind and my heart back up to all of these possibilities, and really work on not comparing myself to other people. Really realizing that I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I’m the one who’s going to figure it out. I have to stop waiting on someone else to figure it out for me.

Tanya: First of all, the fact that you so authentically shared what was going on for you is incredible. By the way, I’ve been through – it’s ebbs and flows. Sometimes you feel great, and things are clicking. Sometimes it’s not. It means you’re human. What I found in the dips is when there’s an opportunity for growth, always, and they are strategically placed in your life at times where you need to elevate your game.

Lizzie Velasquez: Absolutely.

Tanya: Yeah, what has it been like to live with your syndrome your whole life?

Lizzie Velasquez: Very normal. I’ve been really grateful for the fact that I was born with it. It sounds kind of crazy, but it’s one of those things where it’s the only thing that I know. I sometimes forget. It’s funny when I’m out with either really close friends of mine or extended family who I haven’t been out with in public in a while. We go out, and they’ll see people staring or just like – now it’s different because we don’t really know why they’re staring, if they recognize me or something else. Before I was known, it was always funny to see their reactions of them either getting really offended or really wanting to be really defensive of me. It was just something that I forget that’s a part of me because it’s just who I am.

Tanya: You mentioned that you had to go through all these medical challenges, eyes and bones. You broke your leg. What were those mostly due to? Is that part of the syndrome or the diagnosis?

Lizzie Velasquez: No, it’s funny. Anytime something like that happens, the first question is always is this because of the condition, or is it just because it happened? We don’t really have a definite answer to these things. We know the reasons why they happen, and some of them are just because of my own stubbornness. I did cheerleading in middle school and all throughout high school. I loved it, and I was, of course, the one who was thrown up in the air. I would fall and get right back up again, and it was just the normal thing that I did. It was fine, but then there were times where I would feel like I needed to be really careful because I don’t want to get sick again. Then, at the same time, I don’t how this happens. It just happens, so I’m not going to stop doing the things that I normally like to do.

With my feet, I fractured my right foot. Almost every three months I was fracturing my right foot. It was because I – since I have no body fat, on the bottom of my right foot, there’s no padding. I had a very severe arch, and I refused to wear supportive shoes because they were not cute. [00:37:59] outfit. When I would walk a lot, I would fracture my foot because there was no support, so that’s how that happened. It was all really just my fault being really stubborn. Eventually, it got to the point where I had to have total reconstruction on my right foot because I had what they call a claw foot, meaning my toes where curling up, and they were rubbing against the top of my shoes. It was just getting really painful to walk on, so I had total reconstruction. I had a bone put in my ankle, and there’s a pin in my toe. It’s all straightened out, and everything is great now.

My eye surgeries, we’re not sure what caused it. The pressure behind my blind eye would build up so much that it looked like my eye was going to pop out. It was bulging, so I would have to go in and freeze the pressure points of my eyeball and wait for it to go back down to size. Then that became routine throughout high school. The only bone that I actually broke is my collarbone jumping on the trampoline with my dad. He wanted to see how high I could go. I landed, and I was crying. He thought I was laughing and kept jumping, and so I broke my collarbone. It was the most dramatic unnecessary scene of having to call 911. I was like you owe me so many outfits now.

Other than that, the other surgeries were more just I had to have my appendix taken out. I got an infection after that and had to have another surgery. We just roll with it, and we don’t really know the exact cause of it or why it happened.

Tanya: My God, your threshold for pain at this point must be so high.

Lizzie Velasquez: It is.

Tanya: Given everything that you’ve been through.

Lizzie Velasquez: It is, shockingly.

Tanya: Yes, no, it’s the weirdest thing. I mentioned I have twins that were born prematurely. My littlest one that was 1.7 pounds, she was in the NICU, the neonatal intensive care unit for 6 months, 180 days. She went through heart surgery, and she had IVs almost the whole time. She was on respiratory support for 210 days, on a feeding tube for 300 days. My other was in the NICU for 129 days, a heart surgery as well, feeding tube for 100 days, respiratory support 100 days, and all types of IVs and poking and prodding and you name it. If they crash into a wall, or they fall, or they scarp their knee, you don’t hear a peep. I’m like, oh, my God, it’s unbelievable.

Lizzie Velasquez: Oh, yeah, it’s crazy.

Tanya: There was a pivotal moment when you were a teenager where you were in your room or wherever. You were browsing on the internet, and you found something. What happened?

