By Hannah Stevens @Hannahshewans
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Videographer / director: Taylor Gilkeson
Producer: Hannah Stevens, Ruby Coote
Editor: Beth Angus
Crystal Hodges, 26, from California, was born with a port wine stain birthmark on her left cheek, which induces extra blood flow to the face and affects the symmetry of her face and jaw structure.
Up until 2014, Crystal was at peace with her birthmark until one day she came home from college to find that she had gone viral as a meme on Facebook.
The meme - titled ‘One Like = Beautiful’ - subjected her to brutal cyberbullying and it reached over 30 million views.
Although the experience affected her confidence, Crystal decided to use her new online fame to expand her motivational speaking career to help other people with facial differences.
She told Barcroft TV: “Four years ago I came home from college and I signed on to Facebook and my friend in Alabama sent me a message saying, ‘I saw your picture in the newsfeed today and I was like, what?’
“There was a photo of me that was going viral. Somebody had stolen my image and it was turned into a meme and it ended up going viral to 30 million people.”
Although she endured comments about her appearance as a child, it wasn’t until she went viral that Crystal truly realised how some people viewed her.
Hodges said: “I noticed growing up that the adults really are the worst when it comes to commentary and harsh comments.
“Some have good intentions but there are definitely some who don’t. As a kid, quite frankly, I forgot I had a birthmark. My family, they always treated me like a normal kid.
“So it wasn’t until I went viral in 2014, when I was turned into a meme and got cyber bullied, that it really dawned me how different I looked to some people in society.
“For the first time I read thousands of strangers' comments and saw myself through the eyes of thousands of strangers.
"For the past four years, there hasn’t been a day where I’ve woken up and not realised that I look different.
“Every morning or every day, at some point in my day, I realise, ‘Oh yeah, I have a birthmark, I look different.”
The photo was ripped from Crystal’s Facebook after she posted a selfie after having laser treatment, which made her port wine stain darker and more swollen.
She said: “They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and yet people were writing their fictional thousands of words next to my image not understanding what was really happening.
“It was a really confusing time, I had a lot of emotions. I definitely went into a dark time for a while. It was like I was having a staring competition with my selfie, the non-blinking selfie.
“I think I definitely learned a bigger empathy through my own story.”
Six months before Crystal went viral she was already visiting classrooms and hospitals to talk about being sensitive to those with differences, but her experiences gave her an extra push to expand her work.
She said: “That’s one of my goals, to make a difference with my difference. If we’re all vanilla flavouring or all a red crayon, it would be a really boring and bland world. The world is more beautiful when we come together.
“When I went viral it really just added fuel to the fire. It really emphasised the importance of reminding people to be kind.”
In February, Crystal spoke at the Brave Conference giving a talk entitled The Influence of One Woman.
At the conference Crystal said: “It’s not always easy having a facial difference but there are some good parts too. In the midst of the ugliness, in the midst of the terrible stuff, I never saw what would come, never. Because of what’s happened, I’ve had opportunities to share my story.
“Our cracks, our brokenness are not bad. They make us more compassionate, more loving and, sometimes, they make us more influential. So, yeah, just shine through those cracks guys.”
Hodges plans to continue her speaking work to inspire more people, whether they have a physical difference or not, to embrace their individual beauty.
She said: “I think it’s important for me to share my story with other people because, so often, people feel like they’re alone. So when you share stories, people have their ‘me too’ moment and often realise they’re not alone.
“I know how difficult it can be sometimes to live with a facial difference, so if I can help be an advocate and to encourage kindness no matter what people look like, or don’t look like, I can make it easier for the next generation of people with facial differences.
“Whether we have a physical difference or not, or just insecurities, we need to remember, beauty is not a competition.”