Photo of a women sitting in a motorized chair

Courtesy of Melissa Blake

My clap-back at online bullies inspired a global self-love movement

Cyberbullies almost shattered me. Then a huge community of online strangers showed me I wasn’t alone

I’ve been a writer for over a decade, so I’m used to people taking issue with my words at times. But I wasn’t prepared for the level of vitriol that came after I wrote an op-ed for CNN about unfollowing President Donald Trump on Twitter. A popular conservative YouTuber quoted from this piece in one of his videos, briefly sharing my photo. Soon the negative comments came pouring in—not about my opinions, but about my face.

“MUPPET!!!”

“Cabbage Patch doll.”

“Needs to unfollow refrigerator.”

I’m disabled. I have a rare congenital condition called Freeman Sheldon syndrome, which affects the muscles, bones and joints, and is characterized by distinctive facial differences. I’ve been on the receiving end of a few unkind remarks in the past, but to scroll through dozens of hateful comments about how I look was overwhelming.

I only found out about all these strangers degrading me, in a very public and permanent forum, because one of them went the extra mile. He looked me up on Facebook, then direct-messaged me the YouTube link, as if to say, ‘Ha! Look at this!’

After I clicked on the link and read through the first hundred or so comments, I felt too overwhelmed to go on. For the next few days, I cycled through feelings of frustration, anger, self-consciousness, sadness and disgust. My family encouraged me to stay away from the comments section, so I took a social media break. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what those people had said.

As someone who makes a living commenting on pop culture and current affairs, I can’t afford to opt out of the internet. And as a human with feelings, I couldn’t stop myself from going back online, after a day or two, to see what else people were saying on that YouTube post. The comments just kept coming. (There are more than 5,000 and counting at this time—fortunately not all about me.)

Photo of a woman from a twitter feed

I chose not to leave my own comment on the post, even though I wanted the cyberbullies to understand they were attacking a real person. I felt too afraid of things blowing up in that hostile environment. Besides, I’ve always lived by this hard and fast rule: Never feed the trolls.

However, when I noticed a comment saying I should just be banned from posting photos of myself on the internet, I finally felt the need to clap back—by posting even more photos of myself.

I took to Twitter and shared some pics from a recent trip to New York City, captioned: “During the last round of trollgate, people said that I should be banned from posting photos of myself because I’m too ugly. So I’d just like to commemorate the occasion with these 3 selfies…”

At the time I had around 7,500 Twitter followers. Those are not Kardashian numbers, but they’re respectable nonetheless. And those followers were my people. I figured I could rely on at least a few of them to engage with what was happening to me and counter some of that negativity with human decency. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.

Within hours, my tweet was going viral, ultimately racking up more than 300,000 likes and 30,000 retweets. In the days that followed, other people posted about their own cyberbullying experiences. I received emails, too, from as far afield as Australia, Brazil and England. While my own experience had felt extreme to me, I discovered it was not at all unique. It resonated for social media users on a global scale: real people, who had also been degraded by anonymous strangers typing things they’d never dream of saying face to face.

Photo of a person taken off a twitter feed

This is the internet at its worst: a toxic virtual playground where it seems like the loudest and meanest rule. But I’ve always believed in using social media for the power of good. I appreciate the space it gives me for self-expression, as someone who often feels shy IRL. It’s an important place for me to share new posts on my blog, where I reflect on relationships, disabilities and pop culture. And I like that you can find your people on different platforms. Even connecting with five people who like the quirky things you like (that would be TV show Frasier, polo shirts and PEZ dispensers for me) can be a positive experience.

That type of positivity is what I felt in the overwhelming response to my tweet: a sense of virtual community from an international army of people who wanted to lift me up instead of tearing me down. So many of the emails I received after posting my selfies tweet said, “Thank you for taking a stand and talking about issues of cyberbullying and self-confidence.” I’m definitely not alone in craving safe and positive online spaces.

I’d go as far as to say that the outpouring of support was life-changing for me. My confidence has grown, especially with regards to my disability, because however much I’ve put myself out there as a writer over the years, I’ve always struggled internally with feeling and looking different. Since my Twitter following multiplied tenfold, to 72,000 followers, I’ve felt the warmth and acceptance of my newly expanded community every single day.

Photo of a woman taken from a twitter feed

As my confidence grew from the positive outcomes (among them interviews with BBC, MSN, Chicago Tribune, People, USA Today, and Good Morning America), I wanted to see other people grow in self-confidence too. So I kept the momentum going by asking my community to tweet their own favourite pictures and say something nice about themselves, under the hashtag #mybestselfie. The response was wonderful:

I love my eyes. I used to hate them, but I’m trying to see the beauty in being different.

I love that I am getting out of my own way and creating my own lane.

I was born with a cleft lip and palate and was made fun of and bullied all throughout growing up but I’m still a kind, compassionate, empathetic person and that is one thing I love about myself.”

As the hashtag did the rounds, thousands of people opened up and said they’d also struggled in silence with self-esteem. They shared that it helped to see that they were not alone. It was incredibly reaffirming to see people celebrate themselves online instead of being their own worst critic.

Photo of a man taken from twitter

There will always be dark corners of the internet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all play our part in making it a brighter and safer space. That could mean something as simple as giving someone a positive shout-out on Twitter, sharing a good-news story or sparking a respectful conversation around an issue that matters to you. And of course, if you see someone being cyberbullied, don’t be afraid to reach out privately, give them moral support and inform them of their rights—you can also report anything illegal, under Canada’s Criminal Code, such as intimate images being shared without consent, trolls inciting hatred, or chat room users counselling suicide.

As so much of our socializing migrates online, we all need to think about building strong and positive online communities. And just as IRL, that means treating others the way you’d like to be treated. That might sound like overly simple advice for our sophisticated technology-based times, but as we hurtle from one iPhone upgrade to the next and the range of social platforms out there expands at a dizzying pace, one thing remains constant: We’re all still humans behind our devices, and we all feel and function better when we choose to be kind.

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