Thursday, 19 March 2015

Why "The World's Ugliest Woman" Should Be A Lesson To Us All.

Screenshot of the original BBC blog.

Last weekend, my dad sent me a BBC blog he knew I would be interested in.  The blog, which formed part of the BBC's "Ouch" - an exploration of the disability world -  was about a lady called Lizzie Velasquez.  Lizzie was was born with two very rare medical conditions - Marfan and lipodystrophy.  It means that no matter how much she eats, she is unable to gain weight and at the age of 26, she weighs just 60lbs (just under 4st 3lbs).  She is visually impaired and has suffered a number of health complaints as a result of her condition.

At the age of seventeen, Lizzie stumbled upon a video on YouTube, purporting to show "The World's Ugliest Woman."  She was horrified to discover that the unwitting subject of the eight-second video was her.  The clip had over 4 million views and the comments were, frankly, despicable.

They say "never read the comments" and with good reason.  But, having found herself the subject of such a cruel piece of public shaming, Lizzie read every single one - and there were thousands.  They ranged from people telling her to kill herself, to others wondering why her parents would possibly have kept her.

Reading Lizzie's story was profoundly moving but, sadly, not shocking.  The words that kept her awake at night are words I am all too familiar with, myself.  

"Go home and kill yourself, you ugly freak."

"You're so disgusting, nobody is ever going to love you."

"Your parents must be ashamed to have created something so hideous."

These were words I heard on a daily basis.  Spoken to my face, by the same people who spent their daily bus journeys to and from school, playing games where they'd spit in my general direction and see who got the most phlegm on me.  People who'd sit at the back of the bus and scream vile insults at me, in the hope that I'd turn around, so they could see whether I was crying or not.  The ringleader - Stephen - would come and sit next to me, wrapping his arm around my shoulders and speaking his cruel words in a soft, gentle tone, which somehow made them all the more damaging.  "I'm saying this to be kind.  Killing yourself is the kindest thing to do.  Your parents won't have the shame of such an ugly freak of a daughter, then.  And you'll be free from all of this.  Because it'll only ever get worse.  Nobody's going to stop, because you'll always be disgusting."

And that was how I ended up with a school tie around my neck, attached to the shower rail, hoping that when I stepped off the edge of the bath, everything would go black and it would all be over. 

I was thirteen years old.

It didn't all go black.  It wasn't all over.  And at the time, I was mortified.  I took a handful of Paracetamol tablets - probably no more than four or five - before I realised that I didn't want to die.  I just wanted it to stop.  I wanted to be referred to by my name, rather than a succession of insults.  I wanted to be seen and treated as a person, rather than as an "it."

"It's crying!  Look at it!"

Lizzie Velasquez says that her parents love and support enabled her to think positively and hold her head up high, despite the daily bullying she endured at school.  Incredibly, she even says that she "happily forgives" the person who made the YouTube video, which makes her a better, stronger woman than I could ever hope to be, because I don't forgive Stephen and his friends.  I can't.  They killed the confident, happy, bright young girl I was and replaced her with a woman who still - nearly twenty years later - looks in the mirror and all too often sees someone ugly.  Lizzie has an incredible strength that I can only dream of possessing.

Lizzie decided to channel her efforts into making a difference.  She set up her own YouTube channel, to explain who the person behind the "World's Ugliest Woman" title really was.  She began trying to teach others to be confident in who they are, regardless of what they look like.  Her channel makes for some truly inspirational viewing and I recommend it to you all.  She is, along with the mother of Megan Meier (a teenager who took her own life after enduring bullying online) campaigning for an Anti-Bullying Bill, which would allow all schools funds with which to form anti-bullying programmes and which would mean that all instances of bullying would have to be officially recorded.  Her life and work were recently celebrated in a documentary.

Think about that, for a moment.  A woman who could have been broken by society's obsession with looking a certain way, has instead channelled her energy into helping others.  That makes her more beautiful than any bully could ever hope to be.  It's a cliche, but it's true to say that real beauty shines from within.  It's not just skin-deep.  Lizzie Velasquez, with her tireless efforts to support those experiencing bullying, is an absolutely beautiful person.

We could all learn a lot from her.  We should all be standing up to bullying, because picking on others because they don't look the way we want them to is an appalling way to behave.  Picking on someone for any reason is deplorable.  We don't have the right to break down a person's spirit.  We don't have the right to enforce our values on anyone else.  Everyone has the right to live their lives happily and freely, without being harassed, spat on or called names.

I am incredibly grateful that the Internet didn't exist when I was being bullied.  It meant that I was able to go home to a safe place, where I could try to push the cruel words out of my head.  Had YouTube or Facebook, Twitter etc existed back then, I'm certain I'd have been found online and my safe place would have been destroyed.

Now, it does exist.  And whilst the Internet is an amazing place, it also means that the bullying that many young people encounter is no longer restricted to school buses or classrooms.  It's in their homes.  It's on their phones.  It's inescapable.

But whilst that makes bullying harder to tackle, it shouldn't mean that we don't try.  We need to speak with one voice and say that enough is enough.  That we don't stand for people being bullied and put down, for any reason.  That we want to encourage young people to be accepting of others, regardless of whether or not they meet societal standards of so-called "beauty."  We need to be teaching those young people to love themselves just the way they are, regardless of the ridiculous (usually photoshopped) images of "perfection" the media bombards them with.

Or, to put it another way: We all need to learn to be a little more like Lizzie.

9 comments:

  1. You know, our President was in Cleveland talking up "the middle class", getting things ready for the next Presidential election (Hillary Clinton vs. Republican). And I got mad at him. Why doesn't he ever go to a poor person's house and tell their story, or a disabled person's place, or somewhere for people who are . left out---the bullied, the homeless. As a retired social worker, I know it is the hardest thing to be with the people society doesn't want to be with. Yet it does your heart good, heals you. Even Lady Gaga went to Harvard with several million to start a big program on bullying. So there's hope around. And you told Lizzie's story, and your story. Good for you. We will hold each others hands and hold each other up!

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  2. Absolutely vile! I'm so sorry that you and Ms. Velasquez have had to endure such cruelty. You are both spectacular women and proof that there is hope (and life) after bullying. I'm so tired of hearing people tell victims they need to "toughen up". No, bullies need to stop emotionally and physically torturing people! Hold the bullies responsible for their actions.

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  3. Thank you and I totally agree - bullies are 100% responsible for their actions and it shouldn't be the victim's responsibility to somehow become hardened to it. If we do that, it teaches the victim that they have to simply endure bullying and it teaches the bullies that they don't have to stop. Neither are lessons I would want to see anyone taking on board!

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  4. Keep in mind that a lot of bullies are children. It doesn't make the horrible things they do okay, but they need to learn better ways to interact with others, not be yelled at. There should be consequences, but the focus needs to be on "what can we do to help both people to not be here again?", not on penalties. And I'm really sorry that that happened to you, and I don't mean to be at all dismissive, but wanted to bring the other side for discussion.

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    1. Oh no. I'm not saying to yell at them, or whatever. Maybe some of the older ones who should know better. I'm saying a proactive approach like education, getting help for bullies to figure out the root of the problem, holding parents responsible, that kind of thing.

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    2. Agreed on both counts - I think the best course of action is education. If we can help bullies to realise a) why they feel the need to pick on others and b) how badly it affects their victims, we can make strides towards breaking the cycle.

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  5. I agree 100% with you, and follow Lizzie V myself on Facebook. She is amazingly strong and beautiful, as are you! <3

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    1. Thank you, lovely! :D Lizzie is a total inspiration. :-)

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