There was a flood of tears and a surge of inspiration at the New York premiere of A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story. This past weekend at the Lower East Side Film Festival, the documentary took home Audience Award — to be shelved with numerous others. When we spoke to the film’s subject yesterday, she said she was “still smiling.”
You’ve probably already heard of Lizzie Velasquez – her TEDx talk, “How Do You Define Yourself?”, went viral in 2013 and now has over eight million views. She’s a singularly small woman, weighing less than 60 pounds, because she suffers from a disease that inhibits any weight gain. To add to her difficulties, someone posted a YouTube video of her and labeled her the world’s ugliest woman when she was 17. Hence her ardent lobbying to pass a federal anti-bullying bill, the Safe Schools Improvement Act.
We asked her for an update on her work on Capitol Hill, why she views her disease as a “blessing,” and made her blush with questions about her love life (the one aspect of her life she’d like to keep private).
One of the first things I told her was that I didn’t want the movie to just be about me. I wanted to be in it, of course, but I wanted people who watch the movie to see themselves in every situation. So I think that was the biggest inspiration, personally.
I think it’s so important because one of the biggest things I realized in college is that you don’t have to have my syndrome to be able to relate to the things I’ve gone through in my life — being bullied, being picked on, having self-doubt issues. All of these different things are something that every person of any age, of any race, coming from any country, can relate to and I think it’s important to show that. Yes, I mean to be very inspiring but at the end of the day I’m a 26-year-old girl – I have bad days where I struggle. To know that I can have those really dark days and still overcome them — to make myself better from those bad experiences – it’s important to show that. It’s a way of saying not only does it get better, but this is how it gets better.
We’ve all seen it many times now to where I find myself quoting it at random. The very first time my parents saw it I sat in the middle of them. There were some parts I couldn’t even hear because they were crying so hard. They were so proud of the film and love it so much.
My parents started the most incredible foundation for me since day one. My parents always told me that God brought me to them for a reason and God brought me to the Earth for a reason. I’ve always been so strong in that, in my faith, to help me get through the bad days. There were times when I was younger that I felt that God cursed me with this syndrome because I was only looking at the negative side of things. Now that I’m older I’ve realized that my syndrome isn’t a curse – it’s the biggest blessing.
Working with Sara on a career and a personal level is something that’s really opened my eyes to how important it is to help empower other women. She has a company called WomenRising and it’s to help women make their dreams come true. I’m able to learn from her and soak up everything she does like a sponge. I think it’s very easy for us to compete with each other and try to tear each other down, instead of building each other up. If we help each other and lift each other up, who knows what this world could be like.
We’re still working hard to lobby for the Safe Schools Improvement Act. It’s something I’m going to be working on until the bill is passed. It’s definitely going to take a lot of time, but I’m not going to give up on it. We’re hoping to have more screenings in D.C. and go have more meetings on Capitol Hill. We’re continuing the process to raise noise and awareness.
There is a lot of hate in our country, as the shooting in South Carolina recently showed. How does the message conveyed in the film and your talks translate into a culture of love and respect for yourself and other people? What’s the connection between the state of our country and what you’re trying to teach?
I think a lot of the issues we’re seeing in the news lately stems back to how those individuals were raised and what they’re around during their younger years. I strongly believe that’s what shapes a person. I know there can be tragic or traumatic events as you get older that can completely change your life. I think in a way my upbringing was so different because I knew exactly right from wrong. I knew to consider people’s feelings before I spoke. I knew all of these things. Of course, I can’t speak for all of these individuals who are doing these things, but they might not have had the same upbringing. They might not have had the resources to let their anger out, or just to be heard, or to know that you can be vulnerable and not be looked at as weak.
I hope with this film and what we’re trying to do we can be an outlet for anyone who needs help. We hope and pray and cross our fingers that it will help decrease the amount of tragedies that are happening. People will be able to have that outlet and have that space so they feel safe enough to be vulnerable without needing to go and hurt other people.