"I was so, so desperate to look like celebrities in the movies or the magazines or a model," Lizzie Velasquez, the subject of the new documentary A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story (out Sept. 25) tells Bustle. "I thought that if I could scrub my face or scrub my body and take the syndrome off and make it go away, I would do it in a heartbeat."
Velasquez, 26, was born with a rare disease which, among many other medical symptoms, renders her unable to accumulate any body fat. Since her condition results in a different physical appearance from the norm, she has faced a huge amount of adversity over the years in the form of bullying, most significantly in a Youtube video that labeled her "The World's Ugliest Woman." But instead of allowing her circumstances to turn her into a victim, Velasquez reframed the situation as an opportunity to become an activist and motivational speaker — and, now, the subject of a documentary winning rave reviews and debuting at festivals across the globe. Recently, Kylie Jenner even called her out on social media, expressing her admiration of Velasquez via Instagram as part of the #IAmMoreThan campaign. In the post, Jenner lauded Velasquez for "taking a lifetime full of bullying to help teach the world #IAmMoreThan the names they call me."
"[Her team was] looking for people who were standing up against bullying, and they contacted me," Velasquez says. "And I, of course, definitely wanted to be a part of it... I think it’s very commendable to have as big of a platform that she does, to use that in a way to highlight other people."
Velasquez and Jenner spoke at length about their respective struggles, and she says it was a meaningful conversation.
"I said something along the lines of 'the comments that I get, the mean comments, aren’t probably as bad was what [you] get," Velasquez says. "And she stopped me and said, 'there's no difference, because it hurts just as bad no matter who you are... I think when you think about the Kardashians or the Jenners, you have this automatic thought of how they are or what they’re like, and when I talked to [Kylie], she was able to put down this wall of vulnerability with me and just be so honest."
For Velasquez, honesty has been key in gaining the confidence and self-acceptance she has today. "I didn’t know that if I started to love myself from the inside out, my definition of what beauty is would fall into place so beautifully," she says. "Now, I don’t see beauty as looks; I feel that looks is just like putting on a shirt — it's nothing. What matters is your personality and your values and what you do in this world to help other people."
Today, Velasquez tours internationally delivering motivation and hope for those who have been bullied, those who struggle with their personal appearances, and those who wish to make a difference in the way our society treats people who are considered "different." In addition to her public appearances, she has written three books to share her story and inspire others. One of the books is called Be Beautiful, Be You, and it has the specific aim of helping readers discover their own self-worth. The first step in that process? Embracing the idea that your beauty is derived from the things that make you unique, not from how well you blend in with everyone else.
"I caught myself doing that [comparing] so often and it led me nowhere," Velasquez says. "It only let me to negativity — as soon as I would go into a room, I would just automatically think, 'I wish my jeans fit like that' or 'I wish I looked like that,' and it would just instantly put me in a bad mood. So stopping yourself and making the conscious effort to stop comparing yourself I think [is] very crucial."
Nowadays, Velasquez has no doubt that she is beautiful. She has overcome some seemingly insurmountable challenges to not only survive but thrive, and she's inspiring others that they can do the same.
Images: Women Rising (2), kyliejenner/Instagram