It always happens the same way: Lizzie Velasquez comes across a hateful video or photo of herself late at night, and once she sees it, she is unable to go to bed.
The cruel comments make her angry. A light turns on inside of her, she says, and she’ll stay up until she says something. One of the motivational speaker’s most-recent late-night pleas racked up over 2 million views and broad online support.
Velasquez went viral on TikTok earlier in August after she found users on the app were sharing her photo as part of TikTok’s “New Teacher Challenge.” Adults on the app who participate pretend to FaceTime their child’s “new teacher.” The “teacher’s” picture usually is a mugshot or an image of someone making a silly face, but sometimes, those images are of Lizzie Velasquez or people with disabilities.
The child’s reaction is usually one of shock or fear. And when the parent laughs, the child learns it’s OK to laugh at others, too, Velasquez said.
“If you are an adult who has a young human in your life, please do not teach them that being scared of someone who doesn’t look like them is OK, please,” she said on TikTok. “This is a trend that needs to stop. Because we are humans. We have feelings.”
Some of the users who have shared her image have refused to take their videos down, she said. Velasquez is more concerned about the people who may not have her social influence or reach because they may not be able to get a message out there to help make it stop.
“I am one person that this has happened to, but there are so many others who this is continuing to happen to,” she told CNN. “I’m just going to keep doing whatever I can, whether it’s speaking out about it, or whether it’s posting my own videos trying to get these mini-lessons in, and hope that they help.”
Cyberbullying Has Followed Her Most of Her Life
The harassment doesn’t affect Velasquez the same way it used to.
She was born with Marfanoid-progeroid-lipodystrophy syndrome, an extremely rare condition that keeps her from gaining weight (she’s weighed around 65 pounds (approx. 29 kg) for most of her adult life), affects her facial structure, and has rendered her blind in one eye.
She was bullied growing up in Austin, Texas. Then, when she was 17, a YouTube user made a video calling her the “world’s ugliest woman” and the bullying became global. Strangers online told her to take her own life and stay out of the public eye so she wouldn’t blind people with her appearance.
She was quick to defend herself then, she said. “I was trying to not let people online define me to the world,” she said. “That was sort of my sole purpose in my mind.”
At 31, and after years of speaking tours, four books, and several TV appearances, she’s softened her view. She mostly ignores trolls, and she encourages people who belittle her to exercise empathy online.
Her feelings still get hurt. But standing up to online harassers now is more about defending people with disabilities or conditions, she said. Preliminary data on bullying and developmental disabilities has shown that children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than students without disabilities, according to the National Bullying Prevention Center.
“There are so many people that want to be vulnerable,” she said. “The only way things are going to change is if an individual changes themselves, and the only way it’s going to happen is if adults now teach empathy and acceptance at home and understand what that looks like.”
Social Media Platforms and Protections for Disabled Creators
Velasquez is used to being targeted online. She’s also used to receiving little support from social media platforms.
After her harassment on YouTube, Velasquez said she offered to help the company with its comments section and how to keep things more civil. She’s offered the same services to TikTok but hasn’t heard back.
Velasquez had trouble reporting abusive content, too. She said she’s reported comments and videos that targeted her or disabled people and wasn’t removed from platforms. Additionally, she also added that often, her comments calling out online abusers are removed.
Velasquez agreed, though, that just as often as she’s overcome with trolls, she’s overwhelmed by the support from friends and strangers online.
Since Velasquez’s TikTok response went viral, she’s been tagged in videos from parents teaching their children about empathy and the cruelness of other people for their differences. It’s “incredibly encouraging,” she said.
Now she’s looking for a way to keep the anti-bullying momentum going.
It’s hard to live in public now—the pandemic canceled most of Velasquez’s bookings and speaking engagements for the year—so she’ll stay online, preaching empathy to parents and TikTok users.
She doesn’t expect bullying to be eradicated from social media. But if she can leave the internet—and now TikTok—a little bit kinder than how she found it, Velasquez thinks she will have done her job.
The CNN Wire contributed to this report