Lizzie Velasquez: I was 17 years old at the time, and I was, of course, in high school and still living with my parents. I was on YouTube and really just looking for a song to play while I did homework. At the time, YouTube was still fairly new, so not a lot people really knew a lot about it. It wasn’t the big thing like it is now. I saw a photo, like a thumbnail, on the right-hand side. It looked familiar, but I didn’t really think, oh, my gosh, that’s me. I clicked on it, and it was a video that someone had posted. The title was “The World’s Ugliest Woman,” and there were four million people who had seen it and just thousands of comments under this video that was eight seconds long. It had no sound. It was a clip from a talk show that I was on when I was 13, 12 or 13, and it was just them bashing me and saying how horrible and awful and disgusting I am.

Tanya: My God, I can’t even imagine what that was like for you.

Lizzie Velasquez: It was horrible.

Tanya: Yeah, I mean, probably the worst thing that had ever happened in your life and for your parents’ life and your family’s life. I mean, it’s so much hate.

Lizzie Velasquez: Yeah, I mean, I think my first instinct was being shocked, and then my second instinct was realizing I need to protect my parents from this. I knew it hurt me within those few minutes, and I felt so helpless. I couldn’t even imagine what they were going to feel when they realized it or saw it. My dad wasn’t home at the time. My mom was. She had walked past my room and saw me upset, and then she saw it. She got really upset, and she called my aunt over. My aunt came over. Then my dad got home, and so it became this whole thing. My first instinct was really I wanted to protect them more than I wanted to protect myself.

Tanya: That is unconditional love. That’s amazing. What did you do with that? How do you even process this? What were you thoughts? How did you move through it? What were the conversations with your family about this? Did you ever reach out to the person that posted it?

Lizzie Velasquez: I did reach out that day. Again, YouTube was new. Nobody really knew how to go about taking a video down or contacting people. I went to the page of the person that posted it, and there wasn’t a name, or a photo, or anything. There was a way that you could message them, so I messaged them and basically just said, hey, I’m the girl in the video. Can you please take it down? He messaged back pretty quickly. I say he. I don’t know if it was a he or she. I still to this day don’t know.

They just said no matter how hard you try or whatever you do I’m just going to continue to re-upload the video. I just left it at that, and I never had contact with this person since then. I don’t know where they’re from. I don’t know anything, but we flagged it. We tried getting it taken down, but I think it had went viral at that point. Even if we did get that one taken down, there were so many others that were in other languages and more so just the title and the comments were in other languages. The video had no sound. There were just so many that it just got to the point where it was like why try if it’s just going to keep coming back?

Tanya: What kind of conversations did you have with your parents during that time?

Lizzie Velasquez: I was devastated. My mom was devastated. My dad had a very weird reaction that I thought at the time. He was upset, but his first out loud reaction was that I needed to forgive the person who posted it and that I needed to forgive the people who were saying horrible things. That made me so mad, and I felt like he was taking their side and not thinking this is a big deal. Looking back now, I realize that he knew that I wasn’t going to be able to really fully move on if I didn’t forgive those people. It took me a lot of time, and I now 1,000% fully forgive them. Even the person who did it, I completely understand why they possibly did it, but my parents’ reactions were both very different.

Tanya: After this happened, what was the point that you really shifted from I can’t believe this is happening to me and I’m devastated to, wait a minute, they’re wrong, and I’m going to fight back.

Lizzie Velasquez: I think, initially, a few months. I didn’t want to talk about it at all after I found it. Of course, my close group of girlfriends knew about it, but I realized pretty quickly going back to school that a lot of people had already seen it. Everyone just didn’t want me to see it because they knew that it would upset me, so it seemed like a lot of people already knew about. I would often just go back and read the comments, and my friends knew me so well that they didn’t even have to see my screen. They could just see the look on my face, and they would just go and shut my computer, or my phone, or whatever it was and just say don’t look at that. Focus on whatever it is we’re doing.

That was the first stage of it. Then it was more of I didn’t have my own personal YouTube channel at that time. Then I thought, well, why don’t I make a channel? I’ll post a video. I’ll just explain to them my situation but in a very angry way and quickly realized that that was going to be pointless, and I just shouldn’t do that. I think it was then my stubbornness kicked in again, and I knew that I had to figure out a way to show them who I was and not in a way that was negative but in a way that came to me naturally. I started the YouTube channel, and I looked at starting this channel as a window of sorts for people to look into my life. I would have control of what they saw, and they wouldn’t just see two or three minutes of me in a TV interview. They would get to see my life, and they would see what I’m doing. Who are the people in my life? I have control of what that looks like, so that’s how it really started for me to just take that control back into my own hands.

