On a recent episode of The View, I was introduced to and moved by the story of 25-year-old Lizzie Velasquez. Born in Austin, Texas with an extremely rare condition called Neonatal Progeroid Syndrome—a condition she shares with only two other people in the world—Lizzie stands at 5'2" and weighs in at less than 60 pounds. Because she was born without adipose (fat) tissue, she cannot gain weight. Although many (including kids) might think it's great to be able to eat what you want without fear of weight gain, Lizzie's small and slight appearance and protruding bones has made her a target of both disapproving stares and bullying in person and online. Her incredible strength and positive disposition that have no doubt resulted from being raised by extremely supportive parents, Lizzie has used her unique and at times very challenging life experiences to motivate others to overcome challenges and to not let negativity and criticism get in the way of setting goals and achieving their dreams.
Being what many would describe as bone-thin, Lizzie—who is also blind in one eye—was bullied in school for looking different. That experience, and seeing a video that labeled her as "The Ugliest Woman in the World," led Lizzie to launch The Lizzie Project (aka The Untitled Lizzie Velasquez Documentary). The film will follow Lizzie's life and journey to the other side of bullying, and hopes to inspire in everyone self-worth and compassion and a more positive environment online.
Seeing how Lizzie conducts herself—and noting she had almost 6 million views for her recent TED talk called How Do You Define Yourself? —made me want to reach out to her. Although we live and raise kids in a beauty-obsessed world, there's a lot all of us, including children, can learn from Lizzie's story. There's so much more to each and every one of us than meets the eye, and Lizzie exemplifies that through her resilience and her positive self-esteem. What impresses me most is how she pays it forward through her great talks, books and her upcoming documentary.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Lizzie. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
EZ: What are some of the physical or health challenges you face because of your syndrome?
LV: Even though many people think I'm weak because I'm so small, I'm not. But even though my bones and organs are strong, I have a weak immune system that makes me vulnerable to getting sick. For example, when I get a cold, it can drag on for a few weeks.
EZ: Why do you think you've been able to get past bullying about your appearance and become as resilient as you are?
LV: From day one, my parents have raised and treated me normally. They have always been extremely positive and encouraging. They instilled confidence in me by telling me that I was pretty and by constantly reminding me that I was special and that I was who I was for a reason.
EZ: What would your parents say to you to help you feel better about yourself when you were bullied or when you lacked confidence about yourself for whatever reason while growing up?
LV: When I said I didn't like the way I looked or otherwise criticized myself, my parents would encourage me to accept myself for who I was. They'd also remind me over and over to be patient and to have faith in God and in who I was and would become. I also remember coming home from school one day and telling my mother that I didn't like my legs. My mother reminded me that some kids at my school who were in wheelchairs couldn't use their legs. She made me appreciate all the things I was able to do and to understand the difference between my struggles and the real struggles of some others.
EZ: A Parents.com reader recently asked, "My (normal weight) 8 year-old said to me the other day, "I want to be the skinniest person in the world." Yikes! Any advice for parents who are trying to balance encouraging their kids to eat well while promoting a healthy body image?" Unfortunately, in a society that glorifies looks and thinness, many parents can relate to this mom. What would you say to help her help her daughter accept and feel good about herself the way she is?
LV: I'd tell the mother to encourage her daughter to learn to love herself for who she is from the inside out. She can encourage her daughter to make a 'Love Yourself List' in which she lists all the things she loves about yourself. She can then post the list so she can see it, and read it until she believes it. Of course, sometimes your self-confidence can be shaken when others judge or say mean things to you. We've all been there. But having a 'Love Yourself List' to refer to, especially when you feel low, can be a great and positive reminder of how truly wonderful you are.
How do you help your kids feel good about and love themselves?
Image of Lizzie Velasquez via The Velasquez Family.