Lizzie Velasquez is on a mission to leave the online space better than how she found it. Born with a rare disease in which her body makes no adipose tissue—meaning it's impossible for her to gain weight—Velasquez knows firsthand what it's like to be bullied: When she was 17, she found herself featured in a YouTube video labeling her the 'ugliest woman in the world.'
Now, she wants to make sure no one ever has to experinece that kind of bullying again. Velasquez has teamed up with friends to make The Lizzie Project, a documentary detailing her experiences and highlighting how she thrived in the face of adversity. The group is soliciting support for the film on Kickstarter, where, at the time of publication, they've raised over $131,000 toward their $180,000 goal. We spoke with Velasquez to learn more about her documentary, the rise of online bullying, and her inspiring journey.
Shape: What specifically inspired you to start The Lizzie Project?
Lizzie Velasquez (LV): Doing a documentary and being a part of a movement that is bigger than me and bigger than my own story is something that I've dreamed of for a long time. I'm so excited that our team came together at this time—it's a dream!
Shape: How have people responded?
LV: We have heard from men, women, young, and old—what has been so incredible is that The Lizzie Project represents a global call for anyone who wants to unite and make the online world a more positive place. Hearing people's stories that they share on our Kickstarter page or post on social media is incredible.
Shape: What are you hoping to accomplish with The Lizzie Project?
LV: I'm hoping that first, we're able to get the movie made. We were told that we were reaching too high! When we reach our finish line on May 31st, I hope that we've surpassed that goal, if only by $1. When we get to $180,000, we will be one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns for a documentary in less than 30 days. That is the power of a community that wants to make the world better.
Shape: You've written about your experiences being cyber-bullied, and you've said that you get a lot of stares and mean comments when you're out. How did you deal with that both as a child and as an adult, and what has it taught you?
LV: As a child, knowing people were looking at me as different or that something might be wrong, was really difficult. As an adult, I don't notice people's looks as much. Whether you're younger or older, mean comments are never great to receive. What changes is how you think about them. Now, I know that most people who feel a need to bully are actually in a lot more pain than I have ever been in. I'm blessed.
Shape: What advice would you give to people who have been bullied?
LV: I recently saw the video of a young girl, and in it, she was crying about her experience being bullied in elementary school. What I shared in reaction to that is the same that I tell everyone: Don't give up. Never give up, because it will get better.
Shape: How are you hoping this project will change the online space?
LV: I was telling Sara Bordo, my director and producer, that I had been noticing something on my YouTube channel and social media pages: Online friends would react to something that made them happy, and then if someone came in and posted something negative, all of the people who started off nice and happy became angry. And even though their intent was to help or protect me, they became the new bullies, bullying the bully. We hope to change the space by empowering people with a new thing to say and a new thing to do.
Shape: Actress Mindy Kaling recently made a comment that I thought was interesting. She said she hates being asked "where [she] gets her confidence from," because she feels that it "others" her and makes her feel as though she's really being asked is, "Why on earth would you feel like you're worth anything? You're not white, you're a woman, you're not skinny." Have you ever felt like you've been "othered?" How do you find that balance between being a role model and public figure but also being a person who's trying to make her own way in the world?
LV: I don't think that I'm any different than anyone else. We are all human beings with strengths and opportunities for ourselves and our lives. I'm just trying to be me. If I'm able to be a role model by telling my stories and helping people feel strong in their own way, I'm grateful.
The Lizzie Project Kickstarter campaign runs through May 31st. Click here to learn more about Lizzie's story and make a donation today!