Tanya: Did you have any concerns when you launched your YouTube channel and really started putting yourself out there?

Lizzie Velasquez: Oh, yeah, of course I did. I mean, before I even got my YouTube channel, back when Myspace was a really big thing, I really wanted my own account, and it was a conversation that my parents had with me. I think it’s a conversation I really encourage other parents, or guardians, or whatever it might be to have with their kids who want to get on social media. It was more of an I’m not going to tell you no because then that’s going to start this I’m going to do it secretly. Instead, I want us to talk about this, and I want you to really understand and be aware that we are going to support you getting this account. We will monitor it, but there are going to be people who might say things that are not so nice. There are going to people who say things that are nice, but if you don’t think that you can go online and not take their words personally, then maybe you’re not ready to have this account yet.

These were the conversations that started my presence online, I guess. I think, at that point, I had already been so used to a lot of negative things being said, so I was ready to go from that sense. At the very beginning of starting my YouTube channel, I didn’t know subscribers were a thing at all until way later. I didn’t really pay attention to views. I just wanted to put up my truth and put up who I am. At the beginning, the comments were pretty nasty and mean and referencing to the bad video, as they call it, and it was hard. There was a lot of times where I would just explain it once what my condition was and just say thank you for watching my video, but here on my channel, we really want to keep it positive.

Fast forward now and it’s very rare that I get any negative comments. Don’t get me wrong, I still get them, but I have now built this community of people who understand my goal and my mindset. I can now go and read comments on any video, and someone will say something not so nice. There is going to be at least two or three people replying back and saying, hey, this is Lizzie. Here’s her situation, and we are nice to each other around here. I feel like a proud mom when I think about my comment section now.

Tanya: My God, Lizzie, your strength is just so incredible. I was mentioning this to you before we started recording that, if my daughters can half the strength you have, I will have done my job. It’s so incredible that you had the foresight to not counteract such a negative force with another negative force but with a positive force, with a positive light, and with love. Whether the person that did this and the people that said the horrible things in the comments realize the impact of what they did or not today, they will, and eventually, it will all make sense to them. My belief is, unfortunately, people do that because they’re hurting themselves inside, so they had something that they really needed to face within themselves.

Lizzie Velasquez: Oh, yeah, I couldn’t agree more. Hurt people hurt people. It’s very important to keep that in mind when you are in situations where you feel like you are being attacked. Yes, there is a certain line where you do have to hold the person accountable, but at the same time, there’s not just a victim and a bully. There’s two humans in the situation. One is hurt and one is hurting. If you’re able to help them channel that or figure out a way that they can express that in a way that doesn’t harm someone else, that’s a lot more of where our focus should be versus how dare you do this? Go sit in a corner.

Tanya: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it mind boggles me that you had that foresight to do it at such a young age. It’s amazing. Now that there’s been – now that you’ve been on this incredible journey and this – you’ve been a motivational speaker, and you’ve graced the stages of I don’t know how many events and TV platforms and you name it. If you were to synthesize some of your biggest lessons and takeaways from the point that you were born up until now, what would they be?

Lizzie Velasquez: I think what I’m realizing now is the power of my voice and vulnerability. It’s something that I could’ve never imagined the mountains it could move. Realizing that, for a long time, I allowed my size to be the volume of my voice, and I thought that no one’s really going to pay attention to me. It was just going to – they’re just going to sweep me under the rug and not hear me. Then I had to learn how to ignore the fact that, yes, I am small, but my voice is big. How can I make sure that it’s heard? Throughout my life I’ve learned, number one, how to find my voice. Number two, I learned how to use it. That came through, at the very beginning, speaking and accomplishing these personal goals of graduating college and writing my first book and doing all these things to then having built this unbelievably amazing platform that I can now use to not only use my voice, but I’m now at that stage where I’m able to help others find their voice and be the stage that they might need to really amplify their own.

