When she was 17, a cruel YouTube video calling Lizzie Velasquez “the ugliest woman in the world” propelled her into the national spotlight. Ten years later, she’s still there – sharing a message of empowerment for everyone who has ever been made to feel “less than.”
“I had to deal with a lot of bullying when I was younger because I obviously looked different from a lot of other kids,” Velasquez, who has neonatal progeroid syndrome, a rare disease that affects her heart, eyes and bones and prevents her from gaining weight, tells PEOPLE.
“It was something that was always really hard for me, and at the time, I had no idea how to handle it,” she continues.
Velasquez credits her family with helping her develop the tools to stand up to her harshest critics. Now that she’s older, the 27-year-old has made it her life’s work to help others develop the skills she says have allowed her to be the best person she can be – no matter what sort of cruel words may be lobbed (or tweeted) her way.
“My biggest piece of advice would be to know you’re not alone,” she says. “I know you hear that all the time, but it’s really true and you have to have confidence in knowing that there is a light on the other side of being bullied.”
Velasquez’s openness in sharing her own experiences has really helped to build the conversation around bullying. She’s inspired fans like Kylie Jenner and iJustine to share their own struggles with the issue.
“We have to look at both sides of the problem rather than just pointing a finger at the bully,” she says. “I want to make sure they get the message that there are different outlets for dealing with whatever it is they’re going through that makes them want to hurt people’s feelings.”
This October, Velasquez partnered with Secret to stop bullying before it starts through the #StandUpWithSecret campaign. All month long, Velasquez has been asking her followers to take the anti-bullying pledge and share what standing up to bullying means to them.
“We want to be able to let girls know that they don’t have to go through this alone,” she explains. “We all have different ways we can help each other and we really want to encourage girls to take the pledge to either stand up for themselves or for others and really just use their voices and their platforms for good.”