Response to motivational speaker once dubbed ‘world’s ugliest woman’ reveals disproportionate focus on beauty

Eva Spitzen

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Lizzie Velasquez is one of three people in the world known to suffer from Neonatal Progeroid Syndrome, a condition that causes her to have zero percent body fat. In high school, she came across a YouTube video that described her as the “World’s Ugliest Woman.” The video gained millions of views, and many people posted rude and hurtful comments.

In December of 2013, Velasquez gave a TED Talk telling her story, in which she described her resolution to disregard bullies’ comments. In response, online publications have praised her positive attitude, commending her for encouraging people to find beauty in everyone.
Her story is inspiring and the response to it has been encouraging — but that doesn’t mean that we can accept Velasquez’s message blindly without considering its implications.

Much of Velasquez’s platform revolves around redefining beauty. Her Tumblr is entitled “Lizzie Beautiful” and her book is entitled “Be Beautiful, Be You.” The press has mirrored this vernacular — the Today Show titled a story about Velasquez “The Beauty that Lies Within”. The concept of beauty is a nice foil to the title of “ugly” that Velasquez’s bullies formerly used, but a campaign revolving around self-acceptance and motivation shouldn’t be centered exclusively around beauty. After all, there are many more important, meaningful traits that define people — intelligence, compassion and dedication, to name a few. Rather than focusing on redefining beauty, Velasquez should use her inspiring story to encourage people to disregard conventional standards of beauty altogether. Similarly, we as receivers of her message should praise Velasquez not for her beauty, but for her valuable lesson.

It’s very possible that this disproportionate focus on beauty is due to Velasquez’s gender. If Velasquez had been a male rather than a female, it’s likely that “beautiful” wouldn’t have been the first adjective that came to mind. While we can’t deny the merit in redefining physical beauty, the disproportionate focus on outward appearance is an issue. This wouldn’t be the first time that media automatically turn to evaluations of beauty for female public figures. Hillary Clinton was notoriously criticized for her makeup and fashion choices throughout her term as Senator and while running for President, and well-known CNBC news anchor Maria Bartiromo was deemed “Money Honey” by paparazzi because she was the first woman to broadcast live from the New York Stock Exchange. Again, the idea of redefinition of physical attractiveness is a good one, but focusing on it entirely encourages the idea that the best trait a woman can possess is physical beauty.

The idea that we should redefine beauty as reflecting inner traits definitely has merit, and Velasquez’s message goes a long way in pointing out flaws in society’s current definition of physical attractiveness. However, we should go beyond redefining physical beauty and realize that other, more important traits, have a much more significant influence on how we define ourselves.