At the same time, the journey to that and through that that it was and still is going to be takes a lot of vulnerability and honesty. Knowing that, at the end of the day, we all can relate to some sort of self-doubt, or feeling like we’re not good enough, or nothing’s going to change, and it’s always going to be bad. We all know what those feelings are, so the sooner we’re able to recognize that and own it and go into a situation where you’re nervous or afraid, just be open about it. Let people know I’m really nervous right now, or I might be really quiet. Don’t think that I don’t want to be here. It’s just my personality, or especially on social media, it’s something that we can do every day. We have access to it 24/7. Not only using your voice but also using it in a way that’s positive but also real. Not everything is rainbows and sunshine, and that’s absolutely okay. It’s important we embrace it, and it’s important we post about it and share it. That is often ignored, and I feel like, if we’re able to just be as real as we can be underneath all of the filters of social media, hopefully, that message is going to be able to be one that helps other people.

Tanya: Yes, no, I mean, what you said about vulnerability is something that we really ought to be working towards. What we post is rainbows and sunshine and great pictures and the best part of a fraction of our lives or maybe even a portion that’s staged, and it’s really not serving us.

Lizzie Velasquez: Yeah, absolutely.

Tanya: You actually gave an amazing TED Talk, which has been viewed by millions and millions and millions of people talking about how one should define themselves. Given what you’ve been through and how you’ve chosen to define or not define yourself, what kind of guidance can you provide for others that might be looking to discover who they really are or find their voice?

Lizzie Velasquez: It’s funny. I did that TED Talk in December of 2013. I put it online in January of 2014, and I had absolutely no idea it was going to go as viral as it did, especially because of the fact that I made up my speech as I was going.

Tanya: Yeah, that’s amazing.

Lizzie Velasquez: How do you define yourself was something that was – I’ve never spoken about. I have no idea where it came from. I didn’t plan it. It just came out of my mouth, as crazy as that sounds. It couldn’t have been a bigger message of a turning point in my life than it was. How do you define yourself has been something that has really, really stuck around my life. Even until now, I still have people who are just now seeing my TED Talk. Last week I was in Chicago speaking at Northwestern from the dean who – the dean had asked me to go speak about how do you define yourself for these students.

To look back and see that this message has impacted so many people has really blown my mind. At the same time, I realized that how do I define myself will never be one singular answer. It’ll never be one – it’ll never be a list of three things of this is how I define myself because there’s always a new season in our lives. There’s always new chapters in our lives. We’re always feeling fulfillment in many different ways depending on where we are at that time. For me, defining who I am and what I do is always so very different. I think, at the end of the day, always has the same core beliefs and values that I’ve always had.

Tanya: Yes, I like what you say about defining yourself or almost like pinpointing yourself into being a certain way, or acting a certain way, or doing a certain thing is really not giving yourself justice. You could be so much more and so multifaceted, and ultimately, if you decide tomorrow that you want to invent yourself into being a motivational speaker like you did, you get to create that with your mouth and have the actions follow. Ultimately, the sky is the limit. You are who you say you are, and that might change with time, period.

Lizzie Velasquez: It’s so exciting. Even now for me, there are times where I’ll randomly just think I could decide I want to be a nurse, and I could somehow make that happen. The thought of that was so crazy but so amazing that we are able to have these ideas. It might not be easy to obtain them. We can’t just go to a store and get it or take one class and become what you want to be, but the opportunities and the possibilities that come with reaching for the sky is so exciting.

Tanya: Yeah, absolutely. What is the one thing that you feel the most proud of that you’ve accomplished in your life?

Lizzie Velasquez: I think I would say it’s two things. I would say it is the pure and unbelievably strong acceptance of myself that I did not have for so many years, that I am so extremely proud of to be in a place where I am so fully just thankful and excited and happy to be in the body that I’m in. Granted, there are some days where it’s frustrating. It’s annoying. Being able to look in a mirror and just smile and know that I’m smiling from the inside and not just smiling to show people I’m smiling, I’m so proud of that.

I think the other thing is reminders when I need it when I’m out in the world. No matter where I’m at, there will be someone who will come up to me and tell me their story or be so emotional that they can’t even talk because they’re so moved by something that I said. I say that not in a way that makes me sound like I have a big head, more so that I’m just so thankful that what I’m doing is working. Going out and hearing these people’s stories and seeing how much it’s changed their lives and how they’re so excited now that they’re in a place in their life where they can go help other people, helping create that chain of change is really awesome.

Tanya: Yes, the impact that you have – I said, actually, before we started recording that who you are for me is an unbelievable message of love and light. Not just for me, for millions and millions of people out there, and you continue to be. Going back to the first one, acceptance, really just having accepted yourself and being happy and grateful that you have the body that you have and all this stuff, at what point did that happen for you because you went for a long time not having that?

