THE BLOG

How the "Ugliest Woman in the World" Overcame Bullying

01/12/2014 10:49 EST | Updated 03/14/2014 05:59 EDT

If you google the keywords "ugliest woman in the world", an image of Lizzie Velasquez will come up. Lizzie became aware of this in the ugliest manner that any person could discover such a thing; she saw a video with that tagline on YouTube. An eight second video with nothing more than a picture of her face garnered over four million views and thousands of comments that encouraged Lizzie to end her life in favor of sparing the world the tragedy of her appearance.

I remember hearing about Lizzie years ago, before the nature of bullying became a household topic. I remember looking at the photo of her and being moved to tears. I couldn't imagine what she had to go through in high school, how difficult it must have been for her to make friends and come to terms with the media frenzy created over the star-encrusted beauties that invade television, film, and print at every street corner. I felt for her struggle, but like all things in the public eye, Lizzie's face was soon replaced by another threat to national security and an advertisement for a beauty product no one needs.

I was reminded of Lizzie this morning. With the glory of Ted Talks as a platform, Lizzie was speaking abut her personal journey and how she ultimately overcame the cruelty of others. I was struck by how happy she was. Despite the labels, the jeers in her past, and the horror that she has been met with in her every day life, Lizzie was light and spirited, recanting everything with a sense of humour that was nothing short of enchanting. For the first time, I really began to consider the importance of overcoming bullying.

Everyone has been a victim of a bully at one point in their life. I remember being ruthlessly teased for being underweight as a child. I remember the other girls and boys playing basketball at recess and I always wanted to join in, but no one would play with me because they claimed I would "break in half." Until I was 15, I was ridiculed for being too skinny, too sensitive, too weird and too ugly. Most days, I would come home crying. If it weren't for a core group of friends, I would have crumbled.

My early years weren't nearly as tough as Lizzie's were, but in the aftermath, I dealt with it in an uglier way than she ever did. When I started to recognize that my body was making sense, that the awkward phase we all go through was passing, I became drunk with the inevitable power that is dealt to all the transforming swans of the high school halls. My blossoming beauty was my revenge and I abused it in spades. I looked down on all the bullies, laughing at them while they threw up after meals so that they could look like me. I was the monster that the other monsters are afraid of. And I loved it.

Looking back on those days, I'm ashamed of myself. I was a dumb kid, a little girl who thought that her suffering was more important than the suffering of others. Conversing with some of the other bullies years later, I found out that I was not the only one who felt that way about their past. We laughed, realizing that we were all dumb kids, dealing out pain with pleasure and becoming shocked when it was dealt back to us. Happily, us girls had become women. We thanked each other for the enlightening stroll down memory lane and went back to our jobs, mortgages, husbands, and babies.

I wish that all bullying stories ended like this. The story of Rehtaeh Parsons and the heartbreaking video posted by Amanda Todd tell us that bullying can lead to something far darker than a few sad memories. I didn't even know what death was when I was a kid, and now childhood bullies are encouraging their victims to kill themselves. I feel sick when I think about how I used to be a part of the bullying problem, and even sicker when I think about what bullies are doing now.

And then there's Lizzie; the girl who received the worst of it, hearing more open-ended "invitations" to end her own life than any person should. Instead of falling apart, Lizzie chose to do something unique with her pain. She decided on what she wanted from herself and put all of her focus in that, confronting bullies with the idea of personal success not as a weapon, but as a shield. With the strength and support of those closest to her, Lizzie has become an advocate for self-love and one of the most powerful voices against bullying today.

Kids will always be dumb and cruel. It's the hideous reality of humanity as it begins in the pod, waiting for the moment when the seed can become the blossom that breaks free and releases its beauty. Even with the proper water and care, some of these flowers never bloom, and those cruel children grow into cruel adults. There will always be a bad seed in any crop. Lizzie has proven that seeking support is more effective than cutting down all of the bad crops.

If any of you reading this are victims of bullying, I want you to read this next part very carefully; go find support. Even if you feel that you are entirely alone, you need to know that you aren't. Extended family, school councillors, teachers, social workers, nurses, doctors, law enforcement, and peers are available to provide the help you need. Never lose hope in your future. Your entire life can turn around if you only ask for help.

If you are a reading this and you are a bully, I want you to know that the same love and support is also available to you. Looking back on my days as a bully, I realize now that I acted out because I was sad and lonely. I felt like no one would understand me if I spoke up about why I felt like I needed to be nasty to others. I wish that I had sought help from our school councillor then, avoiding some of the inevitable guilt and shame I felt in the years that followed. Understand that even though you are compelled to be a bully, that does not make you any less worthy of being loved. Again, help is always available if you are willing to ask for it.

My words can't do justice to Lizzie Velasquez's brilliance or beauty. I am inspired by her story and the work that she has done to transform her pain into a powerful message for others. Lizzie, if you are reading this, thank you for stepping up and showing us all that we have a choice in the darkest of times to stand up and fight for our right to be happy with compassion, strength, and humour. The world may occasionally be forgetful, but with your voice rising in the hearts and minds of both the bullies and the bullied, your message will always find its way back into our consciousness.

We need to keep this conversation going. Bringing light to the things that lurk in darkness can change everything.

Rehtaeh Parsons: A Life In Photos