Lizzie Velasquez: I think towards the end of high school. At the end of high school, beginning of college, it was a process. It wasn’t a day where I was like, okay, I accept myself, and you look great. It wasn’t that. It was [01:03:26].

Tanya: Although, that would be great.

Lizzie Velasquez: [01:03:29] so nice. It was some more of really just realizing I’m stuck in this body, for lack of a better way to describe it, and I need to learn to love it. How can I do that? It was baby steps. Baby steps of realizing how often I was comparing myself to other people. Realizing how quickly I was to automatically think people are staring at me, or they’re thinking all these bad thoughts about me when, in reality, no one was probably looking or thinking anything. It had to start with myself and my mindset and really being aware of what I was telling myself and what I was allowing myself to believe. Once I was able to get past that, the next thing was, as cliché and corny as it sounds, learning to love yourself from the inside out. That was the plan of action to really accepting myself.

Tanya: So many people can relate to what you just said is learning to love themselves, and it doesn’t matter what kind of body they have. Whether it’s all kinds of bodies, colors, ethnicities, race, whatever, short, tall, big, thin, it doesn’t matter. Everybody struggles with that at some level. I think that’s why your message and your journey has been so inspirational. It’s like, well, my God, if Lizzie could do it, I could do it.

Lizzie Velasquez: I hope so.

Tanya: Yeah, just on a lighter note, do you have any fun or interesting stories that happened or a moment when you met somebody that was, I don’t know, famous or influential?

Lizzie Velasquez: Oh, man, just like the TV shows, I think about it, and I forget everybody I’ve met.

Tanya: I’m the same way.

Lizzie Velasquez: I think one that was really, really special to me and one that – I mean, a lot of people might not know who he is. Do you know who Bill Rancic is? His wife is Giuliana Rancic.

Tanya: Absolutely, yeah, uh-huh.

Lizzie Velasquez: Back in high school, when I decided I wanted to be a speaker, when I was looking up videos of people speaking, I found videos of Bill. I just loved the way that he spoke, and I had just admired him for so long. I don’t know. There was a picture of him that I had found, and it was him standing in front of an audience of thousands of people. I thought to myself, if I’m ever in that position, that’s when I know I’ve made it. That’s when I know I’m a speaker.

I talked about in press later on and telling people this is who I really admired and really wanted to be like. Somehow his manager got in touch with my manager, and we were able to meet up when I was in L.A. for lunch, and oh, my gosh, I was geeking out. I was so nervous, but I was so excited. I got to sit across from him, and he really was just so great in giving me advice and just so, so kind. A couple weeks after I had met him, I realized when I was on a stage speaking that I – I thought of the picture, and it was the same moment. It was this full circle of realizing, okay, I had lunch with Bill who I really wanted to be like, and now I’m in the moment that I always – that that was the goal of being in front of lots of people.

Tanya: What a gift. That’s such an incredible moment to come full circle and realize that you’re there. You got it. You reached your goal.

Lizzie Velasquez: Oh, yeah, very exciting but then also, okay, now what?

Tanya: Now what? Exactly, now what? Then the void comes in. There’s that peak and then whoop. Then you go back right down. Keep you grounded.

Lizzie Velasquez: Oh, yeah.

Tanya: Awesome. What are you going to be focusing on now?

Lizzie Velasquez: Now I feel like I finally – I’ve had this dream of doing some sort of a kids’ series. I don’t know exactly if it’s going to be a book, or animation, or what, but I’ve always wanted to do this. I’ve never had the time to do it. This is the time. This is the time that I want to do something for kids, and I’m really excited about what it’s going to be.

Tanya: Amazing. How do people get in touch with you if they want to say hi?

Lizzie Velasquez: I’m all over social media. I think almost everything on social media is littleLizziev, or you can just google my name, and it all comes up. I’m all around there.

Tanya: You’re all around. That’s amazing. Lizzie, first of all, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the show Unmessable and for just sharing your story and being so authentic with the journey that you’re on and inspiring millions of us to really have strength and keep going.

Lizzie Velasquez: Thank you so much.

Announcement: Unmessable is recorded in the heart of New York City, and a special thanks to all the team involved in producing the show. Visit tanyaprive.com/unmessable to find a transcript of this episode, and be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.

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